Historian's Corner

Learn more about al Qaeda’s deadly September 11, 2001, attacks, which thrust the United States into a decades-long Global War on Terrorism, from a U.S. Army historian.

By National Museum of the United States Army

Dr. Mark Folse Headshot (2020) by Dr. Mark FolseNational Museum of the United States Army

Dr. Mark Folse

Dr. Folse is currently a historian for the U.S. Army Center for Military History in Washington, D.C., where he is researching and writing an official history of the U.S. Army’s role in Operation Enduring Freedom, September 2001 to March 2002. 

Dr. Mark Folse has taught history at Shelton State Community College, the University of Alabama, the United States Naval Academy, and Marine Corps University’s College of Distance Training and Education. He was the Class of 1957 Research Fellow at the Naval Academy from 2018-2020 where he taught Navy and Marine Corps history. Mark Folse is also a U.S. Marine infantry veteran (2002 - 2006) with service in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"As the nation mourned, it did so with the realization that sadness would give way to anger, and anger to justice. Almost immediately, in fact, the U.S. armed forces led the way in beginning a new type of war: a war on terrorism."
- The United States Army in Afghanistan, October 2001 - March 2002, CMH Publication 70-83

The George W. Bush Administration aimed to eradicate al Qaeda, find the terrorists responsible for the attacks, and destroy all terrorist support groups and safe havens.

Big Country (2004) by 1st Lt. Heather EnglehartNational Museum of the United States Army

Big Country

Once President Bush and his advisors determined that responsibility fell to al Qaeda, the guests of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. military responded swiftly with Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001.

Afghanistan (2001-09) by U.S. Army Center of Military HistoryNational Museum of the United States Army

Afghanistan, September 2001

By 2001, Afghanistan had seen 23 years of war. The Soviet-Afghan war lasted from 1978-1989.  With the help of foreign military aid, Afghan mujahideen fighters defeated the Soviets but only after suffering over a million casualties. Tribal and ethnic civil war soon followed as rival warlords fought each other for control over roads, cities, and provinces.

The Taliban, a ruthless and zealously devout group of religious students, entered the fray in the mid-1990s. They fought to bring peace to Afghanistan via Shari’a law and by 2001, had gained control over most of the country through conquest. The Taliban’s ultra-religious conservatism and their fusion of Islamic religion with law and politics, known as Islamism, attracted Osama bin Laden, the leader of the international terrorist organization al Qaeda.

Like the Taliban, bin Laden believed that only through devout Islam and Shari’a law could lasting stability and peace be achieved. The Taliban, however, cared little about the outside world and fought mainly to control Afghanistan. Al Qaeda held global ambitions that included waging a worldwide jihad (holy war) against the United States and her allies, such as Israel and Great Britain. They planned and executed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

Under the Taliban’s protection, al Qaeda planned and set in motion the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. When President Bush demanded that the Taliban handover bin Laden, they refused.

Ethnolinguistic Groups in Afghanistan (2001-09) by U.S. Army Center of Military HistoryNational Museum of the United States Army

Afghanistan's Ethnolinguistic Groups

While the U.S. military prepared for war, the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) went to work enlisting the help of countries that neighbored Afghanistan and anti-Taliban forces within the country.

Pakistan’s President Parvez Musharraf succumbed to international pressure and granted overflight rights and territorial access to U.S. forces as needed. The State Department then convinced the Uzbekistan government to allow the military the use of Karshi Khanabad airbase for staging and logistical purposes.

Horse Soldiers (2001-11)National Museum of the United States Army

Horse Soldiers

The CIA then made contact with leaders of the Uzbek and Tajik warlords on the ground in Afghanistan. Known as the Northern Alliance, they had been fighting the Taliban since the mid-1990s.

In exchange for large sums of money, they would help U.S. troops destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Regional cooperation and indigenous forces would prove crucial in the upcoming campaign. After a bombing campaign that lasted from October 7-9 2001, U.S. Special Forces teams termed Task Force Dagger inserted into Afghanistan, linked up with the anti-Taliban militias, and began combat operations.

Calling in Support (2001-09)National Museum of the United States Army

Cooperation

While Northern Alliance troops did the bulk of the fighting, Special Forces personnel called in numerous airstrikes from U.S. aircraft operating out of Karshi Khanabad and aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea.

This mix of unconventional forces, Northern Alliance troops, and air power proved too much for the Taliban. They abandoned the key cities of Mazar-e Sharif on November 10 and Kabul on November 13, 2001. The Taliban fled Kandahar on December 7, 2001.

Teamwork (2001)National Museum of the United States Army

Teamwork

With the Taliban and al Qaeda on their heels, participants at the Bonn international conference in Germany tapped the Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai (middle row, third from left) to lead an interim government. Combat operations had not ended, but the rebuilding of Afghanistan had begun.

Major U.S. Special Forces Operations (2001-10/2002-03) by U.S. Army Center of Military HistoryNational Museum of the United States Army

Major U.S. Special Forces Operations

The surviving Taliban and al Qaeda who had not fled to Pakistan regrouped in the eastern mountainous region near the border. U.S. intelligence reports placed bin Laden, as well as a strong contingent of al Qaeda fighters, at the caves of Tora Bora near the Pakistan border.

From December 3-17, 2001, U.S. Special Forces and their allies besieged the complexes with the aid of intense aerial bombardments. They cleared the caves, killing many of its defenders, but many others, including bin Laden, slipped into Pakistan to fight another day.

Anaconda: The Plan (2002-02/2002-03) by U.S. Army Center of Military HistoryNational Museum of the United States Army

Operation Anaconda: The Plan

The last major fight took place in March 2002 during Operation Anaconda. Special Forces teams and elements of the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne Divisions, along with some 2,000 Afghan allies,  attacked a 1,000-strong Taliban and al Qaeda force that had converged on the Shahi Kowt Valley.

Operation Anaconda (2001) by Jim HollanderNational Museum of the United States Army

Operation Anaconda

By March, 19, 2002, U.S. and allied troops had killed or driven most of the enemy out of the valley at a cost of eight Americans killed.

By the spring of 2002, U.S., NATO, and anti-Taliban forces had toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan and destroyed al Qaeda’s ability to use the country as a base of terrorist operations. Many U.S. commanders and government leaders claimed victory, but to the surviving Taliban who fled to Pakistan, the war was far from over.

As U.S. troops, diplomats, and contractors worked to rebuild Afghanistan into a democracy, replete with a representative government and a national army, the Taliban reorganized and regrouped. They launched significant insurgencies during the Obama administration. By 2011, Osama bin Laden had been eliminated, but the Taliban fought on. President Barack Obama officially ended Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014, but troops would remain on the ground, assisting the Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban, until August 2021.

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