Slowly, slowly, then seemingly all at once. Just four months after President Biden announced he would withdraw the United States from Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken control of Kabul, almost 20 years since the group was ousted from power by NATO forces.

Few anticipated it would happen this fast. While there were warnings of a Taliban resurgence should the U.S. military withdraw, the past week has seen the group make stunning territorial gains, amassing control of the country with the seizure of one provincial capital after another, and then finally Kabul, in a sweeping surge over just nine days. The Afghan army, largely trained by U.S. forces but addled by exhaustion and corruption, was unable to hold the group back and, in many cases, walked away without firing a single shot.

Here’s how the situation unfolded starting with Biden’s announcement in April.

April 14

Biden, who inherited a deal struck by the Trump administration and the Taliban that the United States would leave Afghanistan by May, announced that he planned to move forward with that withdrawal.

“It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he said in a speech at the White House. At the time of his announcement, there were some 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The war has cost the U.S. government trillions of dollars, and more than 2,000 U.S. military members have died. At least 100,000 Afghan civilians have been injured or killed since 2009, when the United Nations began systematically documenting civilian casualties.

Biden planned a months-long withdrawal that would start in May and be completed by Sept. 11, on the anniversary of the attacks that prompted the U.S. invasion two decades ago. The administration would later move the deadline to Aug. 31.

May

As U.S. troops began withdrawing, the Taliban mobilized. By the beginning of May, the group had set up dozens of temporary checkpoints as well as more than 10 permanent outposts along the country’s main roads. The postings showed that the group was still powerful, even after 20 years of war, while also weakening Afghans’ faith in their own government.

By the end of May, U.S. airstrikes on the Taliban had decreased, and the Taliban launched waves of attacks on vulnerable provinces including Zabul, Ghazni and Logar, where the militants already controlled much of the rural territory. The attacks enabled the group to infiltrate the provinces’ government-controlled cities.

The war shifted to ground combat between Afghan forces and the militants. Hundreds of Taliban fighters massed in Helmand, a province in the country’s south, and launched an assault on the capital, Lashkar Gah, which the group would ultimately capture in less than three months.

July 2

Despite these advances, the withdrawal remained underway. On July 2, the United States announced it had vacated Bagram, its most important airfield in the country, 45 miles north of Kabul. The move marked a major step in the drawdown, as the base, which once housed tens of thousands of U.S. troops at the height of the war, was handed over to Afghan forces.

But the handoff was less than graceful. Afghan officials said the United States left without telling them, turning off the electricity and departing in the dead of night. The Pentagon said it had coordinated with high-level Afghan officials.

(Associated Press)

July 8

As the Taliban continued to make gains and security in Afghanistan appeared to be disintegrating, Biden defended his decision to vacate, saying that he expected there would be challenges and that it was time to bring the war to an end.

“I will not send another generation of Americans to war,” Biden said.

He added that the prospect of the “Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country” was “highly unlikely.”

(The Washington Post)

July 23

At the end of July, U.S. officials said they had conducted airstrikes to support Afghan forces trying to beat back the Taliban. Some strikes targeted Kandahar, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities and the birthplace of the Taliban. The next day, the top commander of U.S. forces in Kabul, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, announced that the United States was prepared to continue its air support as the Taliban made territorial gains.

Aug. 2

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, while addressing the country’s parliament, blamed the “abrupt” U.S. withdrawal for Afghanistan’s deteriorating security.

(Reuters)

Early August

By the beginning of August, the Taliban was advancing on territory it had not seized in two decades. The group launched assaults on two major Afghan cities, Kandahar and Herat, shooting rockets at their airports. The group had previously made gains only in rural areas. Now they were testing densely populated economic centers.

In Helmand province on Aug. 4, health officials saw injured patients, caught in the crossfire of increased fighting.

(Associated Press)

Aug. 6

The Taliban seized its first provincial capital: Zaranj, of Nimruz province, on the border with Iran. The city fell without a fight, as most of the Afghan forces fled the scene.

(Associated Press)

Aug. 7

One day later, the group overran another capital: Shebergan in the northwestern province of Jowzjan.

Aug. 8

The next day, Taliban forces moved through three more cities in the north: Kunduz and the capitals of Sar-e Pol and Takhar provinces. In Kunduz, fighters overran a prison and released Taliban militants, who joined their ranks and helped with the assault. Hundreds of Afghan troops hid out in a military base on the edge of the city, but ultimately surrendered three days later.

Aug. 9

The momentum continued as the Taliban took Aybak, the capital of Samangan province, without a fight, cementing power in the north.

Aug. 10-11

Then, the militants took the capitals of the provinces Badakhshan in the north, Farah in the west and Baghlan, some 160 miles from Kabul.

On Aug. 10, President Biden doubled down on the withdrawal amid the chaos, telling the press, “I do not regret my decision.”

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials who had initially warned that Kabul could fall within six to 12 months after the U.S. departure said the capital could now fall in as soon as a month. Kabul would fall in less than a week.

(Associated Press)

Aug. 12-13

The fall of Kabul began to seem all but inevitable on Aug. 13, after the Taliban had overrun Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, as well as the city of Lashkar Gah in the southwest.

As the situation spiraled, the U.S. government on Aug. 12 announced it would send some 3,000 combat troops to help evacuate diplomats, civilians and Afghans who helped the United States during the war.

Other international embassies also had made plans to shutter their doors and evacuate diplomats and civilians.

Aug. 14

The Biden administration authorized more troops to help with evacuation efforts, bringing the number to approximately 5,000, as Taliban fighters reached the outskirts of Kabul, the seat of the Afghan government.

As more provinces and capitals around the country fell, Ghani appeared muted in an address to the nation, saying he was “aware of the situation in Afghanistan,” which “is in serious danger of instability.”

(Reuters)

Aug. 15

The next day, Taliban forces entered Kabul, and Ghani fled the country, signaling the collapse of the government. Nine days after seizing its first provincial capital, the group appeared to have taken control of virtually the entire nation.

As countries scrambled to evacuate people from the Kabul airport, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the U.S. withdrawal.

“The president made the determination that it was time to end this war for the United States, to get out of the middle of a civil war in Afghanistan and to make sure that we were looking at our interests across the world,” he said on ABC News.

(ABC)

Blinken said U.S. Embassy personnel in the fortified Green Zone were being relocated to the Kabul airport for safety reasons.

Night settled in Kabul, and Taliban fighters milled about in the presidential palace. They sat behind what was Ghani’s desk just a few hours earlier and clustered in a room that looked set up for negotiations.

As the world watched, a member of the Taliban took down the flag of Afghanistan hanging within the palace walls, rolled it up and set it to the side.

Al-Jazeera on Aug. 15 aired footage of Taliban fighters inside the Afghan presidential palace. Earlier in the day, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. (Al-Jazeera via AP)
About this story

Project editing by Reem Akkad. Video editing by Jayne Orenstein and Jason Aldag. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Graphics editing by Chiqui Esteban. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Design by Irfan Uraizee.