After almost two decades of war in Afghanistan and just weeks before the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Taliban swiftly returned to power in the capital of Kabul on Sunday, toppling the government and driving thousands of people into a desperate race to escape the country.
The fall of Kabul wiped out the last vestige of government control after a ferocious Taliban offensive that took one major city after another in a matter of days. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday. Hours later, Taliban leaders took his place in the presidential palace.
The Taliban’s summer-long military campaign had forced widespread surrenders and retreats by Afghan government forces. Government troops abandoned scores of outposts and bases, often leaving weapons and equipment behind.
In many cases, they surrendered without a fight, sometimes following the intercession of village elders dispatched by the Taliban. Thousands of Afghans, frightened of reprisal killings, tried on Monday to flee the country, seeking refuge at Kabul’s international airport, which was held by foreign military forces trying to assist with evacuations.
The collapse of the Afghan government, after the United States spent billions to support it and Afghan security forces, was a violent coda to the U.S. military mission in America’s longest war.
That combat mission dogged four presidents, who reckoned with American casualties, a ruthless enemy and an often confounding Afghan government partner.
The planned U.S. withdrawal
Mr. Biden said that after nearly 20 years of war, it was clear that the U.S. military could not transform Afghanistan into a modern, stable democracy.
Responding in July to critics of the withdrawal, the president asked: “Let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more? How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”
The United States had planned to leave behind about 650 troops to secure its embassy in Kabul. By late Sunday, the State Department said all embassy personnel had been evacuated to the airport. On Monday, U.S. forces were among those holding the Kabul airport, as panic and dread set in across the Taliban-controlled city.
Residents began painting over advertisements and posters of women at beauty shops. Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters. In Kunduz, which fell on Aug. 8, the Taliban set up checkpoints and went door to door looking for civil servants, threatening to punish those who did not go to work.
And around the country, Afghan officials were filmed handing over power to Taliban leaders. Hamid Karzai, the former president, said he had formed a council with other political leaders to coordinate a peaceful transition to a new Taliban government.
“This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Mr. Biden said in a speech on Monday, adding that he stood by his decision to end American military involvement in Afghanistan.
Why did the United States invade Afghanistan?
Weeks after Al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, President George W. Bush announced that American forces had launched attacks against the terrorist group and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bush said the Taliban, which then governed most of Afghanistan, had rejected his demand to turn over Al Qaeda leaders who had planned the attacks from bases inside Afghanistan. He said he intended to bring Al Qaeda leaders to justice, adding, “Now the Taliban will pay a price.”
“These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime,” the president said.
Even then, the president warned that Operation Enduring Freedom would entail “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”
By December 2001, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, and other top commanders had fled to safety in Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally. American forces did not pursue them, and Pakistan ultimately evolved into a safe haven for Taliban fighters, who in subsequent years crossed the border to attack American and Afghan forces.
Inside Afghanistan, American troops quickly toppled the Taliban government and crushed its fighting forces.
How did the mission in Afghanistan evolve?
After routing the Taliban, the United States and NATO turned to rebuilding a failed state and establishing a Western-style democracy, spending billions trying to reconstruct a desperately poor country already ravaged by two decades of war, first during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and then during a civil war.
There were early successes. A pro-Western government was installed. New schools, hospitals and public facilities were built. Thousands of girls, barred from education under Taliban rule, attended school. Women, largely confined to their homes by the Taliban, went to college, joined the work force and served in Parliament and government. A vigorous, independent news media emerged.
But corruption was rampant, with hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction money stolen or misappropriated. The government proved unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens. Often, its authority evaporated outside major cities.
In 2003, with 8,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the United States began shifting combat resources to the war in Iraq, launched in March of that year.
What happened on the battlefield?
Despite the presence of American and NATO troops and air power, the Taliban rebuilt their fighting capabilities.
In 2009, President Barack Obama began deploying thousands more troops to Afghanistan in a “surge”that reached nearly 100,000 by mid-2010. But the Taliban only grew stronger, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces.
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 near a military training academy. In June, Mr. Obama announced that he would start bringing American forces home and hand over security duties to the Afghans by 2014.
By then, the Pentagon had concluded that the war could not be won militarily and that only a negotiated settlement could end the conflict — the third in three centuries involving a world power. Afghan fighters defeated the British army in the 19th century and the Russian military in the 20th century.
With the war at a stalemate, Mr. Obama ended major combat operations on Dec. 31, 2014, and transitioned to training and assisting Afghan security forces.
Nearly three years later, President Donald J. Trump said that although his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops, he would nonetheless continue to prosecute the war. He stressed that any troop withdrawal would be based on combat conditions, not predetermined timelines.
But the Trump administration also had been talking to the Taliban since 2018, leading to formal negotiations that excluded the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani.
What about the peace talks last year?
In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that called for all American forces to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, though Mr. Biden would later extend that deadline. In return, the Taliban pledged to cut ties with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, reduce violence and negotiate with the American-backed Afghan government.
But the deal did not include enforcement measures to compel the Taliban to honor their promises. And with the Afghan government excluded from the U.S.-Taliban deal, relations with the United States were strained.
After the deal was signed, the Taliban stopped attacking American troops and refrained from major terrorist bombings in Afghan cities. The United States reduced air support for government forces.
The primary objectives of the 2020 deal were for Afghan leaders and the Taliban to negotiate a political road map for a new government and constitution, reduce violence and ultimately forge a lasting cease-fire.
But the government accused the Taliban of assassinating Afghan government officials and security force members, civil society leaders, journalists and human rights workers — including several women shot in broad daylight.
Because of their strong battlefield position and the U.S. troop withdrawal, the Taliban maintained the upper hand in talks with the Afghan government, which began in September in Doha, Qatar, but eventually stalled. The Pentagon has said the militants did not honor pledges to reduce violence or cut ties with terrorist groups.
Why were Afghan security forces unable to hold off the Taliban?
Military and police units in Afghanistan have been hollowed out by desertions, low recruitment rates, poor morale and the theft of pay and equipment by commanders. They have suffered high casualty rates, which American commanders have said were not sustainable.
Even though the United States has spent at least $4 billion a year on the Afghan military, a classified intelligence assessment presented to the Biden administration this spring said Afghanistan could fall largely under Taliban control within two to three years after the departure of international forces.
The fall was much swifter than that.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” Mr. Biden said on Monday, accusing the military of laying down their arms after two decades of U.S. training. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
As Taliban fighters took over provincial capitals last week, government counterattacks fought to retake a handful of bases and districts. Some former Afghan warlords mobilized private militias while other Afghans joined volunteer militias, many of them armed and financed by the government.
But the Taliban still overtook a string of provincial capitals before moving into Kabul on Sunday — a frightening development for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
The Taliban said that their forces were there to ensure order and public safety, and that they were seeking relations with other global powers, including Russia and China, in part to receive economic support.
Jacey Fortin, Carlotta Gall and Alan Yuhas contributed reporting.