Amid the U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan, 14 Documentaries Explore the Two-Decade War and Its Impact

A still image from "Leaving Afghanistan," a FRONTLINE special report airing Tuesday, July 20, 2021.

A still image from "Leaving Afghanistan," a FRONTLINE special report airing Tuesday, July 20, 2021.

July 19, 2021

August 17, 2021, update: Weeks before U.S. troops were set to leave the country, the Taliban entered Afghanistan’s capital and swept back into power on August 15, 2021. The Afghan government collapsed as the country’s president fled. On August 16, President Joe Biden said the takeover “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” but defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops. He laid the blame on Afghan politicians who “gave up,” and on the Afghan military, which he said “collapsed.”

Nearly two decades after the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began, President Joe Biden said in July that U.S. troops would leave the country by August 31, 2021, updating his earlier deadline of September.

What the U.S. is leaving behind, the FRONTLINE special report Leaving Afghanistan suggests, is a country that may be on the verge of a deadly sectarian civil war, with the Taliban on the rise and Iran seeking to expand its influence.

“It’s worse than the past. It’s worse than what I’ve seen in my life,” says acclaimed Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, correspondent for the report premiering Tuesday, July 20. Quraishi has covered the war between the Taliban and the American-led coalition since its inception. “I can see a civil war in Afghanistan again,” he says.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, in a bid to destroy Al Qaeda — the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, which had rejected U.S. demands to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In 2020, after more than 18 years, a civilian death toll reportedly in the tens of thousands, and the deaths of more than 2,000 U.S. troops, the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the resurgent Taliban that set a May 1, 2021, date for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Biden said in April the “final withdrawal” would begin on that date and the U.S. would pull out fully “before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th.” 

“As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United State,” Biden said in July. “We achieved those objectives. That’s why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”

As the U.S. has wound down its military involvement in the conflict, Afghan civilians have continued to bear the stark toll of ongoing violence. “The number of civilians killed and injured during the first three months of 2021” was “significantly higher” than in the same period last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported in April.

FRONTLINE has been covering what has become America’s longest war since the beginning, including reporting on realities on the ground last year, as the Taliban once again wielded power and the threat from ISIS also loomed. Watch these 14 streaming documentaries to explore how the war in Afghanistan began, how it evolved, what it has meant for ordinary Afghan citizens and the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal.

Leaving Afghanistan (2021)

Najibullah Quraishi investigates the consequences of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s ascent and claims of Iran’s growing power across the country.

Taliban Country (2020)

Quraishi gave an on-the-ground look at the Taliban’s resurgence and the threat posed by ISIS in Afghanistan, and interviewed the Taliban’s chief negotiator with the U.S.

ISIS in Afghanistan (2015)

Quraishi reported on how ISIS gained a foothold in Afghanistan — and how the terror group focused its efforts on training a new generation of fighters.

Opium Brides (2012)

Quraishi investigated the Afghan government’s counternarcotics effort, which placed some Afghan opium farmers who had borrowed money from drug gangs in a horrifying situation: repay their debts or give their daughters to drug traffickers.

The Secret War (2012)

Martin Smith and Stephen Grey went inside a deep front in America’s war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Pakistan. They uncovered new details about border-crossing and CIA-funded Afghan militias, and they investigated covert support for elements of the Taliban by Pakistani military and intelligence.

Kill/Capture (2011)

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, an in-depth investigation from Dan Edge and Stephen Grey into the Obama administration’s campaign of targeted killings of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Fighting for bin Laden (2011)

Quraishi investigated rumors that Al Qaeda was once again becoming a significant presence in Afghanistan.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (2010)

Against the backdrop of an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, Quraishi revealed the resurgence of an illegal practice known as “bacha bazi,” in which young boys are sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, are taught to dance and entertain, and are sexually exploited.

Behind Taliban Lines (2010)

Quraishi traveled inside a part of the country that had quietly reverted back to Taliban control and tracked members of an insurgent cell working with members of Al Qaeda on a mission to sabotage a major U.S./NATO supply route.

Obama’s War (2009)

After President Barack Obama took office, Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria examined the status of the U.S.’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan — finding that the fight promised to be longer and more costly than most Americans understood.

The War Briefing (2008)

Shortly before the 2008 presidential election — and shortly after Afghanistan had become a deadlier battlefield than Iraq — Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria took a hard look at what the next president would face in the Middle East.

Bush’s War (2008)

Part 1:

Part 2:

From Michael Kirk, an in-depth, four-and-a-half hour analysis of the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror” following 9/11 — from Afghanistan to Iraq, and beyond.

Return of the Taliban (2006)

Martin Smith revealed how, nearly seven years after the Taliban was toppled, both it and Al Qaeda continued to use Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border as a launching pad for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Dark Side (2006)

As part of this investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s push for war in Iraq and his battle with the Bush administration’s intelligence community in the wake of 9/11, Michael Kirk looked at how power struggles and disagreements within the administration shaped the war in Afghanistan — including Osama bin Laden’s 2001 escape from the mountains of Tora Bora.

FRONTLINE first began reporting on Osama bin Laden in 1999, after he masterminded the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A number of our early films on bin Laden and/or the post-9/11 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — including Hunting bin Laden, Campaign Against Terror and In Search of Al Qaeda — are no longer available for streaming online, but you can still explore interviews and transcripts from the documentaries.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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