Facts & Figures
President: Ashraf Ghani (2014)
Chief Executive: Abdullah Abdullah (2014)
Total area: 250,000 sq mi (647,500 sq km)
Population (2014 est.): 31,822,848 (growth rate: 2.3%); birth rate: 38.8/1000; infant mortality rate: 117.23/1000; life expectancy: 50.49; density per sq mi: 123.7
Capital and largest city (2011 est.): Kabul, 3,097,300
Other large cities: Kandahar, 349,300; Mazar-i-Sharif, 246,900; Charikar, 202,600; Herat, 171,500
Monetary unit: Afghani
- Afghanistan Main Page
- Soviet Invasion
- The Rise of the Taliban
- The U.S. Responds to the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks
- Reemergence of the Taliban
- Taliban Attacks Become More Deadly
- Afghanistan Holds Second Direct Presidential Elections
- Support for the War on the Wane
- Osama bin Laden Is Killed
- Violence and Assassinations Diminish Confidence in Afghanistan's Security Forces
- U.S. Begins to Reduce Its Role in Afghanistan as Relationship Deteriorates
- Karzai Rejects Security Deal with U.S.
- Presidential Election Marred by Allegations of Fraud; Unity Government Formed
- Taliban Detainees Released in Prisoner Swap With U.S.; U.S. General Killed
- U.S. and NATO End Combat Operation in Afghanistan
- President Ghani Announces Cabinet Months After Taking Office; Visit With Obama Results in Additional U.S. Support
- Taliban Founder Reportedly Dead
- Taliban Captures Kunduz, Doctors Without Borders Hospital Hit in Airstrike
Afghanistan, approximately the size of Texas, is bordered on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, on the extreme northeast by China, on the east and south by Pakistan, and by Iran on the west. The country is split east to west by the Hindu Kush mountain range, rising in the east to heights of 24,000 ft (7,315 m). With the exception of the southwest, most of the country is covered by high snow-capped mountains and is traversed by deep valleys.
In June 2002 a multiparty republic replaced an interim government that had been established in Dec. 2001, following the fall of the Islamic Taliban government.
Darius I and Alexander the Great were the first to use Afghanistan as the gateway to India. Islamic conquerors arrived in the 7th century, and Genghis Khan and Tamerlane followed in the 13th and 14th centuries.
In the 19th century, Afghanistan became a battleground in the rivalry between imperial Britain and czarist Russia for control of Central Asia. Three Anglo-Afghan wars (1839–1842, 1878–1880, and 1919) ended inconclusively. In 1893 Britain established an unofficial border, the Durand Line, separating Afghanistan from British India, and London granted full independence in 1919. Emir Amanullah founded an Afghan monarchy in 1926.
During the cold war, King Mohammed Zahir Shah developed close ties with the Soviet Union, accepting extensive economic assistance from Moscow. He was deposed in 1973 by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, who proclaimed a republic. Daoud was killed in a 1978 coup, and Noor Taraki took power, setting up a Marxist regime. He, in turn, was executed in Sept. 1979, and Hafizullah Amin became president. Amin was killed in Dec. 1979, as the Soviets launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal as president.
The Soviets, and the Soviet-backed Afghan government, were met with fierce popular resistance. Guerrilla forces, calling themselves mujahideen, pledged a jihad, or holy war, to expel the invaders. Initially armed with outdated weapons, the mujahideen became a focus of U.S. cold war strategy against the Soviet Union, and with Pakistan's help, Washington began funneling sophisticated arms to the resistance. Moscow's troops were soon bogged down in a no-win conflict with determined Afghan fighters. In 1986 Karmal resigned, and was replaced by Mohammad Najibullah. In April 1988 the USSR, U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan signed accords calling for an end to outside aid to the warring factions. In return, a Soviet withdrawal took place in Feb. 1989, but the pro-Soviet government of President Najibullah was left in the capital, Kabul.
The Rise of the Taliban
By mid-April 1992 Najibullah was ousted as Islamic rebels advanced on the capital. Almost immediately, the various rebel groups began fighting one another for control. Amid the chaos of competing factions, a group calling itself the Taliban—consisting of Islamic students—seized control of Kabul in Sept. 1996. It imposed harsh fundamentalist laws, including stoning for adultery and severing hands for theft. Women were prohibited from work and school, and they were required to cover themselves from head to foot in public. By fall 1998 the Taliban controlled about 90% of the country and, with its scorched-earth tactics and human rights abuses, had turned itself into an international pariah. Only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAR—recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government.
On Aug. 20, 1998, U.S. cruise missiles struck a terrorist training complex in Afghanistan believed to have been financed by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Islamic radical sheltered by the Taliban. The U.S. asked for the deportation of Bin Laden, whom it believed was involved in the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. The UN also demanded the Taliban hand over Bin Laden for trial.
In Sept. 2001, legendary guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Masoud was killed by suicide bombers, a seeming death knell for the anti-Taliban forces, a loosely connected group referred to as the Northern Alliance. Days later, terrorists attacked New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and Bin Laden emerged as the primary suspect in the tragedy.
The U.S. Responds to the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks
On Oct. 7, after the Taliban repeatedly and defiantly refused to turn over Bin Laden, the U.S. and its allies began daily air strikes against Afghan military installations and terrorist training camps. Five weeks later, with the help of U.S. air support, the Northern Alliance managed with breathtaking speed to take the key cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the capital. On Dec. 7, the Taliban regime collapsed entirely when its troops fled their last stronghold, Kandahar. However, al-Qaeda members and other mujahideen from various parts of the Islamic world who had earlier fought alongside the Taliban persisted in pockets of fierce resistance, forcing U.S. and allied troops to maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar remained at large.
In Dec. 2001, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun (the dominant ethnic group in the country) and the leader of the powerful 500,000-strong Populzai clan, was named head of Afghanistan's interim government; in June 2002, he formally became president. The U.S. maintained about 12,000 troops to combat the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and about 31 nations also contributed NATO-led peacekeeping forces. In 2003, after the United States shifted its military efforts to fighting the war in Iraq, attacks on American-led forces intensified as the Taliban and al-Qaeda began to regroup.
President Hamid Karzai's hold on power remained tenuous, as entrenched warlords continued to exert regional control. Remarkably, however, Afghanistan's first democratic presidential elections in Oct. 2004 were a success. Ten million Afghans, more than a third of the country, registered to vote, including more than 40% of eligible women. Karzai was declared the winner in November, taking 55% of the vote, and was inaugurated in December.
In May 2005, 17 people were killed during anti-American protests prompted by a report in Newsweek that American guards at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran. In September 2005, Afghanistan held its first democratic parliamentary elections in more than 25 years.
Reemergence of the Taliban
The Taliban continued to attack U.S. troops throughout 2005 and 2006—the latter becoming the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the war ended in 2001. In 2004 and 2005, American troop levels in Afghanistan gradually increased to nearly 18,000 from a low of 10,000. Throughout the spring of 2006, Taliban militants—by then a force of several thousand—infiltrated southern Afghanistan, terrorizing local villagers and attacking Afghan and U.S. troops. In May and June, Operation Mount Thrust was launched, deploying more than 10,000 Afghan and coalition forces in the south. About 700 people, most of whom were Taliban, were killed. In Aug. 2006, NATO troops took over military operations in southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition. NATO's Afghanistan mission is considered the most dangerous undertaken in its 57-year history.
Attacks by the Taliban intensified and increased in late 2006 and into 2007, with militants crossing into eastern Afghanistan from Pakistan's tribal areas. The Pakistani government denied that its intelligence agency supported the Islamic militants, despite contradictory reports from Western diplomats and the media.
An August 2007 report by the United Nations implicated the Taliban in Afghanistan's opium production, which has doubled in two years. The report further stated that the country supplies 93% of the world's heroin. Southern Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, saw the largest spike.
The Taliban continued to launch attacks and gain strength throughout 2007 and into 2008. In February 2008, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Gates warned NATO members that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack on their soil is real and that they must commit more troops to stabilize Afghanistan and counter the growing power of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Taliban Attacks Become More Deadly
The U.S. had 34,000 troops in Afghanistan during the summer of 2008, the highest level since 2005, but that was not enough to stem growing violence in the country or the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Indeed, June 2008 was the deadliest month for U.S. and coalition troops since the American-led invasion began in 2001. Forty-six soldiers were killed; there were 31 U.S troop deaths in Iraq during the same period. In addition, a Pentagon report indicated that the U.S. is facing two separate insurgencies in Afghanistan: the Taliban in the south and a collection of militant bands in the east, which borders Pakistan. These adversaries seek the expulsion of "all foreign military forces from Afghanistan, the elimination of external government influence in their respective areas, and the imposition of a religiously conservative, Pashtun-led government." Some U.S. officials began to question the effectiveness of President Karzai and his ability to rein in the mounting insurgency. Those doubts were further justified in June, when the Taliban brazenly orchestrated a jailbreak in Kandahar, which freed about 900 prisoners, 350 of them were Taliban.
In August, as many as 90 Afghan civilians, 60 of them children, were killed in a U.S.-launched airstrike in the western village of Azizabad. It was one of the deadliest airstrikes since the war began in 2001, and the deadliest on civilians. The U.S. military refuted the figures, however, which were confirmed by the UN, claiming that the airstrike, in response to an attack by militants, killed less than 10 civilians and about 30 members of the Taliban. An investigation by the U.S. military, released in October, found that more than 30 civilians and less than 20 militants were killed in the raid.
The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long cross-border air assault into Afghanistan's Bajaur region throughout August, which resulted in more than 400 Taliban casualties. The continuous airstrikes forced many al-Qaeda and Taliban militants to retreat from towns formally under their control. However, the Pakistani government declared a cease-fire in the Bajaur region for the month of September in observance of Ramadan, raising fears that the Taliban will use the opportunity to regroup.
Allied deaths in Afghanistan reached 267 in 2008, the highest number since the war began in 2003. U.S. president-elect Barack Obama said defeating the Taliban would be a top priority of his administration. The Pentagon, seeming to share Obama's sense of urgency, said it would comply with a request by Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, and send an additional 20,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009. In May 2009, Gen. David McKiernan was replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander.
Afghanistan Holds Second Direct Presidential Elections
Provincial and presidential elections were held on August 20, 2009, despite calls by the Taliban to boycott the elections and the militia's attendant threats to harm those who cast votes. Violence spiked in the days leading up to the elections. More than 30 candidates challenged incumbent Karzai, with Abdullah Abdullah as the most formidable contender. Abdullah, who served under Karzai as minister of foreign affairs until 2006, ran as head of the United National Front opposition alliance. Early results put Karzai well ahead of Abdullah, but allegations of widespread and blatant fraud surfaced immediately. In September, the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission announced it had "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" and called for a partial recount. Complaints of fraud were particularly egregious in southern regions of Afghanistan, where Karzai drew most of his support.
Election results released in October indicated that Karzai came up short in garnering 50% of the vote and a second-round election was necessary. Karzai agreed to participate in a runoff against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. About a week before the Nov. 7 second-round election, Abdullah withdrew from the race in protest of the Karzai administration's refusal to dismiss election officials accused of taking part in the widespread fraud that marred the first round of the election. Karzai was declared the winner on Nov. 5 and began his second five-year term as president. He faced difficulties from the onset of his second term when parliament rejected about two-thirds of his cabinet picks in January 2010.
A smooth election was seen as vital for continued support of the U.S.-backed war in Afghanistan. During the election turmoil, President Obama's plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan began drawing opposition from critics who said the operation was veering away from the original mission to fight terrorism and toward nation building and who questioned Afghanistan's ability and commitment to improve security and stabilize its government.
Support for the War on the Wane
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan continued its downward spiral in 2010. Popular support for the nine-year campaign waned in the U.S. as casualties mounted and the Afghan government and military showed few signs of being able to assume control of the country, never mind the Taliban strongholds. About six thousand American, Afghan, and British troops stormed the southern city of Marja in February in an attempt to destroy the Taliban haven. The attack, the largest since the beginning of the invasion, was an example of a new anti-insurgency strategy that would have allied and Afghan troops clear the area of militants and Afghan troops eventually assuming control with the continued support of allied forces. By May, the Taliban returned to Marja and resumed their fight against troops and residents. The failure in Marja forced the U.S. to rethink a similar effort in Kandahar. However, U.S. and Afghan troops launched an offensive in September to dislodge the Taliban from Kandahar.
The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks released 92,000 classified U.S. military documents in July 2010 that portrayed a much less optimistic picture of the war than has been reported by the U.S. government. The documents revealed that the insurgency has continued to increase in strength and resiliency while allied forces lacked many resources necessary for success in the war. The documents also reinforced the widely held perception that the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, has been playing both sides in the war against the Taliban and militant groups, clandestinely supporting the insurgents in their fight against allied troops in Afghanistan while also cooperating with the U.S. WikiLeaks released about 250,000 diplomatic cables in November that highlighted the endemic corruption that has plagued Afghanistan. For example, Ahmed Zia Massoud, a former vice president, was found with $52 million in cash. The cables also reveal deep skepticism among world leaders about Karzai's leadership and describe him as increasingly unpredictable and unreliable.
Parliamentary elections were held in September 2010. Voter turnout was low, with about one-third of eligible voters casting ballots. As in previous elections, allegations of ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation were widespread. About 20% or 1.3 million of the votes were rejected as fraudulent. As a result, the government was held in limbo for several months as election officials reviewed the results of the election. In August 2011—nearly a year after the election, the Independent Election Commission changed the results, stripping nine members of Parliament of their seats and reinstating another nine who had been disqualified. The ruling should pave the way for Karzai to appoint a cabinet and nominate justices to the Supreme Court.
Leading members of the Taliban, President Karzai, and his advisors met in October to negotiate an end to the 9-year war. The Taliban leaders, whose identities were kept secret in order to prevent rival Taliban leaders from harming or killing them, were led to the meetings from their safe havens in Pakistan by NATO troops. One of the Taliban leaders was believed to have been Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the group's second in command. However, it was revealed in November that the person posing as Mansour was an imposter who duped Karzai and NATO officials.
By the end of 2010, with Karzai's mercurial leadership and the Taliban's stubborn resistance, the Obama administration began to make clear that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, far longer than he had predicted in 2009, when he suggested combat troops would begin to be withdrawn in July 2011.
Osama bin Laden Is Killed
On May 2, 2011, U.S. troops and CIA operatives shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city of 500,000 people that houses a military base and a military academy. A gun battle broke out when the troops descended upon the building in which bin Laden was located, and bin Laden was shot in the head. News of bin Laden's death brought cheers and a sense of relief worldwide.
"For over two decades, Bin Laden has been Al Qaeda's leader and symbol," said President Barack Obama in a televised speech. "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al-Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that Al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad."
While Bin Laden's demise was greeted with triumph in the United States and around the world, analysts expressed concern that Al-Qaeda may seek retaliation. U.S. embassies throughout the world were put on high alert, and the U.S. State Department issued a warning for travelers visiting dangerous countries, instructing them "to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations." Some Afghan officials expressed concern that bin Laden's death might prompt the U.S. to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and said the U.S. should maintain a presence there because terrorism continues to plague the country and the region.
"The killing of Osama should not be seen as mission accomplished," former interior minister Hanif Atmar told the New York Times. "Al Qaeda is much more than just Osama bin Laden." Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is al-Qaeda's theological leader, will likely succeed bin Laden.
The fact that bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan in a compound located in close proximity to a military base will likely strain the already distrustful relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan has long denied that bin Laden was hiding within its borders, and the U.S. has provided Pakistan with about $1 billion each year to fight terrorism and to track down bin Laden.
Violence and Assassinations Diminish Confidence in Afghanistan's Security Forces
In June 2011, President Obama announced that the U.S. had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan and that time had come to start withdrawing troops and begin "to focus on nation-building here at home." He said about 10,000 of the 30,000 troops deployed in 2009 as part of the surge will leave the country by the end of 2011 and the remaining 20,000 will be out by the summer of 2012. The remaining U.S. troops—some 70,000—will be gradually withdrawn through the end of 2014, when security will be transferred to Afghan authorities. Some military officials expressed concern that the drawdown would compromise advances made against the Taliban.
President Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, arguably the most powerful—and feared— man in southern Afghanistan, was assassinated by his security chief in July. Karzai served as provincial council chief in Kandahar, a strategically important city in the south, and was a figurehead of the Pashtun tribe. Despite widespread allegations of corruption and accusations that he ran a heroin ring, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) worked closely with Karzai, relying on his status as a feared power broker to help bring stability to the volatile region by uniting several tribes with the common goal of defeating the Taliban.
On Aug. 6, 2011, the Taliban shot down a transport helicopter, killing 30 American troops, seven Afghans, and a translator. It was the highest death toll in a single day for U.S. troops. Twenty-two elite Navy SEALs were killed, some members of the unit that killed Osama bin Laden. In September, members of the Haqqani network, a group allied with the Taliban, launched a brazen attack in Kabul, firing on the U.S. embassy, the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and other diplomatic outposts. Nearly 30 people were killed, including 11 militants. The U.S. later accused Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, of helping the Haqqani network plan the attack. In fact, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the ISI "acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency."
The peace process in Afghanistan was dealt another blow in late September when Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated in Kabul. A Tajik, Rabbani joined the fight against the Soviets, becoming leader of one of the five major factions of the mujahideen. After the fall of the communist regime in 1992, Rabbani became president of the interim government that lasted until 1996, when it was overthrown by the Taliban. Recently he was the chief negotiator in peace talks between the government and insurgents. He was considered one of the few politicians who could bring the Taliban and former members of the Northern Alliance to the bargaining table.
U.S. Begins to Reduce Its Role in Afghanistan as Relationship Deteriorates
Shortly after U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta announced in early February 2012 that the military would end its combat role in Afghanistan by the middle of 2013 and shift toward an "advise and assist" capacity, a series of missteps and tragedies that intensified anti-U.S. sentiment forced officials to consider accelerating the withdrawal of troops even further. First, U.S. troops were caught on video urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters. This incident was followed in February with another in which U.S. troops unintentionally burned several copies of the Koran. Two U.S. officials working in Afghanistan's interior ministry were shot and killed in retaliation. In March, a U.S. soldier went on a door-to-door rampage, brutally killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children. The events sparked nationwide anti-U.S. protests in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials feared a resurgence of the Taliban–and renewed support of the Taliban by Afghan citizens. In addition, the Taliban said it was withdrawing from talks with the Karzai government and U.S. officials.
In April, the U.S. took a significant step toward transferring military control to Afghanistan when it gave Afghan troops control over special operations missions, which include the controversial night-time attacks on suspected insurgents that have claimed scores of civilian casualties. A week later, the the Haqqani network, a militant group allied with the Taliban, launched seven synchronized attacks on Parliament and the Green Zone in Kabul and in three provinces (Nangarhar, Paktia, and Logar). The assaults tested the Afghan military's defensive abilities and highlighted the network's increasing sophistication and threat. Casualties were minimal—only six fatalities—but the raid on Parliament lasted 18 hours.
On May 1—the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and signed an agreement with President Karzai that said the U.S. will provide Afghanistan development assistance for 10 years after troops withdraw in 2013.
In September 2012, the U.S. withdrew the last of the remaining combat troops who were deployed to Afghanistan during the surge of 2009. The U.S. still plans to withdraw all remaining combat troops by the end of 2014, when Afghan officials will assume security over the country. However, the U.S. announced in November that a counterterrorism force would stay in Afghanistan after 2014 in an advisory and training role. The Taliban launched series of suicide bombings and attacks on coalition and government targets throughout 2012, illustrating that the group remains a threat to government officials and civilians alike, raising questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to maintain order once allied combat troops leave. Those fears were reinforced in early December when the Pentagon released a report that said only one of the 23 Afghan National Army brigades is capable of functioning without assistance from U.S. forcers. In addition, the report said, "The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of I.E.D.s and to conduct isolated high-profile attacks."
The New York Times reported in April 2013 that the CIA has been delivering bags full of cash to Karzai for more than ten years. The "ghost money," which has totaled millions, was initially used to enlist warlords in the war against the Taliban, but over time Karzai used the money to win the loyalty of the warlords, thereby fueling the drug trade and only fostering an environment of corruption.
On June 18, 2013, the Afghan National Security Force assumed complete responsibility for the security of the country, taking over the last areas under NATO control. The 352,000-troop force has shown steady improvement over the past few years and has assumed control over most urban areas. The transition was an important milestone in the country's fight against the Taliban and its move away from dependence on outside forces for stability.
Karzai Rejects Security Deal with U.S.
In June 2013, the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, and its representatives held a press conference with an international media contingent. The U.S. said it would begin long-delayed peace talks with the group. Afghanistan was expected to do the same, but instead said it would not engage in any dialogue with the Taliban, saying such discussions lent the militants credibility. Karzai also seemed to want to control the terms of the talks, saying they must be "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led," implying they could not be held in Qatar. In addition, Karzai pulled out of talks with the U.S. on the bilateral security agreement, which will govern the status of remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws in 2014. Talks on the bilateral security agreement resumed in the fall, and after a series of negotiations, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Karzai reached a deal in late November that has a residual force of some 8,000 to 12,000 troops staying in Afghanistan through 2024 to train and advise Afghan troops. The soldiers would not engage in combat. In addition, Afghanistan will continue to receive about $4 billion each year in international aid. Karzai reluctantly agreed that the remaining U.S. troops would have immunity from persecution under Afghan law and that special forces could "complement and support" Afghan raids on private homes. Before Karzai would sign it, he sought approval from a loya jirga (a council of Afghan elders), which deliberated for four days before endorsing the deal. Karzai, however, balked and said he would not sign unless the deal was renegotiated and the U.S. agreed that troops would not participate in raids on Afghan homes. He also indicated he would not sign the agreement until after elections in April 2014. U.S. officials told Karzai that they will begin planning for a full withdrawal by the end of 2014 if he did not sign the agreement by the end of 2013.
Afghanistan released 65 inmates held at the high-security Bagram prison in February 2014, angering the U.S., which said the prisoners were hardened terrorists with U.S. "blood on their hands." The move further deteriorated the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, diminishing hopes that Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement before April's elections. In light of the developments, the Obama administration began making plans for a full withdrawal. In May 2014, Obama announced that about one-third of the 30,000 troops still stationed in Afghanistan would leave at the end of 2014, half of those troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2015, and by the end of 2016 only a skeleton crew would remain to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul and help Afghans with security issues.
Presidential Election Marred by Allegations of Fraud; Unity Government Formed
April's elections were successful for the high voter turnout and the lack of violence or attempts to disrupt the vote. About 60% of registered voters turned out to vote for president and provincial councils. The Taliban had threatened to interfere with the election and warned Afghanis not to vote, but citizens seemed to have ignored the threats. In the weeks leading up to the elections, the Taliban attacked a voter registration center and the election commission headquarters, but there were few reports of violence on election day. Eight candidates ran for president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, took about 45%, followed by Ashraf Ghani, a former minister of finance and World Bank official, who garnered 31.5%, necessitating a runoff election.
The runoff was held on June 14, and there were widespread allegations of fraud. Abdullah claimed the race was rigged, saying the election commission and Karzai conspired against him. Ghani and Karzai are both Pashtuns, while Abdullah Abdullah's ethnicity is Tajik-Pashtun. Abdullah refused to accept any decision reached by the country's election commission, and threatened to form a parallel government. Preliminary results put Ghani ahead, 56.4% to 43.6%. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Kabul to try to work out a compromise between Ghani and Abdullah. After an intense 12-hour negotiation session, the parties agreed that each of the 8.1 million votes cast would be audited. The winner would form a unity government, with the second-place finisher serving as chief executive of the government. For the moment, the compromise seemed to save the country from falling into a civil war.
The 2014 election controversy echoed that of the 2009 runoff between Karzai and Abdullah, which was also marred by allegations of fraud. Abdullah withdrew from the race in protest of the Karzai administration's refusal to dismiss election officials accused of taking part in the widespread fraud.
Three months after the controversial runoff election, Ghani and Abdullah agreed in September to form a unity government with Ghani as president and Abdullah in the newly formed position of chief executive, a role similar to that of prime minister. The agreement followed a month of negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Abdullah will report to Ghani but will oversee daily government operations. It is not entirely clear who will ultimately wield more power, which may prove problematic. The new government must deal with a resurgent Taliban that stepped up its attacks during the electio turmoil and an economy in tatters. Ghani was inaugurated on September 29, and the next day signed the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which will govern the status of the U.S. troops who remain in the country after the U.S. formally ends the combat mission at the end of 2014. The troops will train Afghan security forces and participate in counterterrorism missions.
Taliban Detainees Released in Prisoner Swap With U.S.; U.S. General Killed
After several years of negotiations, the U.S. and Taliban completed a prisoner swap on May 31, 2014. The Taliban surrendered Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, who had been held prisoner since June 30, 2009, and the U.S. released five high-level members of the Taliban from the Guantánamo Bay prison. The detainees were handed over to Qatar officials and must remain in that country for one year. Qatari officials agreed to monitor the detainees to make sure they do not engage in militant activity. The Taliban released Bergdahl to American Special Operations troops in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, and they transported him to Germany for medical attention. President Hamid Karzai was not made aware of the deal until after the prisoners were released.
Shortly after the prisoners were transferred, there were numerous reports that Bergdahl had deserted his post before being captured by the Taliban. An intense search began when Bergdahl's platoon discovered he had gone missing. Several members of Bergdahl's unit said at least two soldiers had been killed while searching for Bergdahl.
Opponents of President Barack Obama were quick to suggest he compromised national security by releasing high-ranking militants and the move would encourage other militant groups to take American hostages. "If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before," said Repl Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
In addition, Obama was criticized for not consulting with Congress 30 days before making the prisoner exchange, as required by law. Obama defended his decision, saying, "We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health."
Maj. Gen. Harold Greene was gunned down by an Afghan soldier in early August 2014 while touring a military training academy near Kabul. He was the first general killed in battle since Vietnam. Hours later, an Afghan policeman opened fire on a group of American soldiers in Paktia Province. No American troops were killed in the attack. The shootings highlighted the instability in the military and attendant obstacles the Afghan government faces as the U.S. prepares to withdraw from the country.
U.S. and NATO End Combat Operation in Afghanistan
On Dec. 8, 2014, the U.S. and NATO officially shut down the joint combat operation in Afghanistan. The mission lasted 13 years, cost nearly $720 billion, and resulted in more than 2,200 American fatalities. About 9,800 U.S. combat troops will remain in the country to train Afghani security forces and rout Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants. One-half of those troops will be withdrawn in the middle of 2015; the remainder will leave at the end of 2016.
President Ghani Announces Cabinet Months After Taking Office; Visit With Obama Results in Additional U.S. Support
For months after September 2014's election, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah struggled to form a 25-member cabinet that satisfied the country's regional and ethnic groups. By the end of April 2015, Parliament had approved all but the post of defense minister. The cabinet is dominated by young, educated figures, in contrast to previous ones that consisted mostly of former fighters.
President Ghani traveled to the U.S. in March 2015 and met with President Obama. The visit resulted in a commitment from Obama to keep all 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016 to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Half of the U.S. troops had been scheduled to leave in mid-2015. The cordial tone of the meeting suggested the relationship between Ghani and Obama would be markedly better than that of Obama and former President Hamid Karzai.
Taliban Founder Reportedly Dead
In late July 2015, Afghanistan's intelligence agency announced that it believed that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder and reclusive leader of the Taliban, died in 2013 in Pakistan. Rumors of his death have been frequent, and he has not been seen for several years. The Taliban confirmed Omar's death and on July 31 announced that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had taken over as the group's supreme leader. Omar's family members reportedly rejected the elevation of Mansour, revealing divisions within the group.
Officials from the Afghan government met with Taliban officials in Pakistan in July 2015 to discuss reconvening peace talks. Little about the substance of the meeting was made public, but both sides agreed to resume talks. Representatives from the Taliban's main political office in Qatar claimed that the members at the meeting were not authorized to attend. However, Pakistani and Afghan officials said Mansour approved the meeting. The controversy was further indication of how fractious the insurgent group has become.
Taliban Captures Kunduz, Doctors Without Borders Hospital Hit in Airstrike
Smoke rises from Kunduz on Oct. 1, 2015
Source: Associated Press
On Sept. 28, 2015, the Taliban seized control over Kunduz, a northern Afghanistan city. It was the first major city that the Taliban had captured in over a decade. The following day Afghan forces launched a counterattack to retake Kunduz. The U.S. supported the counterattack by launching airstrikes against the Taliban militants.
An airstrike hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz on Oct. 3. Twenty-two people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members and seven patients. Soon after the incident, the U.S. military released a statement confirming an airstrike aimed at Taliban militants in Kunduz, but that "there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility." The United Nations and other international organizations condemned the incident. Multiple investigations began. Two days later, with the hospital badly damaged, Doctors Without Borders announced it was leaving Kunduz, a city in great need of medical assistance.
According to a report released by the United Nations (UN), at least 3,545 civilians were killed and 7,457 others were injured in Afghanistan during 2015. Those numbers made 2015 the worse year for Afghan civilian casualties since the UN began keeping track of civilian deaths in 2009. The report stated that suicide attacks by the Taliban and fighting in Kunduz, a northern city, were the primary reasons for the rise in numbers. The report singled out Aug. 7, 2015, when two suicide attacks killed 42 civilians and injured 313 others in Kabul, as the single worst day for civilian casualties on record.