The War in Afghanistan: As Biden Sets U.S. Withdrawal Date, 13 Documentaries Explore the Conflict and Its Impact

A screengrab from the 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Taliban Country." Revisit it and 12 other films for context on the war in Afghanistan, in the wake of President Biden's announcement about withdrawing U.S. troops from the country.

A screengrab from the 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Taliban Country." Revisit it and 12 other films for context on the war in Afghanistan, in the wake of President Biden's announcement about withdrawing U.S. troops from the country.

April 15, 2021

Nearly two decades after the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began, President Joe Biden on April 14 committed to withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country “before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th” later this year.

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.

In his speech announcing the troop pullout, Biden said, “the United States will begin our final withdrawal — begin it on May 1 of this year.” He said the withdrawal process would be done “responsibly, deliberately and safely” and that “the Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.”

As the U.S. looks to wind down its military involvement in the conflict, Afghan civilians continue 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 the day of Biden’s announcement.

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. Revisit these 13 streaming documentaries to explore how the war in Afghanistan began, how it evolved and what it has meant for ordinary Afghan citizens.

Taliban Country (2020)

An on-the-ground look at the Taliban’s resurgence and the threat posed by ISIS in Afghanistan, from Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi.

ISIS in Afghanistan (2015)

Quraishi reported on how ISIS gained a foothold in the country — 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 one:

Part two:

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 on the documentaries’ individual websites.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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