The U.S. and other NATO forces on October 7, 2001 attacked al-Qaida extremists and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan, less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks. That military operation drove the Taliban from power. But the conflict that began so promisingly 10 years ago is still going on - the longest war in U.S. history.
Few expected the Taliban government in Afghanistan to fall as quickly as it did 10 years ago. But equally surprising, NATO forces are still fighting Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents 10 years later. It was in late 2001 that Afghan forces, aided by a U.S. bombing campaign, drove the Taliban from Kabul. But then Taliban and al-Qaida leaders fled into the mountains of Tora Bora, escaped into Pakistan and the fighting has raged ever since. Critics blame the escape on the lack of sufficient allied troops in the country - a criticism NATO itself recognizes.
"There were a number of mistakes that were made over the years, and definitely in the years before 2009," said General Carsten Jacobson, ISAF spokesman. "I would say the first one was to underestimate the Taliban because we were blinded by the success that we had in 2001 and 2002. We didn’t bring enough forces into the country."
Without enough allied troops to stop them, Taliban fighters began slipping back into Afghanistan and regaining territory. NATO forces could do little but hold on. In 2003, the U.S. also switched its attention to a new war - in Iraq.
That, too, ran into problems, after initial success, until U.S. forces adopted counter-insurgency tactics, sent more troops and began training local security forces, including former insurgents. That seemed to work. NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan took notice.
"Lessons were drawn out of Iraq," said General Jacobson. "The right lessons were drawn out of Iraq and basically it was becoming very clear by the end of 2008 and through 2009 that something had to be done to defeat the insurgency and in parallel to build up security forces."
In addition, U.S. President Barack Obama shifted attention back to Afghanistan. More troops arrived in 2009.
And the build up of Afghan security forces also increased, coupled with an aggressive program using unmanned drone planes to strike at insurgent havens in Pakistan's border region. In a visit to Afghanistan before stepping down as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen had this to say:
"The enemies of Afghanistan and those who seek nothing more than to strike out against our coalition have been dealt heavy blows over the last year," he said. "They’ve been pushed out of sanctuary. They’ve been denied influence over local populations. They’ve been hounded and they’ve been hunted. Their leaders killed or captured by the score."
But in the same speech, Mullen said those successes are fragile and could be reversed. The insurgents are now focusing on high profile attacks, car bombings and assassinations. But there also are some efforts toward reaching a negotiated settlement.
"You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies," General Jacobson explained. "At the end of the day, peace has to be found with those who had a reason to take up the insurgency, to take up weapons and to fight the development of Afghanistan."
Several NATO nations with troops in Afghanistan plan to end their combat role there by 2014. Until then, the fighting continues and Afghanistan remains a nation at war.