Skip to content
The Failures of Operation Enduring Freedom
Go to my account

The Failures of Operation Enduring Freedom

The chief aim in late 2001 should have been the swift destruction of al-Qaeda. That didn’t happen.

Nineteen years ago today, the U.S. military went to war in Afghanistan. It was not a war of America’s choosing. Prior to the 9/11 hijackings, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants planned a series of attacks on American interests, including the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings and the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Despite the obvious terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s founder and overall leader, Mullah Omar, repeatedly rejected America’s demands. Omar stood by bin Laden. After 9/11, Omar was undaunted in the face of America’s threat of retaliation, determining that he would rather lose his Islamic emirate, and trust in Allah’s will, than appease the world’s only superpower. 

In the popular telling, America’s immediate military response to 9/11 was an unequivocal success. A small contingent of 100 CIA officers and 300 U.S. Special Forces personnel were quickly deployed to Afghanistan, where they worked with the Taliban’s enemies in the Northern Alliance to pave the way for the U.S.-led invasion. That offensive quickly dislodged the Taliban from power and destroyed multiple al-Qaeda training facilities. 

But how successful was Operation Enduring Freedom, the military campaign that began on October 7, 2001, and formally ended 13 years later, in December 2014? Let me highlight three key failures of Operation Enduring Freedom. Keep in mind that this does not diminish the sacrifices made by the many Americans, Afghans, and allies who fought and died for the cause. Their service should be honored, even when we question or critique those who have led them.

First, the U.S. failed to kill Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other noteworthy senior al-Qaeda figures during the initial invasion. Mullah Omar, the Taliban emir who repeatedly defied the U.S., escaped justice as well. This is no small point. 

The chief aim in late 2001 should have been the swift destruction of al-Qaeda. That didn’t happen. Yes, some al-Qaeda leaders were killed or captured—but not nearly as many as the U.S. thought. More importantly, bin Laden and his No. 2, Zawahiri, escaped from their refuge in the mountains of Tora Bora. It took nearly 10 years for America to catch up with bin Laden. Zawahiri is still alive and, according to the U.S. military, currently living in eastern Afghanistan. (Other reports place Zawahiri somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but it is also possible that he has lived in less remote parts of Pakistan since 2001.) 

Bin Laden’s escape was a big deal. Not only did he prove that a small team of terrorists could puncture the illusion of American security, he also demonstrated an ability to outwit the most advanced war machine on the planet. The U.S. relied heavily on proxies and allies to hunt bin Laden in those early months, and that turned out to be a mistake. 

During the intervening years, bin Laden became a symbol for anti-American jihadists around the world. But he was not merely a figurehead. As I’ve written, during the last year and a half of his life, bin Laden did the following: He oversaw al-Qaeda’s “external work,” that is, its operations targeting the West; directed negotiations with Pakistani officials over a proposed ceasefire between the jihadists and parts of the government; ordered his men to evacuate northern Pakistan for safe havens in Afghanistan; instructed Shabaab in Somalia to keep its role as an al-Qaeda branch secret and offered advice concerning how its nascent emirate in East Africa should be run; received status reports on his fighters’ operations in at least eight different Afghan provincesdiscussed al-Qaeda’s war strategy in Yemen with the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other subordinates; received updates from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, including details on a proposed truce with the government of Mauritania and ransom negotiations; authorized the relocation of veteran jihadists to Libya, where they could take advantage of the uprising against Muammar al Qaddafi’s regime; corresponded with the Taliban’s leadership; and generally made decisions that impacted al-Qaeda’s operations everywhere around the globe.

That is, bin Laden oversaw a sprawling international network at the time of his death. 

It is true that al-Qaeda suffered many setbacks along the way, as well as in the years since bin Laden’s demise. But the organization evolved and grew in ways that America did not anticipate. 

Counterfactual scenarios are always difficult to assess, but a strong case can be made that had bin Laden, Zawahiri, and some other figures been eliminated in late 2001, al-Qaeda would have been all but destroyed. Today, Zawahiri commands the loyalty of much of the network that bin Laden bequeathed to him.

Second, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) failed to address the jihadists’ safe havens in Pakistan and Iran. The chief purpose of OEF was to end al-Qaeda’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan. It accomplished that—only for a time, however—but did not stop the jihadists’ from forming new bases elsewhere. The Pakistani government, America’s putative ally, was especially duplicitous. The Pakistanis did help the U.S. hunt down some senior al-Qaeda figures in the months and years immediately following the 9/11 hijackings. But others, including bin Laden, mysteriously evaded capture and found refuge near some of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment’s strongholds. Al-Qaeda facilitators continue to operate inside Pakistan to this day. More obvious has been the Pakistani state’s relationship with the Taliban, as much of the insurgency’s leadership has been safely ensconced in cities such as Quetta. 

The Iranians detained some fleeing al-Qaeda members, turning over a subset of them to their native countries, while allowing others to either go about their not-so-merry way or to continue operating inside Iran. Both al-Qaeda and the Taliban have known logistics networks inside Iran. The Sunni jihadists use these hubs to fuel the war in Afghanistan. 

Third, the insurgency gained steam in the years following the initial invasion. OEF is considered a success chiefly because it led the swift annihilation of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban’s emirate is on the verge of resurrection in at least parts of the country. The Trump administration is planning to withdraw American forces by April 2021, per an agreement with the Taliban that was signed in Doha on February 29. The Taliban called itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan throughout its talks with the U.S.—a clear sign that it has no intention of abandoning its longtime goal of conquering the entirety of the country.  

Despite ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, there is still no indication that the Taliban is willing to abandon its authoritarian aims and give up its quest to rebuild its emirate. The Taliban and its allies, including in al-Qaeda, got to this point by waging a relentless insurgency that OEF’s planners failed to fully anticipate. The U.S. did attempt a counterinsurgency campaign from late 2009 to 2012, but that effort was short-lived and plagued by erratic political leadership. 

The reasons for America’s failures in this regard are numerous, including incompetent and distracted leadership. But the leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda think that victory is close at hand. Their confidence is not misplaced.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal deal has been sold to the American people as a counterterrorism assurance. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Taliban is now our security guarantor, having supposedly agreed to prevent al-Qaeda or like-minded jihadists from using Afghan soil to plot against the West. There are multiple problems with the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances. 

For starters, it’s been more than seven months since that agreement was signed and there is no indication that the Taliban has broken with al-Qaeda, or intends to do so. Given the Taliban’s ongoing lies about al-Qaeda’s presence, and refusal to betray its blood brothers over the course of the past two decades, there is no good reason for anyone to take the group at its word. The Taliban hasn’t even expressed any remorse for having harbored al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. That is, the Taliban hasn’t come clean about its past or accepted responsibility for its actions. Instead, the Taliban continues to blame America for the war. This runs contrary to the claims made by the Taliban’s apologists, who insist that the group didn’t approve of al-Qaeda’s hijackings and don’t want the same type of attack to occur once again. But this specious argument is based largely on the word for former Taliban officials who had no power inside the group in 2001. This argument also ignores Mullah Omar’s revealed preference—he stood by Osama bin Laden even when the U.S. put Afghanistan in its crosshairs. No amount of apologia can undo that simple fact. If the Taliban truly disapproved of 9/11, then the group would issue a clear statement to this effect. It is telling that the Taliban refuses to do so. 

As I’ve written previously, the U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan without endorsing the Taliban as its counterterrorism partner. If the Taliban doesn’t betray al-Qaeda, and there is no evidence that it has or will, then the U.S. is effectively lying on the Taliban’s behalf. The U.S. is pretending that the Taliban is willing to do what it has never actually done—for no good reason. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban have only granted it legitimacy as a governing actor. 

If the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan rises once again, then the chief success of Operation Enduring Freedom will have been undone. 

Photograph by Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.