Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States led a coalition of forces to invade Afghanistan. The mission, known officially as Operation Enduring Freedom, was intended to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that had masterminded the 9/11 attacks and to topple the Taliban regime that had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda within its fundamentalist stronghold. The Taliban had held most of Afghanistan in thrall since 1996, imposing its extreme version of Islam on the populace and perpetrating a well-documented list of human rights abuses.
The invasion began on Oct. 7, 2001 with air strikes against Taliban defensive positions and al-Qaeda training grounds in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. Most of the Taliban's outdated surface-to-air missiles, radar, and command units were destroyed on the first pass, along with its modest fleet of MIG-21 and Su-22 fighters. Having crippled the Taliban defensive response, the Coalition Forces Command gave the Afghan Northern Alliance the go-ahead to begin a ground invasion, with U.S.-led coalition forces providing air and ground support.
Members of 10th Mountain in Afghanistan during Operation Mountain Serpent on 12 September 2003. | US Army photo
The groundwork for large-scale military action in Afghanistan had been laid in secret in the weeks following 9/11 by a small CIA liaison team codenamed 'Jawbreaker.' The team had staged covertly in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, in order to coordinate with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. During the same period, President George W. Bush formally demanded that the Taliban relinquish bin Laden to the U.S. for prosecution and destroy al-Qaeda bases, brooking no discussion nor negotiation of terms.
They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.
The Taliban refused to comply and "The War on Terror" began in earnest.
By November 12th, the Taliban was routed in Kabul. Three weeks later, Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold, was captured, driving Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar into hiding and the remaining al-Qaeda forces into the mountains of the Tora Bora region. Skirmishes continued between al-Qaeda and anti-Taliban indigenous forces, as U.S. Special Forces teams worked to locate the mountain caves into which al-Qaeda leadership had retreated. However, by the time the caves were captured, Osama bin Laden had escaped into neighboring Pakistan. He would remain at large until 2011, when he was finally apprehended and killed by SEAL Team 6.
A U.S. Navy Corpsman searches for Taliban fighters in the spring of 2005. | US Marine Corps photo
In the vacuum of governance left by the expelled Taliban, a grand council of Afghan tribal leaders was assembled under the leadership of Hamid Karzai. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by the U.N. Security Council to handle security in the region. Karzai was elected President in 2004 in Afghanistan's first ever democratic elections. But even as Afghanistan began to take its first wobbly steps as a young democratic nation, the Taliban was regrouping on the Pakistan border. Soon they launched a wide-ranging insurgency, conducting guerilla-style attacks on Afghan Security Forces and targeting members of the new administration. Despite the continued intervention of U.S. military might in the region, the insurgency continues.