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Timeline: 20 years after invading Afghanistan, the US faces its 'not Saigon' moment

The withdrawal of US troops has allowed Taliban militias to recapture the country.

Updated Aug 16th 2021, 5:02 PM

(Note: This timeline was first published on 12 August but has now been updated to reflect the Taliban’s control of Kabul.)

20 YEARS AFTER an invasion by US-led forces in 2001, the Taliban has now taken effective control of Afghanistan once more. 

Fighting in Afghanistan’s long-running conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal that was set to be completed before the end of this month.

This timeline has now been accelerated as the Taliban swiftly advanced across the south Asian nation following the withdrawal of US troops.

The return of the Taliban to likely means a return to its violent, ultra-austere brand of Islam which has banned music and severely restricted the rights of women and girls.

The US was continuing to provide air support and equipment to Afghan troops but President Joe Biden’s urging of Afghan leaders to “fight for themselves” has proved to be a fruitless plea. 

Source: The Independent/YouTube

“We spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces,” Biden said last Tuesday.

Afghan leaders have to come together. They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this week UUP leader Doug Beattie, who had three tours in Afghanistan as a member of the British army, rejected the notion that the Afghan people should be left alone in their fight. 

“People think they have not been fighting for themselves. They have been fighting for themselves, for dozens of years, hundreds of years and we have been supporting them,” he said. 

The people of Afghanistan who thought that we would help will be feeling scared now. And some of them, the women in particular, will be downtrodden once more, will not be able to work, will not be able to be educated, and we’ll go back to a regime that we overthrew in 2001. I don’t know how anybody can support the Taliban for them to be able to do that and that’s why I believe we have made a terrible decision to leave these people.

Biden has also drawn much criticism in the US for the messaging and policy on Afghanistan and he is due to address US citizens later tonight

So how did we get to the point that the US invaded Afghanistan but now left with the original rulers set to return?  

The timeline goes back to the attacks on 11 September, 2001 that will have their 20th anniversary next month. 

Timeline

9/11

The United States descended on Afghanistan and its Taliban government in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, which had sought sanctuary in the country. 

On 7 October, 2001 — less than a month after the 11 September attacks that killed around 3,000 people in the United States — President George W. Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan.

The ruling Islamist Taliban had been sheltering Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement, which carried out the 9/11 attacks.

The operation opened a military front in the US “war on terrorism” and within weeks, US-led forces overthrew the Taliban, who had been in power since 1996.

About 1,300 American soldiers were on the ground by November 2001, rising to almost 10,000 the next year.

Forgotten war

krt-us-news-story-slugged-bush-un-krt-photograph-by-chuck-k Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai with President George W. Bush at the UN in New York in 2002. (File) Source: PA Images

American attention was diverted from Afghanistan when US forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.

The fragmented Taliban and other Islamist outfits regrouped in their strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, from where they could easily travel between their bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and launched an insurgency.

In 2008, the US command in Afghanistan called for more manpower. President Bush sent additional soldiers, bringing the total to 48,500 US troops deployed.

Peak of 100,000 US troops

In 2009, Barack Obama – elected president after a campaign that promised to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – boosted the US presence to around 68,000. In December, he sent another 30,000 troops.

The objective was to stymie the growing Taliban insurgency and strengthen Afghan institutions.

By 2010, about 150,000 foreign soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan, of which 100,000 were American.

Bin Laden killed

breaking-news-osama-bin-laden-is-dead-may-2nd-2011-news-broadcast-screen-capture-from-bbc-president-obama-makes-a-statement Obama announces the shooting dead of Bin Laden in 2011. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Osama bin Laden was killed on 2 May, 2011 in a US special forces operation in Pakistan.

Combat operations end

The NATO alliance ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014.

But around 12,500 foreign soldiers – of which 9,800 were American – remained to train Afghan troops and conduct anti-terrorist operations.

Security in Afghanistan deteriorated as the Taliban’s insurgency spread, with a branch of the Islamic State (IS) group also becoming active in South Asia in 2015.

US reinforcements

President Donald Trump scrapped any timetables for a US pull-out and re-commited thousands more soldiers in August 2017.

However, deadly attacks multiplied, especially against Afghan forces. The United States dramatically stepped up air strikes.

Talks and deal

The following year, Washington and Taliban representatives discreetly opened talks in Doha, led by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, focused on slashing the American military footprint in Afghanistan.

In return, Washington demanded that the Taliban prevent the country from being used as a haven for jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda.

On 29 February, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic deal.

It paveed the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 — in return for the insurgents offering some security guarantees and agreeing to hold peace talks with the Afghan government.

The peace talks begin on 12 September but violence surged in Afghanistan and negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government stalled.

The Taliban were blamed for a wave of targeted killings against high-profile activists, politicians, journalists and working women.

End date and Taliban attack

Troop numbers by the end of Trump’s presidency in January 2021 fell to 2,500 as support for military action waned.

As of February, NATO has around 10,000 service members in the country, the largest contingent of which is from the United States.

President Joe Biden announced he would stick to the agreement with the Taliban, but delayed the drawdown deadline until 11 September.

Violence surged after the missed 1 May deadline and the Taliban launched a blistering offensive, capturing a number of rural districts close to major cities, stirring fears that Afghan security forces will buckle once US and international troops leave.

Fierce fighting

file-photo-dated-160314-of-soldiers-in-helmand-province-afghanistan-boris-johnson-is-to-set-out-details-of-britains-final-military-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-amid-fears-the-pullout-of-foreign-tr British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Source: PA Images/Alamy

In early May, NATO began a final withdrawal of its mission in Afghanistan involving 9,600 soldiers – 2,500 of them American.

Intense fighting broke out between the Taliban and government forces in southern Helmand province and the insurgents captured Burka in northern Baghlan province.

A bomb blast outside a girls’ school on 8 May in Kabul killed 85 people, mostly pupils.

The deadliest attack in a year was blamed on the Taliban, though they did not claim it.

Mid-May, US forces withdrew from the air base in Kandahar, one of the largest in the country.

Bagram handed over to Afghan troops

Officials on 2 June announced the imminent departure of all US and NATO troops from Bagram, Afghanistan’s biggest air base, signalling that the complete withdrawal of foreign forces was imminent.

Bagram served as the linchpin for US-led operations in Afghanistan, and the ability of Afghan forces to hold the base is likely to prove pivotal to maintaining security in nearby Kabul and keeping up pressure on the militants. 

Taliban advances

The insurgents seized districts in Wardak province, 40km from Kabul, and restive Ghazni, a key province straddling roads connecting Kabul to Kandahar, the second-largest city.

In mid-June, the Taliban captured several districts in the northern provinces of Faryab, Takhar and Badakhshan, forcing the military to retreat from a number of areas.

Key borders

The Taliban took control of the main Shir Khan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan, prompting the Central Asian country to check the combat readiness of its armed forces on 22 June.

The insurgents seized other routes to Tajikistan, as well as the districts leading to Kunduz, capital of the northern province of the same name, about 50km from the Tajik border.

On 9 July, the Taliban announced the capture of Afghanistan’s biggest border crossing with Iran, Islam Qala.

Airport

a-view-of-kabul-afghanistan-from-koh-e-asmai-popularly-called-tv-mountain-the-snow-covered-koh-i-baba-peaks-beyond Kabul, Afghanistan. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Two days later Afghan authorities installed an anti-missile system at Kabul airport to counter incoming rockets.

On 14 July, the insurgents took control of the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, a key trade route between the two countries.

The Taliban claimed on 22 July that they controlled 90% of Afghanistan’s borders, a figure disputed by the government and impossible to verify.

Capitals fall

In a sharp escalation over the first weekend of August, the Taliban offensive focused on urban centres, with the insurgents attacking at least three provincial capitals – Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat.

The US and Britain said the Taliban may have committed “war crimes”, accusing the insurgents of “massacring civilians” in the town of Spin Boldak.

Eight people were killed on 3 August in a coordinated Taliban-claimed bomb and gun attack targeting the Afghan defence minister and several lawmakers in Kabul.

On 6 August, the Taliban shot dead the head of the Afghan government’s media information centre at a mosque in the capital.

The Taliban captured their first Afghan provincial capital, the city of Zaranj in southwestern Nimroz, taking it “without a fight”.

In the following days, several other northern cities fell: Sheberghan, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Aibak, Farah and Pul-e-Khumri.

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Despite the bloodshed and sweeping advances, US President Joe Biden gave no suggestion he may delay the withdrawal deadline.

On Wednesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to rally his forces.

But his visit was overshadowed by the surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz, the biggest city to fall to that point.

At the gates

afghanistan Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace. Source: PA Images

As recently as 13 August, Pentagon says Kabul does not appear to face an “imminent threat” but two days later Taliban fighters appear on the edge of the city. 

The insurgents fully encircle the capital on 15 August with the capture of Jalalabad in the east, leaving Kabul as the only city under government control.

On Sunday evening, former vice president Abdullah Abdullah announces that president Ghani has left the country.

“The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul, not to try to enter the city,” a spokesman for the Taliban tweets as residents report insurgents on the outskirts of the city.

The Taliban then say that their militants have entered multiple districts of the capital.

Diplomatic missions scramble to evacuate officials and local staff who fear reprisals from the Taliban.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejects parallels between chaotic scenes unfolding in Kabul and the Vietnam war, declaring “this is manifestly not Saigon”

kabul-afghanistan-15th-aug-2021-sea-knight-military-transport-helicopter-flies-over-kabul-as-the-taliban-enter-kabul-afghanistan-on-sunday-on-august-15-2021-afghan-president-ashraf-ghani-repor A US military transport helicopter nears the US embassy in Kabul. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Ghani flees the country, reportedly to Tajikistan, and the Taliban enter Kabul, eventually taking position in the presidential palace.

Television images show the Taliban have entered the capital and have seized the presidential palace.

In a message on Facebook, Ghani says he has fled to avoid a “flood of bloodshed” and says the “Taliban have won”.

Chaos at the airport

People besiege Kabul’s airport on 16 August, the only exit route from the country.

Videos show scenes of chaos as people try to board the few flights available.

US troops fire shots into the air and all commercial flights are cancelled as chaos breaks out on the tarmac.

At least seven people are killed with some falling to their deaths after attempting to cling to US military planes taking off from the airport.   

About 6,000 US troops are in the area in an effort to ensure the airport is secure but military flights are paused due to the uncertain and dangerous situation, 

With reporting by © – AFP 2021

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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