On 7 October 2001 the United States of America commenced air strikes against targets in Afghanistan associated with the ruling Taliban movement, and Osama Bin Laden's al‐Qaeda terrorist network which the Taliban had nurtured. Prompted by al‐Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon Building in Washington DC on 11 September 2001, these strikes resulted in the dispersal of the Taliban movement, the routing of al‐Qaeda forces, and the occupation of the Afghan capital Kabul by anti‐Taliban ‘United Front’ forces on 13 November 2001.
The outbreak of this conflict was actually the culmination of years of turbulence in Afghanistan, involving the progressive breakdown of the Afghan state in the period following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and the promotion by neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan, of surrogate forces after the collapse of communist rule in April 1992. The last such force was the Taliban movement, a mixture of Muslim students, former communists, and opportunistic members of the Pushtun ethnic group, which took shape in late 1994 and with backing from Bin Laden and Pakistan managed to seize Kabul in September 1996. This did not put an end to conflict: the forces of the ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’, despite their displacement from Kabul, retained control of the north‐east of Afghanistan, and continued to occupy Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations General Assembly. The armed forces of the Islamic State, led by former Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, formed the core of the ‘United Front’. However, the USA did not make any effort to cultivate these forces, despite al‐Qaeda attacks in August 1998 on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, preferring instead to seek to use the Taliban's patron Pakistan as an intermediary to secure the handover of Bin Laden for trial.
On 9 September 2001 Massoud was assassinated by two al‐Qaeda operatives posing as journalists. His death, however, did not lead to the fragmentation of his forces, which to Pakistan's consternation became principal partners in the US campaign to obliterate al‐Qaeda and the Taliban. The overthrow of the Taliban was accomplished with relative ease, for Pakistan, under intense US pressure, was obliged to abandon its backing for the movement, at which point the Taliban's lack of legitimacy left it with little in the way of concrete support, either normative or prudential. Air attacks using B‐52 bombers, AC‐130 gunships, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and 2,000‐pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions shattered Taliban morale. Cities across the north of Afghanistan fell to the United Front in a cascade from 9 to 13 November, and on 7 December, the Taliban abandoned their last stronghold, Kandahar, and their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, went into hiding. While mopping‐up operations, directed mainly at pockets of Arab and Pakistani extremists, continued into 2002, on 22 December 2001, a new ‘Afghan Interim Administration’, chaired by Hamed Karzai, was sworn into office in Kabul with the support of the United Nations and the international community.