It was a harsh winter that began in 2013. In the city of Herat on Christmas Day, people burned trash by the side of the highway to keep warm after fleeing fighting and, ironically, drought in outlying rural districts. But there was hope, wary though it may have been. In 2014, for the first time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the presidential election, previously organized by international players, was to be organized by Afghans.

At dawn on election day, the sound of exploding rockets echoed through Kabul. The Taliban had promised bloodshed. The skies were gray, but voters waited in line in the rain, patiently coping with the inevitable logistical hitches and security threats. A total of 6.5 million votes were cast and the day was heralded as a success.

The excitement, however, was short-lived, and pessimism soon shrouded the country. When the run-off vote between the two leading candidates resulted in accusations of fraud, an audit was called. Confidence in the Afghan republic plummeted, as did the national currency and foreign investment, while unemployment soared. At the end of the year, the international military mission handed responsibility for security over to Afghan national security forces.


The Taliban had been biding their time until the better equipped, better trained and motivated foreign forces departed, then quickly went on the offensive. They overran their first major city in September 2015 when they captured Kunduz in the north. During the operation to recapture the city, US airstrikes destroyed a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 patients and staff in one of the most horrific incidents of the entire war.

As the momentum of the Taliban on the battlefield surged, American diplomats revived efforts for peace talks with the Taliban. In February 2020, after 18 months of negotiations under President Trump, the deal to bring peace to Afghanistan was signed by representatives of the US and the Taliban, in effect signing America’s defeat with the provision for the Afghan government and the Taliban to engage in peace talks of their own, and for international forces to withdraw entirely the following year. But the United States, under both presidents Trump and Biden, was more intent on withdrawal than on sustaining stability in Afghanistan.

In early 2021, after President Biden confirmed that the US would abide by the withdrawal agreement, the Taliban stepped up offensives across the country, overrunning rural districts at great speed as government forces crumbled, many simply laying down their weapons and surrendering. By early August, Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals were all virtually surrounded. With the prospect of a no-holds-barred battle for Kabul, the remaining foreign forces and diplomats hastened their evacuation efforts. In the end, the Taliban regained power much faster than even they had predicted. It took just ten days for all but a handful of provincial capitals to be overrun by the Taliban. By dawn on August 15, their fighters had reached the gates of Kabul.

For two weeks, victorious Taliban fighters guarded Kabul International Airport where foreign forces under the command of the US Army were airlifting as many as 10,000 people a day: foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists, but mainly Afghans, desperate to flee. Scores were killed, crushed in the crowd or shot by Taliban fighters trying to control access to the airport as tens of thousands attempted to make their way inside. An ISIS suicide bomber attacked, killing 180, including thirteen US troops. Days later, in an apparent bid to prevent a follow-up attack, a family home was struck by a Hellfire missile fired by an American drone. The ten victims, including eight children, were buried in a cemetery by the airport as the last American planes climbed into the sky leaving Afghanistan for good.

Andrew Quilty

Andrew Quilty would like to thank Le Monde and Le Figaro Magazine

Andrew Quilty

Follow on
See full archive