In its early days, America’s war in Afghanistan consisted mostly of specialized units hunting Qaeda fighters as they fled across Afghanistan and into Pakistan. There were few of the typical trappings of past American land wars — no static bases with guard towers, no U.S.O. shows for entertainment.
But soon enough, the number of troops rose significantly and the missions they were assigned grew as well, sprawling ever wider over two decades in a war that consumed nearly 2,500 American lives and cost taxpayers $2.3 trillion.
To learn how those missions changed so drastically, we talked to nine current and former service members — most of whom did multiple tours — and asked what they had been sent to Afghanistan to do.
Weeks after the twin towers fell, Tony Mayne stepped out of a C-130 transport plane flying over southern Afghanistan on a moonless night in October.
He floated 800 feet down to the desert floor, then “hit like a sack of bricks,” he said. “As soon as my feet hit, my head hit shortly thereafter.”
Mr. Mayne, then a 25-year-old sergeant in the Third Ranger Battalion, and about 200 other soldiers packed up their parachutes and began searching for enemy fighters in a series of buildings nearby. Encountering little resistance, they quickly took over their target: a dirt airstrip called Objective Rhino.
“We were there no more than a few hours from jump to extraction,” he said.
It was the kind of mission the Rangers, a group of special light-infantry troops, were designed to carry out: a parachute jump at night to take over an enemy airfield with overwhelming force.
And it was the first major combat operation in the war in Afghanistan.
He returned home to Fort Benning, Ga., just before Christmas that year. But Mr. Mayne, who was medically retired as a major in December 2020, would deploy seven more times in what became known as the global war on terror, spending most of his 20-year career in combat.
When the war was in its first year, no one could be certain how long it would last. As a young first lieutenant at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Matt Komatsu, who is now a colonel in the Alaska Air National Guard, was concerned he might miss out on it.
But in August 2002, he was sent to Bagram, a massive air base that served as a hub for the small numbers of Americans searching for Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and Taliban fighters. When Mr. Komatsu arrived, the base still had not been cleared of old Soviet land mines, and just a single strand of barbed wire marked its perimeter.
For months, he led a team of intelligence specialists who talked to local Afghans in the hope of getting advanced warning of any potential attacks on Bagram. The work felt righteous.
Soon though, it became clear that many of his senior officers were shifting their priorities to someplace else. His commander relocated from Saudi Arabia to Qatar. And the military rations they ate at Bagram suddenly were in short supply. An officer explained that the food was being sent to Kuwait to prepare for an invasion of Iraq.
“At the time I could recall being very angry at what was going on,” Col. Komatsu, 44, said. “I felt like we were declaring victory in Afghanistan before we had a right to.”
“It felt like we had unfinished business there.”
Shortly after Mr. Komatsu left the country, Stephen Hopkins deployed to Afghanistan for the second time as a captain leading an Army Ranger platoon. Most of his battalion was held back at the last minute for the coming invasion of Iraq, leaving his company short-handed as they chased enemy fighters in Kunar Province.
By mid-2003, when American leaders declared major combat operations to be over in both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces in Afghanistan turned their attention toward nation-building and training local soldiers and police officers.
In 2007, Mr. Hopkins returned to Afghanistan for his fifth combat tour — this time as a Green Beret — and quickly found himself in a very different kind of war. Instead of special operations troops running the country, the conventional Army — with its heavy brigades of infantry troops and artillery battalions built to fight large-scale land battles — was in charge.
Small bases that had been left partly open to local Afghans were surrounded by tall concrete blast walls. And infantry commanders were looking for gunfights with the Taliban. “I started in 2002 thinking Afghanistan was a beautiful country, and in 2007 I’m fighting for my life,” said Mr. Hopkins, 50, who retired as a major in 2017.
To reduce the strain on Army units deploying repeatedly, Robert M. Gates, then the secretary of defense, directed the other branches of the armed forces to send sailors, airmen and Marines to fill in gapped positions. They were called I.A.s — individual augmentees — and many had specialties that did not naturally match the skills needed to fight a land war in Central Asia.
One of the I.A.s was Tim Patterson, a Navy lieutenant who had finished a tour on a nuclear-powered attack submarine in Groton, Conn. After a brief stint of Army training, he landed in Jalalabad in May 2009 to mentor Afghan police officers in the rural areas near the city.
The Afghan police stations he visited lacked working sewage systems, and even basic supplies like sandbags to protect officers from attack. At the Jalalabad police headquarters, Afghan police officers were growing marijuana in front of their counternarcotics office, he said. Once a month Mr. Patterson traveled to the American base to meet with the senior Army officers in charge of the area, but said they seemed uninterested in the corruption he saw daily.
“All they cared about was how many suspected Taliban we killed, how many airstrikes we launched and how much artillery we had fired,” Mr. Patterson, 41, recalled. “They showed zero interest in developing the Afghan Police.”
“Most of the U.S. Army units, their frame of mind was to stay alive, kill some bad guys and get out. And there was no attention to: Are we actually achieving anything?”
Around the time Mr. Patterson left Afghanistan in late 2009, with 50,000 American troops in the country, President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy for the war during a speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to wear the Taliban down, in the hope that he could then withdraw the forces relatively quickly.
Rob Imhoff, a Marine infantry lance corporal, watched the president’s address in a packed barracks room in Camp Lejeune, N.C. Days earlier, he had been in the field training. Two weeks later, he was in Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment and preparing for the invasion of Marjah — one of the Corps’ bloodiest battles in the war.
“We felt like we were about to do something big,” Mr. Imhoff, 31, remembered. His mission in early 2010 was briefed using the jargon of counterinsurgency: Clear. Hold. Build.
“First, we would go in very kinetic and aggressive and clear out the city, going door to door with Afghan soldiers until the whole city was cleared,” he recalled. “Then hold, to bring in the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to build up the security in the city. The long-term objective was to pass that over full time to the Afghan soldiers and police officers that we set up.”
After 10 days of fighting, the Marines had largely taken Marjah. Three weeks of relative calm followed. Then the Taliban came back.
The Marines continued to fight sporadically in Marjah for the rest of their deployment. A quarter of the 37 Marines in Mr. Imhoff’s platoon were wounded. Some of his fellow Marines were still shooting at Taliban fighters just hours before he lifted off in a helicopter to begin the trip home.
In 2012, First Lt. Matthew Archuleta arrived in Ghazni Province, having been inspired to seek out duty in Afghanistan by Mr. Obama’s speech during his senior year at West Point. The number of American forces in Afghanistan reached its high-water mark: 100,000.
“Our instructions were to partner with the Afghans, to lead the fight but train them to lead themselves,” recalled Mr. Archuleta, 34, who later became a Green Beret and left the Army as a captain in 2020. “It was always in my mind that we’re not going to be here forever, so we have to help them help themselves.”
By the time he left in September, Mr. Archuleta knew that eastern Afghanistan could easily come apart at the seams. “Based on the tribal differences there, it would be difficult to come up with a solution in a short amount of time,” he said.
The 303rd Military Police Company, a reserve unit from Michigan, deployed to Old Kandahar in 2012 and set up living quarters on a small Afghan police outpost.
Platt Weinrick, then a sergeant first class in the 303rd, said the unit’s superiors ordered the troops not to put up protective walls of sandbags outside of their tents, lest it send the wrong signal to their Afghan trainees.
His team arrived soon after one of the largest American atrocities of the long war, when a staff sergeant named Robert Bales wandered off a small patrol base in Kandahar Province and killed 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children. Mr. Weinrick feared the Afghan Police might try to exact some kind of revenge.
Just before 6 a.m. on June 19, a police officer sympathetic to the Taliban launched an attack. Amid the gunfire, Mr. Weinrick grabbed his assault rifle and began shouting orders. He was assisting a wounded medic when he heard multiple hand grenades rolling down the sloping sides of his small living quarters.
“A grenade detonates and I’m on the floor,” Mr. Weinrick, 45, said. “The tent collapsed around me.”
A metal fragment from one of those grenades is still lodged an inch from the back of his skull. It came to rest there after it destroyed his left eye and passed most of the way through his brain’s occipital lobe.
Mr. Weinrick said he gives that memory one day a year to come back.
“I only give it five minutes to overtake me,” he said. “I let my mind go, I’m away from my family. When it’s done, you lock back in and get back to life. And hope each year it gets better.”
The insider attack on his soldiers was the second of three that day in Afghanistan, he recalled. Such attacks killed 150 American and NATO troops from 2011 to 2014.
As Mr. Weinrick left the country bloodied and bandaged, lying in a metal bunk bed strapped to the deck of a cargo plane, the drawdown of U.S. forces was underway, even as the Taliban continued growing stronger.
Mercedes Elias arrived in Afghanistan as a 26-year-old Marine first lieutenant four months after a Navy SEAL team killed Bin Laden in Pakistan and his body was dumped in the ocean miles offshore. Her job was to track the movement of supplies to small outposts in southern Helmand Province, but that soon changed.
Just three months after deploying to a base called Camp Dwyer, Ms. Elias was fielding daily orders to send Marines back to the United States.
“I thought we came here to do a certain mission, and now you’re telling me we just need to start sending people back?” she remembered thinking at the time. “Why did we even come here to begin with?”
When she left Dwyer in April 2012, civilian contractors were still building new facilities that American forces would never use.
Eric Terashima arrived in Afghanistan in 2019 for his third tour, the same year that people born after the Sept. 11 attacks became old enough to enter the military.
Mr. Terashima, then a 50-year-old Marine colonel, was sent to a small base on the southern edge of Lashkar Gah, where he led about 90 Americans mentoring Afghan police officers, who would soon truly be on their own.
By autumn, Mr. Terashima’s mission had essentially wound down and his troops were ready to leave. But then the Taliban rocketed their base in Bost.
“When that happened, the generals decided the optics would look bad if we left after being attacked, so we stayed a little longer,” he recalled. “They didn’t want the Taliban to think if we got rocketed we’d leave.”
Soon after Mr. Terashima returned to the United States in February 2020, his old base was handed over to the Afghans.
A few months ago, he packed up his pickup truck for the 17-hour drive between his home in North Carolina and the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to pick up one of his former interpreters, an Afghan man who had reached out through Facebook to ask for help in getting out of the country before the Americans completed their withdrawal.
As he drove down the highway, Mr. Terashima was on the lookout for pharmacies so that he could wire money to seven other former interpreters who asked for financial assistance.
He set up an online fund-raiser so he and his wife would not have to keep paying for immigration expenses, and he doubled his goal twice as more interpreters reached out for help.
“I’m not sure that’ll be enough, but I’m committed to just taking care of my guys,” he said.