On Dec. 8, after a 13 year-long military operation, the US and NATO ceremonially ended their combat mission in Afghanistan.
Operation Enduring Freedom had the dual objective of hitting back at al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts after the 9/11 attacks and rebuilding Afghanistan into a functioning state. Today, the Taliban is in the middle of a resurgence with the Afghan military taking unsustainable losses as they assume more of the country’s security burden.
It was against this backdrop that photographer Robert L. Cunningham returned to Afghanistan in order to capture the end of combat and the sense of the unknown that is now permeating both the Afghan and US military about what happens next.
Cunningham is one of a handful of people who have ever taken a Leica Monochrom, a black-and-white only digital camera, into a war zone. The majority of the following images are taken with the Monochrom, although not all of them.
Serving in Afghanistan was often exhausting, requiring soldiers to partake in gruelling 12-hour-long patrols.
The threat of a Taliban attack always loomed. Vehicles destroyed in past Taliban operations are stacked at a police headquarters in a reminder of the war's constant dangers.
The country's tenuous situation has not been lost on Afghan officials. Here, the governor of Khost Province meets with Afghan military advisors to discuss security operations after coalition troops leave.
In Laghman Province, senior Afghan Police officials try to plan logistics for the security of their province in conjunction with US advisers.
Aside from a small residual force of 13,000, the entirety of US and NATO forces are leaving the country.
The relationships that some servicemembers have formed with Afghan security officials -- who will now have to face the Taliban threat without coalition troops backing them -- makes leaving the country complicated.
Many servicemen are leaving behind deeply formed professional relationships. Here, an Afghan doctor and a US soldier share stories of their work together during their last meeting.
A former military US police officer, now home in the US, enunciates the difficulty of leaving the country behind: 'While I was in, I would seek out deployments, if I was here, I wanted to be there. I still sometimes want to go back, but with this little guy, my priorities shifted. I still miss it, though.'
Still, a sense of relief also permeates through service members who know they will probably never have to go back to Afghanistan again. Here, a US Army Staff Sergeant looks at a photo of his wife and child that he would carry into battle within his helmet. Both him and his wife were deployed in Afghanistan simultaneously in different regions.
The Afghans are trying to continue the lives that they built under the relative stability of NATO operations.
Here, a sword-maker operating in eastern Afghanistan since 2002 offers the photographer a 'friend price' on a specially-made knife.
As combat operations officially end, the security of Afghanistan falls upon the NATO-trained Afghan Police and Military.
Here, Captain Mahtabudin Safi stands in front of his aircraft at Jalalabad Airfield. Safi spent months training in the US ...
The end of the war means that tens of thousands of US troops will be returning home for good. Here, soldiers salute during the 'All Present and Accounted for' roll call before seeing their families again.
Here, a soldier greets his significant other upon the return to Fort Campbell, located in Tennessee and Kentucky.
In this photo, a US Army Captain holds hands with his wife a day after coming home from Afghanistan.
Not every service member comes home safe. In this photo, 16-year-old Samantha Ponder holds the starter pistol for the Snowball Express 5k in Franklin, Tennessee. Ponder and her sister founded the race in memory of their father, Tre Ponder, who was killed in action on June 28, 2005.
The horrors of conflict can forge unbreakable bonds. Here, two veterans attend the wedding of their former platoon leader years after serving in Afghanistan together.
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