September 2021

Afghanistan: The Longest War in American History


Families being evacuated at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

For much of the last 50 years Afghanistan has struggled to create a stable government. A coup, or violent overthrow of the government, occurred in 1973. It was followed by another coup in 1978. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded. The Soviets claimed the action was necessary to support the Afghan government.

Several groups inside Afghanistan quickly united to oppose the Soviet forces. Other countries—including the United States—began to supply these groups with weapons. As a result, the fighting became a stalemate. By 1989, the last Soviet soldier had left Afghanistan.

After the Soviet exit, groups within Afghanistan turned on each other. Many parts of the country came under the control of local warlords. In 1994, a group known as the Taliban emerged. The Taliban were able to bring order to Afghanistan. However, the Taliban’s extreme views and human rights abuses worried other countries—including the United States.

By 2001, the Taliban controlled about 90 percent of Afghanistan. The country soon became a haven for Muslim extremist groups. One of those groups—al-Qaeda—planned and carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States.

In response, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban government surrendered less than three months later. However, Taliban soldiers fought on. U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan to help rebuild the government and keep the Taliban in check. In 2017, the U.S. increased its military presence to stop Taliban progress. However, Taliban advances continued.

By late 2018, the United States announced plans to remove thousands of troops. U.S. leaders began peace talks with the Taliban. Under the terms of an agreement, the U.S. would withdraw all troops during a 14-month period, and the Taliban would try to reach a peace agreement with the Afghan government. Additionally, the Taliban would prevent extremist groups from operating in Afghanistan.

As promised, the United States started removing forces from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban and the Afghan government could not reach a peace agreement. As U.S. troops left parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban rapidly occupied those areas. The Afghan military failed to defend territory or respond in any meaningful way. By mid-August 2021, the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan.

The collapse of the Afghan military caught the United States off guard. On August 14, U.S. troops began a tense evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies, and at-risk peoples. On August 26, a suicide bomber attacked the airport. The blast killed 13 U.S. soldiers and more than 60 Afghans.

The U.S.-led operation evacuated more than 123,000 people. The last military transport left Afghanistan in the early hours of August 30. This event marked the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan—the longest war in American history.

Image credit: ©Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S Marine Corps/AP Images
Question 1
How long was the war in Afghanistan?

Question 2
Who controlled much of Afghanistan after the Soviets left the country in 1989?

Question 3
When did the Taliban emerge in Afghanistan?

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