A war that began as a mission to punish al-Qaida for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks evolved into an exhausting fight against a determined Taliban insurgency amid a nation-building effort aimed at transforming an impoverished, patriarchal country burdened by decades of conflict.
Written by David Zucchino
One of the first things the New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks witnessed after arriving in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after U.S. airstrikes on Oct. 7 opened the invasion, was the execution of a wounded Taliban fighter. The scene shocked him, upending everything he thought he knew about war and about the Afghan Northern Alliance — the U.S.-aligned fighters who had been his guides and protectors, and the Talib’s killers.
It was one fleeting episode in a rapid series of events that unfolded as Hicks accompanied Northern Alliance fighters, who soon drove the Taliban from Kabul with the help of U.S. airstrikes and Special Operations forces.
Hicks returned to Afghanistan more than 30 times over the next two decades, chronicling almost every chapter of a war that dragged on nearly 20 years. He photographed American troops in battle, the deaths of Afghan civilians in Taliban bombings, the disputed Afghan elections, schoolgirls attending classes, and the struggles of ordinary Afghans to survive violence, hunger and a conflict that often seemed endless and intractable.
A war that began as a mission to punish al-Qaida for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks evolved into an exhausting fight against a determined Taliban insurgency amid a nation-building effort aimed at transforming an impoverished, patriarchal country burdened by decades of conflict. Hicks was drawn back to Afghanistan by the intense personal relationships he formed with the people he worked with and by the country’s raw beauty. He became invested in the nation and the conflict — and was determined to follow the story wherever it led him.
A particularly searing memory for Hicks was witnessing the death of a U.S. soldier in 2009 in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The soldier was on patrol in front of Hicks when he was killed by a roadside bomb during a Taliban ambush. Later, after Hicks sent the family photos of the soldier, the man’s stepmother told Hicks how grateful she was that he had survived the attack unharmed.
His most recent assignment to Afghanistan, in July, brought Hicks full circle. He found himself near Bagram Air Base, where he had photographed the Northern Alliance’s execution of the Taliban fighter nearly 20 years earlier.
In 2001, Bagram was a wrecked former Soviet base that ultimately became the largest U.S. air base in Afghanistan. In July, the base was again being abandoned — this time by U.S. forces, whose last flight departed at night after the electricity had been cut and the base had been left strewn with detritus from the combat mission. Hicks wandered the base alone, taking photographs and encountering an occasional Afghan government soldier stunned by the Americans’ exit.
The Bagram photos were among the last Hicks took before leaving Afghanistan just before the Taliban swept into Kabul in mid-August, ending the war and the costly and conflicted American era.
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