A man and his son watch US soldiers prepare to sweep their home in southeastern Afghanistan in November 2002.Scott Nelson/Getty Images
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The War in Afghanistan: How It Started and How It Is Ending

Yesterday, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, and announced it would be implementing a Taliban government in the country for the first time since 2001, when its regime was last ousted by Western troops.

President Ashraf Ghani fled the country “to avoid bloodshed” and said the Taliban had won the 20 year war in the region, in a statement. Meanwhile, thousands of people attempted to flee the country, fearing the strict ideology that the Taliban will likely implement in the country.

There has been conflict in the region for over 20 years with a US military presence in the country since 2001. This is what has happened in that time frame:

Start of the war

The US was responding to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Officials identified Islamist militant group al-Qaeda, and its leader Osama Bin Laden, as responsible.

Bin Laden was in Afghanistan, under the protection of the Taliban, the Islamists who had been in power since 1996.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is seen at an undisclosed location in this television image broadcast on October 7, 2001. Bin Laden praised God for the September 11 attacks and swore America “will never dream of security” until “the infidel’s armies leave the land of Muhammad.”Al Jazeera TV/Getty Images

When they refused to hand him over, the US intervened militarily, quickly removing the Taliban and vowing to support democracy and eliminate the terrorist threat.

The militants slipped away and later regrouped.

Nato allies had joined the US and a new Afghan government took over in 2004 but deadly Taliban attacks continued. President Barack Obama’s “troop surge” in 2009 helped push back the Taliban but it was not long term.

In 2014, at the end of what was the bloodiest year since 2001, Nato’s international forces ended their combat mission, leaving responsibility for security to the Afghan army.

That gave the Taliban momentum and they seized more territory.

British Marines take cover during an anti-Taliban operation near Kajaki, Afghanistan, in March 2007. Many other countries also deployed troops to the country.John Moore/Getty Images

Peace talks between the US and the Taliban started tentatively, with the Afghan government pretty much uninvolved, and the agreement on a withdrawal came in February 2020 in Qatar.

The US-Taliban deal did not stop the Taliban attacks – they switched their focus instead to Afghan security forces and civilians, and targeted assassinations. Their areas of control grew.

Who are the leaders?

The Taliban are led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a senior religious cleric from the Taliban’s founding generation.He was named as the Taliban’s leader in 2016 after the group’s previous leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in a US airstrike in Pakistan. At the time, Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network said the new Taliban leader might be able to “integrate the younger and more militant generation.”Another key player is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban co-founder, who was released in 2013 after being captured in 2010 in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Baradar heads the group’s political committee, and recently met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

What did the Taliban agree to with Trump?

In 2017, the Taliban issued an open letter to the newly elected US President Donald Trump, calling on him to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. After years of negotiations, the Taliban and the Trump administration finally signed a peace deal in 2020.

The US agreed to withdraw troops and release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban agreed to take steps to prevent any group or individual, including al Qaeda, from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the US or its allies.

But that didn’t bring about peace. Violence in Afghanistan grew to its highest levels in two decades.

Supplies are dropped to US troops in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in May 2007.Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban increased their control of wider swaths of the country — and by June of this year, contested or controlled an estimated 50% to 70% of Afghan territory outside of urban centers, according to a United Nations Security Council report.

The report warned that an emboldened Taliban posed a severe and expanding threat to the government of Afghanistan. The report argued that the Taliban leadership had no interest in the peace process and appeared to be focused on strengthening its military position to give it leverage in negotiations — or, if necessary, in using armed force.”

By early morning Sunday, Taliban forces had reached the government-controlled city of Jalalabad, where officials surrendered without a single shot fired. Soon, the remaining cities surrounding Kabul quickly fell into the insurgents’ hands. Taliban forces reached the capital’s gates within hours.

How costly has the war been?

In terms of lives lost, it is obviously not easy to say exactly. The number of coalition casualties is much better recorded than Taliban and Afghan civilians.

Research by Brown University estimates losses in the Afghan security forces at 69,000. It puts the number of civilians and militants killed at about 51,000 each.

Afghan students recite Islamic prayers at an outdoor classroom in the remote Wakhan Corridor in September 2007.Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

More than 3,500 coalition soldiers have died since 2001 – about two-thirds of them Americans. More than 20,000 US soldiers have been injured.

According to the UN, Afghanistan has the third-largest displaced population in the world.

Since 2012, some five million people have fled and not been able to return home, either displaced within Afghanistan or taking refuge in neighboring countries.

Brown University research also puts the US spending on the conflict – including military and reconstruction funds in both Afghanistan and Pakistan – at $978bn up to 2020.

What could happen next?

The obvious question is, will the Taliban take over the country again?

More will doubtlessly follow in the days ahead.

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