As Joe Biden announces withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, a look at 20 years of conflict and its remnants

The Associated Press
·10-min read

President Joe Biden has announced a withdrawal of all remaining US troops from Afghanistan by September, about 20 years after the start of a war provoked by the deadliest terror assault on the United States.

Biden's plan, announced Wednesday, is to pull out all the American forces €" now numbering 2,500 €" by 11 September, the anniversary of the attacks on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon that were coordinated from Afghanistan by the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

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Above: US Marines from the 2nd MEB, 1st Battalion 5th Marines sleep in their fighting holes inside a compound where they stayed for the night, in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province, on 8 July, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/David Guttenfelder, File

There were 2,500 to 3,000 US troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office, the smallest number since early in the war. The number peaked at 1,00,000 during President Barack Obama's first term.

Associated Press photographers have recorded the two-decade conflict from every angle. So many of their images have conveyed the drama and grim reality of battle: US Marines nearly swallowed in clouds of swirling sand as they returned fire on Taliban shooters; a Marine with shrapnel wounds to his face and body peering out from behind bloodied bandages; an Air Force paramedic draping an American flag over the remains of two US soldiers killed by an improvised explosive device; Marines rushing a comrade who had been shot in the chest to a waiting medevac helicopter.

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Above: A CH-47 Chinook helicopter from Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade flies along the edge of red sand dunes where they collide with a river and farmland on its way to retrieve British soldiers after a 5-day mission in the Helmand province in Afghanistan on 24 June, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/Julie Jacobson, File

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Above: Spc. Paul Pickett, 22, of Minden La., right, of the US Army's Apache Company, 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Combat Brigade 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, NY, covers an injured US soldier as a helicopter lands to evacuate the wounded after their armoured vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan's Wardak Province on 19 August, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/David Goldman, File

They also have captured the unexpected €" such as when a soldier roused from sleep during an attack rushed to a defensive position in Restrepo wearing his bright red-and-white "I Love New York" boxer shorts €" and the poignant, including a frame of a soldier sitting on his top bunk after hanging a hand-drawn American flag sent by friends with the message "We Support Our Troops!"

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Above: Spc. Dallas Purdy from Hockley, Texas, hangs a message of support from friends Ashley and Katie Daniels while serving with the 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division at COP Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley, Kandahar, Afghanistan on 29 July, 2010. Photo via The Associated Press/Rodrigo Abd, File

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Above: US Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade rest inside a tent at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand province on 9 June, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/David Guttenfelder, File

As US war casualties have declined, the American public has lost interest in the Afghanistan conflict and the withdrawal of troops is likely to be politically popular. But some are warning that it could lead to another power grab by the Taliban and an undoing of the democratic gains the country has made over the past 20 years. The move is also likely to spark criticism from Republicans €" even though former President Donald Trump also said he wanted a full troop withdrawal.

The Taliban and Afghan government can no longer hold the US hostage €" the Taliban with escalating violence and the Afghan president with dragging his feet on a power-sharing deal with the insurgents that doesn't include him as president €" because Washington made it clear that US troops are leaving, no matter what.

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Above: Air Force Airman 1st Class Tyler Hitter stands by the transfer cases of Army Warrant Officer Joseph L. Schiro of Coral Springs, Fla., right, and Army Staff Sgt. Justin C. Marquez of Aberdeen, NC, left, as they wait to be lowered from a cargo plane after arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on 8 October, 2012. According to the Department of Defense, Schiro and Marquez died in Afghanistan. Photo via The Associated Press/Susan Walsh, File

Still, there are growing fears that Afghanistan will collapse into worsening chaos, brutal civil war, or even a takeover by the Taliban once the Americans are gone €" opening a new chapter in the constant war that has lasted for decades.

Already, violence and seemingly random attacks on civilians have surged since the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that had committed Washington to withdraw by 1 May. More than 1,700 civilians were killed or wounded in attacks the first three months of this year, up 23 percent from the same period last year, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

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Above: 2nd Lt. Andrew Ferrara, 23, of Torrance, Calif., with the US Army's Bravo Company of the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment, based in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, turns from the rotor wash of a landing Blackhawk helicopter during a mission for a key leader engagement at the Shigal district centre on 15 September, 2011, in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Photo via The Associated Press/David Goldman, File

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Above: US Marines, from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, return fire on Taliban positions near the town of Garmser in Helmand Province of Afghanistan on 2 May, 2008. Photo via The Associated Press/David Guttenfelder, File

Biden administration has set a new timetable. It said it would begin pulling out its remaining 3,500 troops on 1 May and complete the pullout at the latest by 11 September €" the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida terror attack on the US that had triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. NATO announced it would follow the same timetable for withdrawing nearly 10,000 troops.

In leaving, Washington has calculated that it can manage its chief security interest €" ensuring Afghanistan doesn't become a base for terror attacks on the United States €" from a distance.

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Above: A US Marine walks to pick up food supplies after they were dropped off by small parachutes from a plane outside Forward Operating Base Edi in the Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan on 9 June, 2011. The smoke in the background comes from burning parachutes the Marines destroy after they reached the ground. Photo via The Associated Press/Anja Niedringhaus, File

Still, it is hoping to leave a country with a chance at peace. The US is pressing the Taliban and the Afghan government to reach a peace agreement during a 24 April-4 May conference in Turkey.

At the moment, it's not even sure the Taliban will attend.

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Above: US Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit try to take shelter from a sand storm at forward operating base Dwyer in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan on 7 May, 2008. Photo via The Associated Press/David Guttenfelder, File

In response to the new withdrawal timeline, the Taliban said they won't attend any conference on Afghanistan's future while foreign forces are still in the country. A spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, said that if the original 1 May deadline is not met, "problems will be compounded." Still, he did not explicitly threaten a resumption of Taliban attacks on US troops.

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Above: Soldiers from the US Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry fire mortars from the Korengal Outpost at Taliban positions in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar Province on 12 May, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/David Guttenfelder, File

The many warlords who hold sway in Kabul have amassed considerable wealth in the last 20 years and boast loyal militias with well-equipped arsenals. Most Afghans say the US and NATO troop presence has kept feuding warlords apart and fear that without it the country will collapse back into the brutal infighting that raged from 1992-1996, giving rise to the Taliban.

The previous Trump deal with the Taliban had imposed conditions. The big one was that the Taliban break with their longtime ally, al-Qaida, and stand against other militants before US troops would withdraw.

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Above: United States Marine LCpl. Franklin Romans of Michigan, from the 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines "Warlords" searches a house during an operation in the Garmsir district of the volatile Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on 23 December, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/Kevin Frayer, File

A senior Taliban official earlier told The Associated Press that the group last month ordered the remnants of al-Qaida and other militants out of the country and told its own fighters not to associate with foreign fighters.

Asfandyar Mir, at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said the order against foreign fighters was a good first step. But he noted it only confirms the Taliban's use of foreign fighters, which it long denied €" even as publications affiliated to the Taliban and al-Qaida touted al-Qaida's oath of loyalty to the Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akunzada.

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Above: Sgt Joshua Engbrecht, 28, of Riverside Calif., left, and Pfc. Jack Shortridge, 21, of Long Beach Calif., of the US Army's 1st Platoon Apache Company, 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Combat Brigade 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, NY, give each other haircuts under the stars at Combat Outpost Tangi in Afghanistan's Wardak Province on 18 August, 2009. Photo via The Associated Press/David Goldman, File

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Above: 1st Lt Nikesh Kapadia, 24, centre, of Queens, NY, with the US Army's 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky, stands in the rain while waiting to go through customs at the Transit Centre in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, on the way home after completing a deployment in Afghanistan on 10 August, 2011. Photo via The Associated Press/David Goldman, File

Mir also pointed to the evidence of al-Qaida operations even in recent years in areas under Taliban control.

Controlling militant groups will be even harder if Afghanistan tumbles into chaos.

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Above: A tattoo on the back of US Army Sgt. James Wilkes of Rochester, N.Y., is seen through his torn shirt after a foot patrol with 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, of the 5th Styker Brigade on 8 May, 2010, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. The full tattoo reads, "Sacrifice. Without fear there is no courage." Photo via The Associated Press/Julie Jacobson, File

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center said that it's "hard to imagine any scenario under which peace would break out post-11 September in Afghanistan."

"The best hope is that the peace process won't be dead," he said.

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Above: Tyson Hicks, 2, holds an American flag while in the arms of his father, Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Hicks, who had just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan with the Georgia National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team on 16 September, 2014, in Macon, Ga. Photo via The Associated Press/David Goldman, File

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Bleed image: During a rescue mission by a team from a US Air Force Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, army medics carry a wounded Afghan Army soldier to an evacuation helicopter, in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on 2 August, 2010. U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen and helicopter aircrews work together to evacuate wounded combatants and civilians from battlefields in southern Afghanistan. Photo via The Associated Press/Brennan Linsley, File

€" With inputs from Kathy Gannon.

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