Photos From America’s Longest War

A visual chronicle of the Afghanistan conflict.,

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Photos From America’s Longest War

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Photographs by The New York Times

Text by Rod Nordland and David Zucchino

Feb. 29, 2020


Soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States military’s attention turned to Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda’s leaders were based. Many knew an invasion was sure to come.

What no one knew was that Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion to rout Al Qaeda and its hosts, the Taliban, would turn into a war that is now in its 20th year — America’s longest.

It has vexed four American presidencies and outlasted 14 American military commanders. It has also opened a window, for much of the world, onto a country where modernity still clashes with ancient customs and religious edicts.

Here, in chronological order, are images showing the long arc of the war, as seen through the eyes of New York Times photographers.

2001-2002

Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001, with an American bombing campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. On the ground, American Special Operations forces teams linked up with Afghan militias opposed to the Taliban, mainly the Northern Alliance, to drive the Taliban from power. The capital, Kabul, fell in mid-November, along with the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

In December, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s leader, escaped to Pakistan through the mountains around Tora Bora. That same month, an interim Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai was installed.

A United Nations Security Council resolution established the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, a military coalition led by the United States.

ImageNorthern Alliance troops firing on Taliban positions in rugged territory outside the northeastern city of Taloqan, Afghanistan, in October 2001.
Northern Alliance troops firing on Taliban positions in rugged territory outside the northeastern city of Taloqan, Afghanistan, in October 2001.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
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Fighters for the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban militia, headed to the front lines near the besieged Taliban stronghold of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in November 2001.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
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On their way into Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2001, Northern Alliance members found a Taliban fighter in a ditch and killed him, despite his pleas.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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An American B-52 bomber circled above Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, December 2001.Credit…Joao Silva for The New York Times
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American soldiers at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, in August 2002.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

2003-2007

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan in May 2003. Even with a major reconstruction effort underway there, and about 8,000 American troops in place, President George W. Bush’s administration began shifting combat resources to the war in Iraq.

In 2004, an Afghan assembly drafted a Constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, then the American ambassador, said it contained “the foundation for democratic institutions.”

[Read a Times historical photo essay on past Afghan wars, The Empire Stopper.]

The Taliban-led insurgency grew stronger in 2006, carrying out more ambushes and suicide bombings. Despite training and equipment supplied by the United States and ISAF, Afghan security forces could not contain the Taliban resurgence, aided by militants across the border in Pakistan. The United States sent more of its soldiers to the war.

By 2007, about 25,000 American troops were in Afghanistan.

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Women in Kabul waiting to vote in October 2004. The landmark presidential election quickly fell into dispute.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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The shadow of a U.S. soldier on patrol in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province, near the border with Pakistan, in August 2005.Credit…Scott Eells for The New York Times
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Afghan police recruits being trained by DynCorp, a contractor for the U.S. government, in Kabul, in November 2005.Credit…Scott Eells for The New York Times
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American soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division yelled to others to get out of the line of fire after being ambushed by Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, in June 2006.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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Wounded soldiers in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, in October 2007.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

2008-2010

In February 2009, the new American president, Barack Obama, declared a recommitment to the war and deployed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, adding to the 36,000 already there.

In December, Mr. Obama announced a “surge” meant to build and train an Afghan security force that would be strong enough to assume responsibility for fighting the insurgency. His plan included sending 30,000 more American troops, bringing the total number to nearly 100,000 by mid-2010.

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American soldiers during a Taliban attack at Combat Outpost Lowell near Kamu, Afghanistan, in October 2008.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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President George W. Bush with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan during a visit to Kabul, in December 2008.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
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Soldiers from the First Infantry Division on a foot patrol in Hutal, in the southern province of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in January 2009.Credit…Danfung Dennis for The New York Times
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A German soldier burning a flare at a temporary campsite in the desert of Kunduz Province, in October 2009.Credit…Moises Saman for The New York Times
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A bullet-pierced window at a Kabul guest house attacked by the Taliban, in November 2009. Five United Nations workers were killed.Credit…Moises Saman for The New York Times
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A suicide bomber struck near a hotel in Kabul in December 2009, killing at least eight people and wounding dozens.Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
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President Barack Obama with cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in December 2009.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
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American Marines on patrol in Marja, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in February 2010.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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Village elders meeting in Marja, in March 2010.Credit…Moises Saman for The New York Times
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Afghan soldiers rushed a wounded police officer to an American helicopter in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in March 2010.Credit…Moises Saman for The New York Times
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American soldiers on a transport plane about to land in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in April 2010.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times
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An American soldier looking over the Pech Valley, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in April 2010.Credit…Christoph Bangert for The New York Times
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Sgt. Grayson C. Colby, right, helped members of his medevac helicopter crew gather the remains of a fellow Marine who was killed by an improvised explosive device, in Helmand Province, in May 2010.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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Members of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry, tended to a wounded comrade in Kunduz, in September 2010.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

2011-2013

In May 2011, a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had been living for years. In June, Mr. Obama announced that he would pull 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by mid-2012.

In 2012, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, began blaming United States and coalition troops for rising civilian casualties, as his relationships with American leaders deteriorated.

Afghans took over most security responsibilities in 2013, with the U.S.-led coalition’s forces shifting to training and counterterrorism operations.

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Soldiers boarded a transport helicopter in Kunduz, in March 2011.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times
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Fighter jets on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis flew sorties into Afghanistan from the North Arabian Sea, in January 2012.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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Marines inspecting a load of equipment for shipment back to the United States from Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan, in July 2012.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
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Afghan soldiers, left, and American soldiers blew up a Taliban firing position in the village of Layadira, in Kandahar Province, in February 2013.Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times
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Members of the 101st Airborne Division in Paktia Province, in April 2013.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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Samiullah, 8 months old and malnourished, is held by his mother, Islam Bibi, 15, at a hospital in Lashgar Gar, in Helmand Province, in September 2013.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
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Sayed Wazir, 40, a former mujahadeen, firing a rocket toward Taliban positions in surrounding hills, in Wardak Province, in November 2013.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
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The view from a Humvee of Highway 1, which links Kabul with major cities, in November 2013.Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

2014-2018

On Dec. 31, 2014, the combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended, but the American military presence in the country did not. Mr. Obama announced a timetable for the withdrawal of most troops by the end of 2016.

After a 2014 election marred by fraud, Ashraf Ghani became president, but he signed a power-sharing agreement with his top opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

On the battlefield, the Afghan security forces increasingly struggled against the Taliban taking heavy casualties and losing territory.

In August 2017, President Trump said that while his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, he would continue to prosecute the war. He stressed that withdrawal decisions would be based on combat conditions, not on predetermined timelines.

The United Nations said 2018 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since it had begun tracking civilian casualties 10 years earlier.

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The aftermath of an American airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, in October 2015. Forty-two people were killed in the attack, which was later found to be the result of a cascade of human errors and mechanical and equipment failures. Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
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A view of the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, in March 2016.Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
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The Kart-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul, in April 2016. More than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed in the war since 2015, President Ashraf Ghani said last year.Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
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Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where many veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried, in May 2018.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times
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The outskirts of Khost, a city in eastern Afghanistan, in July 2018.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

2018-2020

Late in 2018, American and Taliban negotiators began holding peace talks. The discussions continued well into 2020, in Doha, Qatar. (The Afghan government was excluded from the talks — the Taliban refused to meet with its officials.)

On Feb. 29, 2020, the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban, opening the door to a gradual, final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the beginning of direct talks between the Afghan government and the insurgency to determine the country’s future.

As of February 2020, about 12,000 American troops were still in the country.

The United States has spent about $2 trillion on the war effort. About 2,400 American troops and nearly 700 troops from other nations in the coalition have died. More than 38,000 civilians have been killed, and among the Afghan security forces, about 60,000 are estimated to have died since the start of the war.

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A funeral for one of the 63 people killed at a wedding in Kabul by an Islamic State suicide bomber, in August 2019.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
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The crater left by a car bomb attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, in Kabul, in September 2019.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
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President Trump at Bagram Air Base in Kabul in November 2019.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
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After their base was overrun by the Taliban, Afghan police officers inspecting a replacement trench, in February 2020.Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Produced by Craig Allen, David Furst, Mikko Takkunen and Gaia Tripoli.

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