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The Afghan War: A Photographer’s Journal

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 Mr. Hicks accompanied Northern Alliance fighters, who soon drove the Taliban from Kabul with the help of American airstrikes and Special Operations forces.

Mr. 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 Qaeda 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Hicks was witnessing the death of an American soldier in 2009 in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The soldier was walking on patrol in front of Mr. Hicks when he was killed by a roadside bomb during a Taliban ambush. Later, after Mr. Hicks sent the family photos of the soldier, the man’s stepmother told Mr. Hicks how grateful she was that he had survived the attack unharmed.

His most recent assignment to Afghanistan, in July, brought Mr. 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 American air base in Afghanistan.

In July, the base was again being abandoned — this time by American 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. Mr. Hicks wandered the base alone, taking photographs and encountering an occasional Afghan government soldier stunned by the unannounced American exit.

The Bagram photos were among the last Mr. 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.

Those photographs, along with other striking images taken over two decades, are below:

INVASION, OCTOBER 2001

Northern Alliance fighters looking into a Taliban-controlled village from the frontline village of Ghorbond.

Northern Alliance fighters on a tank in Jabul Seraj.

Northern Alliance fighters inspecting the destroyed home of a woman who was killed by an American bomb dropped on the Northern Alliance-controlled village of Ghani Khil.

THE ADVANCE, NOVEMBER 2001

Northern Alliance fighters cruise through Kabul, the capital, after meeting scant resistance as they entered the capital. Most of the Taliban had already fled south.

A Northern Alliance fighter who was shot in the chest taking his last breaths in Maidan Shar, 20 miles southwest of the capital.

A Northern Alliance fighter on the mountainous front line in the Salang Pass.

After he begs for his life, they shoot him in the chest.

The fighters haul the Talib’s body away.

Thousands of American soldiers expand the Bagram base.

An Afghan soldier at a cave in the Tora Bora region, where Osama bin Laden’s trail runs cold.

Women waiting to vote at a mosque in Kabul.

Hamid Karzai wins the election with over 50 percent of the vote.

Charlie Company was ambushed in a valley by the Taliban just before dark while on patrol.

Charlie Company being picked up by helicopter at the completion of the two-week operation.

An Afghan National Police officer. The American government poured billions of dollars into training and equipping the Afghan security forces.

A prayer before a Thanksgiving meal for soldiers of the 82nd Airborne.

THE CASTLE, 2008

Combat Outpost Lowell, an isolated American and Afghan base known as “the castle,” near Kamu in Nuristan Province.

Medics work to save the life of an Afghan cook who was wounded in an insurgent mortar attack.

An Afghan National Army soldier being trained by American Marines during an insurgent ambush near Kamu.

KORENGAL, 2009

An American patrol in the Korengal Valley, a sanctuary for Taliban fighters.

An American soldier injured by a falling boulder during a patrol in the mountains of the Korengal.

Soldiers at the Korengal outpost during a memorial service for Pfc. Richard Dewater, 21, killed by a bomb while on patrol.

ELECTION, 2009

Afghans line up to vote in Kabul in the presidential race, on a day of scattered attacks by the Taliban.

Mr. Karzai wins a second term in 2009 after a contested and drawn-out election that deeply embittered his relations with the United States.

An injured man is rushed from outside the NATO force’s headquarters and the Ministry of Transportation in Kabul after a car bomb exploded.

SURGE, 2010

American Special Forces soldiers take a fatally wounded Afghan National Army soldier to a Black Hawk medevac helicopter in Kandahar Province.

Marines with Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, work to clear an area in Marja, Helmand Province, that had been a source of ambushes.

Soldiers digging through the rubble after a bomb destroyed an outpost in Kandahar Province. Six Americans were killed.

NEAR THE PAKISTAN BORDER, 2011

American soldiers in the Charbaran Valley, an arid, high-elevation valley in Paktika Province that served as a transit area for militants who cross over from Pakistan.

A U.S. Army unit of the 77th Field Artillery fires a 105-millimeter artillery barrage toward a Taliban rocket position near the Pakistan border.

Soldiers were brought in by helicopter to sweep and search an area under control of the Haqqani network of the Taliban, in the hope of preventing more attacks on Kabul.

THE AIR WAR, 2012

American F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters after takeoff from the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis in the North Arabian Sea, en route to Kandahar Province for a combat mission.

On the flight deck of the Stennis.

An F/A-18F fighter refueling from a KC-10 over Kandahar Province.

AMERICAN DRAWDOWN, 2013

Afghan National Army soldiers recover a vehicle that was attacked and disabled turning a Taliban ambush in Sangin District, a hostile focal point for the militant group in northern Helmand Province.

Afghan soldiers pray in a makeshift mosque at the brigade headquarters in Sangin District.

A bullet-riddled guard post at the Afghan National Army’s brigade headquarters in Sangin.

THE COLLAPSE, 2021

Militia fighters gathering in Mazar-i-Sharif in July to receive instructions to defend the city against a Taliban attack. The city, once a stronghold of the Northern Alliance, was overrun by the Taliban only a few weeks later.

Bagram Air Base was all but deserted in July after the American departure from the base, once home to thousands of troops.

A passenger awaiting security clearance at a Herat checkpoint. The Taliban would soon seize the city, Afghanistan’s third-largest.