Warfare in Afghanistan: The United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The attacks by al-Qaeda against the United States on September 11, 2001, led to the war in Afghanistan, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom.

Political Considerations

The attacks by Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda]al-Qaeda against the United States on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, led to the war in Afghanistan, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Since 1996, Bin Laden, OsamaBin Laden, OsamaOsama Bin Laden had been granted sanctuary in Afghanistan by the TalibanTaliban, a militant Islamic group (led by Mullah Omar, Mullah MohammadOmar, Mullah MohammadMohammad Omar) that seized power that same year. Because both al-Qaeda and the Taliban were hostile to the United States and the West, espousing a militant and violent interpretation of Islam, they quickly became allies. One month after the attacks of 9/11, the United States, Allied forces (primarily those of Britain), and anti-Taliban forces known as the Northern Alliance (anti-Taliban forces)Northern Alliance invaded Afghanistan with the stated aim of overthrowing the Taliban government and ending Afghanistan’s role as a terrorist sanctuary for al-Qaeda. Suffering heavy casualties from U.S. and Allied air strikes and ground combat assault by U.S. and Allied special forces and Northern Alliance forces, al-Qaeda and Taliban forces retreated toward the eastern mountains of Afghanistan along the Pakistan;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan]Pakistan border. Despite the swift collapse and defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Bin Laden and Mohammad Omar eluded capture or death, presumably fleeing during the Tora Bora, Battle of (2001)December, 2001, Battle of Tora Bora into the lawless border areas of Pakistan (the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas).Afghanistan;U.S. war (beg. 2001)Afghanistan;U.S. war (beg. 2001)Operation Enduring Freedom (2001)

On December 20, 2001, the United Nations Security CouncilUnited Nations Security Council (UNSC) established the International Security Assistance ForceInternational Security Assistance Force (ISAF), led primarily by members of the North Atlantic Treaty OrganizationNorth Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but including nonmembers as well. ISAF was given the dual responsibility of assisting the United States in securing Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban and also of promoting economic reconstruction of that devastated country after more than twenty years of Civil wars;Afghanistancivil war. ISAF was originally tasked with defending the capital city of Kabul and surrounding areas, but on October 13, 2003, the UNSC authorized ISAF to expand its presence throughout Afghanistan and in 2006 began to operate throughout the country. Until August, 2003, command of ISAF rotated among different nations on a six-month basis, but thereafter NATO assumed responsibility for appointing a commander, and ISAF was commanded by generals from Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Britain, and the United States.

As of May, 2009, ISAF forces numbered more than 58,000 troops from forty-two different countries, including the United States, NATO-European countries, Australia, New Zealand, and Jordan. The ISAF force comprised 25,000 U.S. troops along with 30,000 troops from non-U.S./NATO countries. Another 17,000 U.S. troops operated independently of ISAF in training the Afghan National ArmyAfghan National Army (ANA) and battling al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan along the lawless border regions of Pakistan used by al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a sanctuary. After the United States, Great Britain had the second largest presence in Afghanistan, with a total of 8,300 troops, the vast majority serving in Helmand Province, AfghanistanHelmand Province, the heartland of the al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgency; Canada had 2,830 troops stationed in Kandahar–the former capital of the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan–in the dangerous south; France had 2,800 troops deployed in Kabul; Germany had 3,500 troops stationed in the relatively peaceful north and northeast of the country; the Netherlands had almost 2,000 troops deployed in dangerous southern Afghanistan; and Italy had 2,350 troops in relatively peaceful western Afghanistan. A total of 159 British, 118 Canadian, 27 French, 31 German, 19 Dutch, and 14 Italian troops died in Afghanistan between 2001 and mid-2009.

The bulk of ISAF forces were in the insurgency-wracked south and east of the country, especially in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar; elsewhere, ISAF troops were involved in peacekeeping and reconstruction instead of combat, according to the decisions of particular countries not to commit their forces to combat. By mid-2009, ISAF had deployed twenty-five provincial reconstruction teams to different parts of the country to rebuild damaged schools and hospitals and restore water supplies and damaged infrastructure in order to establish the conditions in which Afghans could enjoy a stable and inclusive democratic government to meet their needs and, in so doing, delegitimize and marginalize al-Qaeda and the Taliban. At the same time, however, continuing attacks by al-Qaeda and Taliban delayed progress in reconstruction. ISAF forces were also backed up by 80,000 troops of the Afghan National ArmyAfghan National Army (ANA) and 30,000 Afghan policemen. The ANA conducted operations alongside U.S. and ISAF forces but were still unable to conduct combat operations independently, relying instead on Allied forces for logistics, artillery, and air support. In 2003, the Taliban and al-Qaeda had started regrouping and began launching attacks against U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

The security situation worsened over the next five years, for a variety of reasons. First, the Afghan government of President Karzai, HamidKarzai, HamidHamid Karzai remained weak, corrupt, and unable to govern effectively; its authority did not extend to large areas of the country and remained incapable of providing essential services to most of the people of Afghanistan. Second, as the security situation in Iraq dramatically improved in 2008-2009, al-Qaeda terrorists fled from Iraq to Afghanistan. Third, political instability and rising Suicide bombingssuicide bombings and attacks by al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan consumed that country and sapped its willingness to confront Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, leading to concern that Pakistan’s pro-Western government might collapse as large parts of Pakistan remained under de facto control of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

On May 9, 2009, General Petraeus, DavidPetraeus, DavidDavid Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, stated that Pakistan’s lawless frontier border regions had become the headquarters of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, having displaced Afghanistan as al-Qaeda’s main stronghold, and served as a sanctuary for the planning of attacks and for fund-raising and recruiting of members. Fourth, many Americans, including U.S. president Obama, BarackObama, BarackBarack Obama, also attributed the deterioration of security in Afghanistan to the administration of President Bush, George W.Bush, George W.George W. Bush (2001-2009), which, by deciding that U.S. troops should invade Iraq War (beg. 2003);and Afghanistan[Afghanistan]Iraq in March, 2003, allegedly became distracted by that war, ignored Afghanistan, and failed to devote sufficient resources to the military effort there.

Brigadier Tim Radford (right) speaks with the district governor in Gereshk, Afghanistan, in July, 2009.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In any case, as American military deaths in Afghanistan rose in 2008 by 35 percent (to 155 soldiers killed) and were on track to exceed that rate in 2009, President Obama announced on March 27, 2009, that “urgent attention and swift action” were required because “the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda . . . threatens America from its safe-haven along the Pakistani border.” Pledging to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” Obama dispatched an additional 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan, as well as 4,000 military trainers from the Eighty-second Airborne Division to train that country’s army–bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to some 60,000. Of these 17,000 additional troops, 10,000 were to be Marines stationed in the south; 3,800 were to be with an Army Stryker Brigade; 1,000 were to be Special Operations Force trainers; and 3,200 were to be force enablers.

Military Achievement

After the defeat in Afghanistan of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the fall of 2001, fighting continued on a sporadic basis, with occasional real battles, and control of the country largely reverted to the regional warlords who had held power before the Taliban. Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and other NATO nations provided forces for various military, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations. By the end of 2002, some stability, though tenuous, had been achieved in Afghanistan, but sporadic, generally small-scale fighting continued, particularly in the southeast, with the Taliban regaining some strength and even control in certain districts. In August, 2003, NATO assumed command of the international security force in the Kabul area. In early 2004, the United States and NATO both announced increases in the number of troops deployed in the country, and these increases continued into 2005. The U.S. troop increase coincided with new operations against an increasingly resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the spring of 2005 was marked by an increase in attacks by these militants.

Tensions with Pakistan escalated in early 2006, as members of the Afghan government increasingly accused Pakistan of failing to control Taliban and al-Qaeda camps in areas bordering Afghanistan; by the end of the year, President Karzai had accused elements of the Pakistani government of directly supporting the Taliban. In January, 2006, a U.S. air strike destroyed several houses in eastern Pakistan where al-Qaeda leaders were believed to be meeting. May saw the U.S.-led coalition launch its largest campaign against Taliban forces since 2001; some 11,000 troops undertook a summer offensive in four southern Afghan provinces where the Taliban had become stronger and more entrenched. In July, NATO assumed responsibility for peacekeeping in southern Afghanistan. NATO troops subsequently found themselves engaged in significant battles with the Taliban, particularly in Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban. NATO took command of all peacekeeping forces in the country, including some 11,000 U.S. troops, in October; some 13,000 U.S. troops remained part of Operation Enduring Freedom, assigned to fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the rugged mountainous areas bordering Pakistan. In the second half of 2006, as casualties mounted, NATO commanders encountered difficulties when their call for reinforcements failed to raise the necessary number of troops and resources. NATO leaders also joined Afghan leaders in criticizing Pakistan for failing to end al-Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s use of areas bordering Afghanistan, especially in Baluchistan, as safe havens. By the end of 2006, 98 U.S. soldiers and 93 Allied soldiers had been killed.

In March, 2007, NATO forces launched a new offensive in Helmand Province, AfghanistanHelmand Province against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Around the same time, Pakistan’s construction of a fence along the border with Afghanistan led to protests from Afghanistan and sparked several border clashes between the forces of the two countries, as Afghanistan disputed the border with Pakistan. In May, NATO forces killed the top Taliban field commander, Dadullah, MullahDadullah, MullahMullah Dadullah, but Taliban forces mounted some guerrilla attacks as deep as the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, and in the north during 2007. Also in 2007 and particularly in 2008, as Afghanistan suffered the worst violence since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 with more than 4,000 killed–perhaps as many as one-third estimated to be civilians–Afghan civilian casualties during U.S. air strikes increasingly became a source of anger and concern among Afghans, which in turn not only put immense pressure on the Karzai government but also made it unpopular.

Afghan civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes continued to be a problem in 2008, straining relations between Afghanistan and the United States. Significant fighting with insurgents continued through 2008, as the Taliban mounted some of their most devastating attacks ever. As the year progressed, U.S. forces mounted strikes against insurgent sanctuaries across the Pakistan border, leading to tensions with Pakistan. In April, President Karzai escaped an assassination attempt unhurt, and in July, he accused Pakistani agents of being behind insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, among them a suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. By the end of 2008, 155 American and 139 Allied soldiers had died in combat that year, compared to 117 and 155, respectively, in 2007.

In 2009, as President Obama deployed additional U.S. troops to confront a resurgent al-Qaeda and Taliban, General Petraeus reported that these militants were planning a “surge” by moving weapons and forces into areas where the United States was adding troops. As the militants relocated across the border into Pakistan, the United States used unmanned Predator drones to fire missiles at dozens of militant targets inside Pakistan, killing several top al-Qaeda figures, but U.S. officials acknowledged that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership had survived these attacks and that they continued to plot counterattacks, recruit fighters, and raise funds.

Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Pakistan, thus, posed a policy dilemma for the Obama administration: Pakistan’s government would not allow U.S. military forces into that country, preventing the U.S. military from confronting these militants in ground combat to deny them sanctuary. Instead, without “boots on the ground,” the United States was forced to strike either at targets from a distance (a tactic with limited military effect, even when it worked) or instead rely on Pakistan’s military (which proved reluctant to venture into al-Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s sanctuaries). Pakistan’s reluctance to confront al-Qaeda and the Taliban in its own country was said to stem from fear by the Pakistani government that this might lead to either (1) a collapse or even a mutiny among its military, which in addition to being trained to fight a conventional war against India was unwilling to confront its own Muslim countrymen, or (2) a civil war that could bring down the nuclear-armed Pakistani government. The Pakastani government seemingly alternated between trying to fight and trying to appease the militants. Indeed, in late April, 2009, while consolidating their control over two northwestern districts after Pakistan’s government agreed to the Taliban’s demand for Islamic law to be applied in the Swat valley, Taliban forces moved to within 60 miles of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, before withdrawing. This move prompted Pakistan to launch a military offensive in the North-West Frontier Province, allegedly to rid the region of al-Qaeda and the Taliban; such operations in the past, however, had failed in their objectives.

After complaints in private failed to diminish or end the practice, President Karzai in 2009 demanded an end to U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan because of the allegedly high number of innocent civilians being killed. The U.S. and Allied forces, in turn, blamed the Taliban and al-Qaeda for hiding among innocent civilians and continued the air strikes.

American dead and casualties between 2001 and mid-2009 in Afghanistan were 610 killed and at least 2,766 injured. The total number of Allied casualties for that period was 452 dead. In April, 2009, six NATO soldiers, all Canadian, were killed in a roadside blast, bringing to 118 the total killed for Canadian troops alone. Although President Obama decided to send 17,000 more U.S. combat troops and 4,000 more training personnel, European NATO allies such as Britain, Canada, France, and Holland declined his request to send additional combat forces, although Australia announced it was deploying 450 additional troops to Afghanistan (bringing the total number of Australian troops to 1,550, of whom 10 had already died in the conflict). On Monday, May 11, as President Obama tried to turn around what by all accounts was a stalemated war, it was announced that he was replacing the top general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, with Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. With national elections scheduled in Afghanistan for August, 2009, al-Qaeda and the Taliban were expected to continue and escalate their attacks.

Because al-Qaeda and the Taliban lack the firepower, particularly in terms of artillery and air power as well as night-vision equipment, of U.S. and Allied forces, they generally avoid open and direct, prolonged engagements and prefer ambush, hit-and-run attacks, and Suicide bombingssuicide bombings to frustrate and demoralize their adversaries by denying them a decisive victory. These tactics significantly prolong the conflict and, in so doing, make the conflict seem endless and thus unwinnable. Based on events between 2006 and 2009, the militants had succeeded in turning the war in Afghanistan into a stalemate, with the momentum on their side.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

As Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda]al-Qaeda is a most unconventional “army,” their weapons, uniforms, and armor are equally unconventional. Conventional arms have little place with al-Qaeda, because the movement’s combatants do not participate in conventional attacks. Their weapons have run the gamut from car bombs, boat bombs, and bombs attached to suicide bombers to–in their most notable attacks, perpetrated in the United States on September 11, 2001–jet airliners used as massive bombs.

The TalibanTaliban, as a ruling authority for part of its existence, had the Afghan military at its disposal, but in more recent years it has become the province of local warlords, whose forces are neither organized nor standardized either in uniforms or in arms.

Military Organization

As it did in Iraq, the United States appointed one supreme commander for the Afghanistan theater. In May, 2009, Lieutenant General McChrystal, StanleyMcChrystal, Stanley[Macchrystal, Stanley]Stanley McChrystal took over for General McKiernan, DavidMcKiernan, David[Mackiernan, David]David McKiernan as head of the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, headquartered at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Reporting to the U.S. commander were the Combined Joint Task Force 101, which handled specific missions throughout Afghanistan, and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which worked directly with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to train them for an eventual takeover of security operations.

Under separate, NATO-led command were approximately 65,000 troops (including approximately an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, along with troops from Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Finland, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom), which form the ISAF. The ISAF was led by the Joint Force Command Brunssum in Brunssum, Netherlands. The ISAF commander reported to the Joint Force Command Brunssum and had five regional commanders who reported to him.

The opposing forces, usually given the umbrella term “Taliban,” really were made up of several distinct groups, all fighting against the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO forces. The official Taliban leadership, headed by Mullah Omar, was strongest in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Some insurgent forces operated under the jurisdiction and with the approval of the Taliban central authority, but many acted independently of any authority and sometimes were no more than local criminal elements using the Taliban name as a means of legitimization.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Al-Qaeda Tactics;terroristsStrategies;terroristand the Taliban developed significant combat experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, and those experiences served as the basis for their insurgency campaign against U.S. and Allied forces, including NATO forces, in Afghanistan. Hit-and-run and ambush attacks, Suicide bombingssuicide attacks, and Improvised explosive devicesimprovised explosive devices (IEDs) such as roadside bombs killed hundreds of American and Allied, including NATO, troops. In 2008, the U.S. military reported 3,800 suicide and roadside bomb attacks against Allied forces, killing 127 Allied troops, and in the first five months of 2009, there was a 25 percent increase in such attacks, killing a total of 53 U.S. and 52 Allied soldiers.

The Geography;Afghanistanterrain in Afghanistan is dotted with high mountains and deep valleys and caves, along with treacherous weather, especially in the winter. As a result, combat with al-Qaeda and the Taliban often occurred in close quarters in remote and inhospitable areas, undermining, if not negating, the effectiveness of armor, artillery, and even aerial firepower. In addition to difficult terrain, the lack of a national system of roads made travel exceedingly difficult; where roads existed, they were dirt roads. Compounding the problems faced by the United States and its allies was the issue of national identity among the Afghan people: Although al-Qaeda and the Taliban were not necessarily popular with most Afghans, their lack of a sense of national identity or unity and their tendency to see themselves instead as members of a tribe or clan made it difficult for the Afghan government to enjoy the support of either the people or local clans and tribes. Furthermore, the presence of a porous mountainous border with Pakistan to the east and the vast, essentially anarchic Pakistan border regions of the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, autonomous from Pakistani government control, gave al-Qaeda and the Taliban sanctuary.

Blocks of TNT explosives used for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other weapons, confiscated from insurgents in August, 2009.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

President Obama continued the policy of the predecessor Bush administration of sending unmanned Predator drones to strike both along the Afghan-Pakistan border and inside both of these Pakistani provinces–much to the anger of local residents, who not only sympathized with (if not supported) al-Qaeda and the Taliban but also claimed that these strikes killed innocent civilians. The Pakistani government, too, objected to these strikes as a violation of its sovereignty, which also fanned anti-American sentiment.

Complicating the war in Afghanistan, the weak, corrupt, and unstable Pakistani government was paralyzed from both a series of political disputes and a surge of attacks and acts of terrorism by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There was also much tension between the United States and its NATO allies regarding Afghanistan. The U.S. resented having to shoulder most of the military burden in Afghanistan and hoped Europe could do more to help in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Except for the British, Canadians, and Dutch, most European countries either did not permit their forces in Afghanistan to engage in combat or limited combat to defense against attack; this caused tension between European NATO countries as well. Moreover, the Iraq War had strained U.S.-European relations, and most European governments came to regard the war in Afghanistan as unwinnable. Hence, they objected to the single-minded military focus of the American war effort, arguing that instead the best way to blunt the appeal and strength of al-Qaeda and the Taliban was to rebuild the country’s economy and infrastructure.

Despite his immense popularity in Europe, President Obama failed during his April, 2009, European trip to garner pledges for additional support for the war in Afghanistan from European members of NATO. Withdrawing or abandoning Afghanistan would not, however, make the United States safe from al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and future terrorist attacks but would only embolden these groups and once again turn Afghanistan into the terrorist safe haven it was during the 1990’s.

On February 9, 2009, Kagan, Frederick W.Kagan, Frederick W.Frederick W. Kagan, a noted military historian and influential scholar behind the successful “surge” strategy used in Iraq, in an article entitled “Planning Victory in Afghanistan,” published in the National Review, criticized the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan for conducting effective counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban without simultaneously protecting the population from the militants and using economic and political programs to build popular support for the Afghan government (which would promote popular resistance to al-Qaeda and the Taliban). The U.S. focus exclusively on defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban without simultaneously working to win over the Afghan people had delegitimized and marginalized both groups.

Contemporary Sources

The war in Afghanistan is an ongoing conflict, and much of the primary source information on the Afghanistan War is current and available online, including the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual Narcotics Control Reports (Afghanistan section) and the U.S. Department of State’s South and Central Asia Reports.

Most of the book-length primary sources take the form of memoirs that are just beginning to appear. At the Center of the Storm (Tenet) At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: HarperCollins, 2007) is a memoir by former director of the Central Intelligence Agency Tenet, GeorgeTenet, George George Tenet, in which he discusses all aspects of the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the War on Terror, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. Feith, DouglasFeith, Douglas Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy, in War and Decision (Feith) War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (New York: Harper, 2008), gives an insider’s view of the history of the early years of the War on Terror, including the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. His book also includes facsimiles of U.S. government memos and other documents from the period.Afghanistan;U.S. war (beg. 2001)Operation Enduring Freedom (2001)

Books and Articles
  • Combs, Cynthia. Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2008.
  • Jacobson, Sid, and Ernie Colón. After 9/11: America’s War on Terror, 2001-. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.
  • Maley, William. Afghanistan’s Wars. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Films and Other Media
  • Afghanistan: The Forgotten War. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2008.
  • The History Channel Declassified: The Taliban. Documentary. The History Channel, 2007.
  • The Road to 9/11. Documentary. Kunhardt Productions, 2005.
  • Suicide Killers, Documentary. City Lights Entertainment, 2007.
  • The War Against Al Qaeda. Documentary. The History Channel, 2008.

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