Overview of the War on Terror in Afghanistan
On September 11, 2001, members of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization carried out devastating attacks on New York and Washington DC. These terrorist strikes killed 2,975 people. Many members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, including leader Osama bin Laden, were based in Afghanistan at the time of these attacks. They were considered honored guests of the Taliban regime, which has ruled Afghanistan since 1996. (Related: Meet the Bin Ladens)
On October 7, 2001, the United States launched a massive invasion of Afghanistan, seeking to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qaeda. This assault, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, was the first front in the War on Terror. The Anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, with aerial bombing support by the United States-led coalition, was able to drive the Taliban from main population centers by mid- December 2001 (Johnson and Leslie 11).
In the years that followed the initial phase of the war, a democratically elected government was formed in Afghanistan. However, the new government has been unable to assert practical control of the entire country. Further, the US-led coalition forces have failed to locate many high-level Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Taliban and al-Qaeda elements have retaken many areas, and remain a serious threat to the elected government.
The US established a strong military presence in order to protect the new government against Taliban forces and to hunt for al-Qaeda operatives. This presence is rapidly increasing in size. According to the Washington Post, as of April 2009, there were 38,000 members of the US armed forces in the country. By 2010, there are expected to be 78,000 US troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
Understanding the Terms and Definitions of the War in Afghanistan
Al-Qaeda: A group of Sunni Arabs, organized by wealthy Saudi Osama bin Laden, which joined the Afghan resistance to the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden called this group al-Qaeda, which means "the base" in Arabic. It has since become the world’s most notorious terrorist organization (BBC News 2008).
Jihad: Literally meaning "struggle," jihad refers to the act of fighting in a war for religious reasons or motivations.
Mujahideen (also mujahedin or mujaheddin): Referring to those who take part in the act of jihad or holy war, the term came to be used in Afghanistan to describe all the soldiers who fought against the Soviet occupation. Mujahideen is the plural form of Mujahid.
Northern Alliance: A loosely organized association of former Mujahideen from minority ethnic groups, the Northern Alliance was formed to resist Taliban rule. The Northern Alliance became allied with the US during Operation Enduring Freedom, supplying soldiers on the ground to help defeat the Taliban (BBC News). Also known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.
Taliban: An Afghan political faction, the Taliban originated as a group of former Mujahideen and religious students. With assistance from the Pakistani government, they defeated rival warring factions in 1996 and became the effective government of Afghanistan (Cooley 119-120).