My guest today is Andrew Quilty, an Australian photojournalist, investigative journalist, and author. Andrew is the recipient of eight Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley, for his work in Afghanistan, where he has been based since 2013. He joined me to discuss his recently published book, August in Kabul: America’s last days in Afghanistan, which is an intimate and deeply personal account of the fall of Kabul and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August last year. Andrew was one of a handful of foreign journalists who remained in Kabul to witness and document this event.
Some other topics we covered are:
- Andrew’s exit from Afghanistan
- Reflection on the birth and message of Andrew’s book ‘August in Kabul’
- Hedging your bets as a means of survival in Afghanistan
- The reality faced by everyday Afghans after the fall of Kabul
- Reflection on the support for the Taliban throughout Afghanistan
- The muddy nature of relationships across front lines
- Why the Afghan government collapsed so quickly on 15 August 2021
- The US-Taliban agreement in Doha
- Impact of US military and logistical support withdrawal on the Afghan National Security Forces
- Government lack of legitimacy in the eye of everyday people
- The fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021 as observed from the ground
- Survivor guilt and hardships of refugees
- ISIS Kabul Airport attack and hell at Abbey Gate
- US drone strike and impact of collateral damage
- The reality and challenges of regime change
- Andrew’s future
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Andrew Quilty – ‘August In Kabul’ And The Return Of The Taliban
My guest in this episode is Andrew Quilty, who’s an Australian photojournalist, investigative journalist, and book author. He is the recipient of eight Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley for his work in Afghanistan, where he has been based since 2013. He also received the George Polk Award, the World Press Photo Award, and the Overseas Press Club of America Award. This is Andrew‘s second appearance on the show. We spoke for the first time merely months before the fall of Kabul about life in Afghanistan and his insights as an investigative and photojournalist.
However, Andrew joins me to discuss his first book, August in Kabul, which is an intimate and deeply personal account of the fall of Kabul and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. Andrew was one of a handful of foreign journalists who remained in Kabul to witness and document this event. In total, Andrew has spent nearly a decade in Afghanistan reporting on the human cost of this war and its impact on those afforded the least attention, everyday Afghans. Andrew, welcome back to the show.
Thanks for having me, Maz.
It’s been a turbulent year or so since the last time we spoke. Now, you’re in Australia. When and how did you get out of Kabul?
I got out of Kabul for the first time in late 2021 following the Taliban’s return in November. I spent the couple of months that followed the Taliban’s return, first of all, getting through the couple of weeks that followed the takeover and came before the final American evacuation flight on the 31st of August 2021. For two months following that, I was researching and reporting for the book. I got out around the 1st of November 2021.
Was that the last time you’d been in Afghanistan?
No. I returned in late April 2022 to pack up my things, and I left in late May.
Was getting in and out for you a major challenge?
It was more of a challenge than it had been in the past. The flights into and out of Afghanistan now are more difficult than in the past, but it’s not impossible.
You should have the right passport.
The right passport and working out where to get visas, and so on. These days, it’s all become a little bit more complicated for obvious reasons. You can’t book flights to Afghanistan now online. You have to book them through an agent in Kabul and then pay them in cash once you’re there. It’s all a little bit more complicated than it has been.
You pay them in cash there. You’re arriving there on their good trust that you’ll turn up and pay, but I suspect they’ll probably have ways and means of finding you if you weren’t to fulfil your part of the bargain. I’ve finished your book, August in Kabul. Congratulations on your first book. This is incredible. I can’t believe it’s your first book, to put it that way. It’s well-written. It is so emotionally loaded.
It’s a timely reflection on what both you’ve experienced, but also what the people of Afghanistan have experienced for the past 40-plus years and continue to experience now. It’s a very powerful way to force us to reflect both on our role and responsibility and our moral duty as the West, given our longstanding involvement in that country.
It’s a timely reminder not to forget Afghanistan, which as we all undoubtedly touch on, has happened to many, at least. The title of the book makes it explicitly clear what the book is about, but what motivated it, and maybe even more importantly, what is the key message that you’re trying to send to the book?
I had been talking about writing a book for 12 or 18 months before I started writing this one with Melbourne Uni Press. We’ve been passing ideas back and forth during that time. The original idea I had was going to be something more along the lines of the rural Afghan experience of the war, which was an experience that I always felt didn’t get the coverage that it warranted but which told a central theme of the war that rural Afghan experience.
It’s because of the way in which those who lived in rural Afghanistan experienced the war and how they responded to it. Also, the way, very broadly speaking, they did respond to it was by a proportion of that population taking up arms and ultimately defeating the multinational military force that entered Afghanistan in 2001.
After the Doha Agreement was signed in February 2020, things started to decline from the point of view of the Afghan government, and the international military mission started to wind down from their point of view as well. As that reached its crescendo in the middle of last year, and as the Taliban’s military momentum gained speed through the spring and early summer of 2021 to the point that it became quite obvious that they were going to reach Kabul. Also, at some time or another, they were almost inevitably going to take control of the country again.
At that point, it became clear to me that while the original idea for the book that I had or the idea of the theme that I had was important, it wasn’t as urgent as that which it ended up being very much a focused account on the final chaotic days of the internationally-backed Afghan central government and the return of the Taliban and the equally chaotic final withdrawal of the international forces, not only international forces but the vast majority of their diplomatic missions.
Also, a large proportion of the Afghans who had helped those military and diplomatic missions along the way over the years, and others who had, by virtue of work that they had done over the past several years, were in the crosshairs of the incoming Taliban. Why? That was such a poignant end to a twenty-year war that was so full of folly and an almost fitting finale for the war. Purely from a commercial sales point of view, this was the story that most urgently needed to be retold. I suppose the analyses of what led up to that can come with time.
What do you want the reader of the book to walk away with when they read the last page? I know what I felt when I read it when I finished it, but have you given that any thought? It’s because I know you’ve written it very quickly, but inevitably there is a lot of you in this book and a lot of your own sentiment. What is that piece that you want the audience to or that you hope the reader will walk away with?
It’s not common for a book to be written in the hope that a reader will walk away with a sense of futility, but I suppose it’s not that I set out to want to impart that to readers, but by virtue of the events and the way they occurred. That is the takeaway and the point of it all. I don’t answer that question. I don’t know if there is an answer to that question. If there is, it’s probably different for everyone and anyone. For me personally, I was left looking to God, saying, “What was it all for?” It’s very difficult to answer that question because twenty years after it all began, it’s more or less back to square one.
I had a recent guest who you’ve put it quite neatly. We’ve spent twenty years replacing the Taliban with the Taliban, which is a very simple sentence to say, but that has come at a very significant cost. The reason I asked you that question is because it’s exactly what the book left me with. It’s the why. What was it all for? Not only from us as the militaries that have gone over to our part but for the people of Afghanistan who’ve been on this continuous journey of reinventing who they’re going to be. In fact, that was one of those things that came through for me in the book.
There was one example. It’s not even one of the main characters you discussed, but it was the character of Rahimullah, a 58-year-old farmer who lived next to a doomed ANA outpost but who was forced to maintain good relations with both the ANA as well as the Taliban. We’ve touched on this before, but I don’t think this is an aspect of that war that is discussed enough.
There’s this seeming fence-sitting in rural Afghanistan that we in the West, broadly speaking, judged or have judged harshly. Can you maybe describe from your intimate understanding of rural Afghanistan why this seeming fencing-sitting was part and parcel of life in Afghanistan, especially outside of Kabul and the city centres?
It’s really simple. It was a survival mechanism where you had to maintain good relations with those on both sides of the conflict because, on the one hand, you had the day-to-day machinations of the war, and whether the front lines would change constantly. By virtue of the nature of the style of the Taliban war being an insurgency, whether the Taliban would make use of the local populations in order to position themselves militarily and to sustain themselves with not only sustenance but in order to keep their military suppliers going.
The people, whether they favoured one side or the other politically, didn’t have a choice in whether they were a party to what the Taliban needed of them. It’s because he who has the gun calls the shots. It simply wasn’t an option for a powerless farmer or family in a rural district of Afghanistan, where the war came and went for many years to make a political stand. If it wasn’t going to harm you, one day, it eventually would.
Both on the day-to-day level but also more thinking long-term once the power in Kabul changed, or if the power of the central government changed hands that one day the day-to-day shifts in the war would be formalised. That would create an opportunity for the opposition, in this case, the Taliban at one time, now the central government to crack down on those who were seen to be opposing them over the years. This caused all sorts of problems for these people themselves. It’s because they didn’t have a choice in the matter.
When they were bought in by the ANA over the last 5, 6, 7, 8 years or before that by the international forces, they’d been complicit in working with the Taliban, but what choice did they have? That was equally frustrating and difficult to handle for those international forces who, as you said, probably found it difficult to understand why you would stand with this side and not be able to see the nuances of the situation and the need for this survival mechanism. It’s because these people have been through this countless times before, and it’s ultimately about survival.
That’s another answer to your previous question. The theme of this book is about survival any way you can and the apparent lengths that some people go to ensure their survival, and the extreme risks that others will take to do so. As I explained in the book, in several instances, that comes with horrific results, death, and failure to survive.
Your choice of characters to tell that pain and to individualise that pain was very powerful. How did you choose the individuals whose stories make up the book? I’ve heard either elsewhere or read, maybe even in the book, that you’ve done over 100 interviews in preparation for it. You selected a number of stories that make the backbone of the book.
I have more than 100 interviews, and many of them were with the characters who make up the bulk of the book, and others were with those who contributed to my understanding of the circumstances. While they may not be included themselves, they were also characters that I considered using, but who, for one reason or another, didn’t flesh out the broad experience or the broadest experience of this time and place.
To answer your question, I wanted to present the perspectives of a broad range of people who went through this time in this place. I was adamant that I wanted a young woman who had benefited from the past several years, who had received a good education, and who had hopes of studying in university and going into a professional career who would obviously be faced with significant obstacles in the future under a Taliban government.
I wanted fighters from both sides, from the Afghan government, the security forces, and the Taliban. I also wanted to hear from people within the government who were eyewitnesses to the collapse of the palace and the central government. I also wanted to hear from people who were involved in the evacuation in the end, including American service members.
Again, every one of those stories, as you rightly point out, it’s a cross-section of society, and at least in Kabul, no one remained unaffected but the young female, Nadia, that you write about, her story is particularly telling because of the internal family dynamics that the takeover of Taliban caused. Without giving away the complete narrative, can you give us the wavetops of her story because even the problems she faced are sufficient without even knowing the outcome? What type of challenges are we talking about?
This is exactly the character or the circumstances I was describing before, where individuals make seemingly abhorrent decisions in order to ensure their survival or the survival of their family. This was one of them. Nadia was 19 years old in 2021. She grew up in a family that came from a rural part of Afghanistan, but the men in the family, including her father, had always been aligned with the government.
Her father, with the Soviet-backed government in the ’80s, with whom he worked as a policeman, and her brother, in the post-2021 period, also worked as a policeman for the internationally-backed government. For that reason, the family was under a lot of pressure from the Taliban. They first fled Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power in the 1990s because of Nadia’s father’s work with the Soviet-backed administration.
They did the same in 2015 and this time because of her brother’s association with the government at that time and the same pressure that came once again from the Taliban or the new iteration of the Taliban. They eventually came back to Afghanistan. Her brother, the policeman, had since made his way to Europe in 2015 with what we refer to as the migration crisis that year. They felt that there was a level of security in that.
For that reason, they came back to Afghanistan thinking the object of the Taliban’s threats was no more. They left their house in rural Afghanistan. They moved into Kabul where they could hide in plain sight amongst the 5 or 6 million residents there. With that said, they were still very conscious of the threat. They weren’t entirely sure that although the brother was no longer in the picture, the threat was completely diminished.
Every year or so, they would move house in order to stay ahead of the threat within Kabul. However, once the Taliban returned to Kabul and to power appeared inevitable and imminent, they started to worry that where previously they had been able to run from the threat of the Taliban, they would no longer be able to run. Once the Taliban came to Kabul, would they be able to hide? Nadia’s father started to try to come up with ways of mitigating the threat. The plan that they came up with was to hand Nadia over as a bride to a Taliban fighter in order to appease the threat that still existed.
That thought alone is scary, and that this is a decision a father would make is beyond our rational comprehension. I also think Nadia ultimately ends up forgiving her father, at least in part, for making those choices because she also understood that the reason he was making those choices was to give the family a chance of surviving, which is a telling narrative of what the entire book is about. It’s to survive in whichever way you can. How widespread do you think that story is for the average Afghan woman, at least in Kabul?
I wouldn’t say it’s widespread, but it’s certainly not extremely isolated either. The organisation that helped Nadia under her circumstances was inundated with similar cases so it’s not unheard of. Afghanistan has a culture of almost trading women as commodities into marriage, and Nadia’s circumstances are a lot more loaded with threats and awful possibilities and almost as a bargaining chip. I suppose it’s less unheard of in the context of Afghan culture than it is to us in the West. I suppose maybe that has something to do with why Nadia was able to forgive her father for an act that to you or me seems completely implausible and unthinkable.Afghanistan has a culture of almost trading women as commodities into marriage. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting, and this adds another shade to the grey that is Afghanistan that we try to make so black and white coupled with what we talked about before about the hedging of bets for survival in rural Afghanistan. Did we promise too much? Did we try too much? Was this all hubris on, broadly speaking, the Western account of taking Afghanistan and making it a democratic republic? In other words, what percentage of Afghans wanted what we were selling as opposed to what the Taliban was offering? That’s a hard question.
It’s a hard one to answer. The Taliban wasn’t without support. They wouldn’t have been victorious without a level of community support, that’s for sure. However, I don’t think you would find many people now in Afghanistan who would be satisfied with the Taliban’s capacity for governance. I don’t think you would find anyone who lived through the Taliban’s reign in the ’90s through 2021 who was satisfied with their capacity to govern.
With that said, what was appealing about the Taliban and what is still appealing about the Taliban now to some is their hierarchy and their adherence to conservative cultural norms in Afghanistan, and the perception that they’re less corrupt than the previous government. However, regardless of all the imperfections of the previous government, some of the benefits that people enjoyed under their reign admittedly, it probably wouldn’t have happened without the enormous level of international support.
Particularly, the financial support and development support that came in that time, which simply won’t happen during the Taliban’s time. It didn’t during the Taliban’s previous time because they’ll never have the level of international legitimacy that the 2001 to 2021 government did and all the support that came with that.
I find it interesting that you said that they or many Afghans found the Taliban less corrupt, which again speaks to a narrative. There’s also an interesting part where you talk about in the book of the attitudes of those installed in the Afghan government post the initial victory in 2001. You described some of those as holding various grievances or who had returned from exile and now saw an opportunity to either make a profit or exact revenge on those with whom they had some grievance.
Can you describe that a little bit, because that strikes me as a particularly important point? When I think about or when I reflect on my personal experiences of the Balkans in Bosnia about this kind of elite capture, it strikes me as a rather important point about instilling belief in the justness and righteousness of the installed Afghan government.
There’s always been a perception from our point of view in the West that very basically and generally, the Afghan Republic was the good and the Taliban was the bad.
That’s a rather neat packaged narrative, isn’t it?
It is. Whereas, on the ground, it was a lot more nuanced to the Afghan government and its international supporters were responsible for and complicit in all sorts of crimes, both financial fraud, alleged war crimes, opium smuggling and production, profiteering, and deliberate mismanagement of logistics. It was a war economy, and they’re so liable to be exploited, and it was.
Again, it’s for your own survival.
I met a guy working at a bookshop who wanted to talk to me because his father had worked in Afghanistan ostensibly for the EU, but according to this guy, he said his father was responsible for making payments from the US military to the Taliban to ensure safe passage along one particular route. This is not breaking news. The Australian military paid Matiullah Khan, the Police Chief in Uruzgan basically the same kind of kickbacks, but it was $1,200 per logistics truck from Kandahar Airfield to Tarīnkōṭ, ensuring its safe passage.
However, he was a warlord.
If the same had happened on the other side, we would look at it differently because of that whole good and evil polarity of that.
Also, how prone we are to seeing our side as good and the other side as bad. Our own biases will certainly very much lend a hand in painting that picture.
People played both sides of it. There were certainly people who profited, particularly drug smugglers, and drug barons whose own interest was selling their product, and they would work with whoever they had to in order to ensure that they got paid, whether it be the former government or the Taliban. The Taliban profited out of opium while they were in opposition because so much of the production happened in areas under their control, while the government also profited from it, because to get it out of the country, it had to go through areas under their control so they would tax it or take a cut. The waters are incredibly muddy.
How and why did the Afghan government collapse then so quickly? It had its fingers in multiple pies in interpersonal relationships across the front lines, so to speak. They kept a status quo of sorts, or am I misguided that there was never a status quo? Was this all a screen, a mirage of our own wishful thinking? The way it collapsed was incredible. I want to touch on it. You were out of the country up until the last day before the republic collapsed, but based on what you’ve seen, how do you explain it?
There are probably several answers to that. Militarily, when you look back at it in hindsight, the Taliban’s ascendancy seems to develop almost in lockstep with the withdrawal of international forces. That first started in 2011 when Obama’s surge ended and that point at which there were 150,000 international troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Once that started to decline, you saw the ledger start to shift.
That started to quicken after 2014 when the international conventional military mission came to an end. You started to see it creep up to almost parody in favour of the government in terms of territorial control. It found an equilibrium there where you had the government controlling about 60% of the country and the Taliban maybe 25% or 30%, and the rest was contested.
After the signing of the Doha Agreement with all the limitations that were placed on Afghan forces and the international military mission, particularly on the air support allowed to provide it, started to creep up towards the parody. After Biden’s April 14 announcement in 2021 that the withdrawal would pick up the pace and conclude ultimately on the 31st of August, that’s when it started to shift. Particularly, the capacity of American air support declined. That’s when it started to tilt so quickly in the favour of the Taliban.
The Taliban saw that they would attack, and there would be no response as there had always been from US air support. Where once they would attack and then retreat, they’d attack and attack and take one outpost at a time until they were swarming all these rural districts to the point that they had pretty much every provincial capital surrounded by the end of July more quickly than even they could have predicted.
Once that momentum got to a certain point, it was almost impossible to halt, so much so that I heard numerous stories of district centres that were abandoned by government forces before the Taliban could even reach there. The momentum was such that the Taliban couldn’t even keep up with their momentum. The government would collapse in the face of that momentum before it even reached them.
The reasons for that are complex as well, not only were the Americans unable to provide air support as they once had been. They weren’t able to provide maintenance for the Afghan Air Force. The Afghan Air Force was trying to fill the whole left by the US Air Force, and they were also trying to keep their aircraft in the air, which was a task that had always fallen to international maintenance contractors.
The Afghan Air Force and the military, more broadly, weren’t sustainable enough to function without the support of the international backers who built it in their own mould. That mould had a foundation built over decades and decades with unlimited budgets that the Afghans did not have. Militarily, that’s how it happened.
What also quickened that process was the lack of belief that the Republican military forces had in the government that they were defending. Also, the government’s lack of conviction in providing the support that their military needed to defend them and simply their inability to do so. In the end, it happened more quickly than it may have because rather than fight and die to protect their government, why do so for a cause that not only you didn’t believe in but didn’t believe in you, and so it collapsed?
It’s scary. The house of cards came down. It’s the truism of, “You’ve got the watches. We’ve got the time,” which we’ve heard time and time again coming from the Taliban in one form or another or at least to describe Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. It has proven to be very accurate again. There was patient waiting, and once the timelines were set, it was the 31st of August. We’ve just got to hold out until the 31st of August, and then it’s game over and pulling out the principal support.
When you then superimposed over the top of that, the corruption, the interpersonal connections, the need to survive, and everything else that we’ve spoken about, it was a mirage that evaporated. I want to zero in now on the 15th of August. As I mentioned, you were in France up until the 14th, I believe. In fact, I was sending you a WhatsApp message to see where you are and how you’re doing. Around that time, you said you were in Paris at a wedding, trying to get back in. Why did you return, and how was that return for you on the 14th?
I left Paris on the 13th, and I got back on the afternoon of the 14th. There are a few reasons why I chose to. I felt this was going to be a decision that I would have to live with for the rest of my life. I thought, if I don’t go back, I’ll regret it forever regardless of what happened, and I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.
Rather than just because of the responsibilities I felt I had as a journalist that had been there for eight years by that point, the sense of responsibility that I had to be there at this time for this momentous event and this event looked like it was inevitable at this point. It was going to be the biggest “news story” in many years in Afghanistan. Also, a huge moment in history more broadly. More than that, it was because of the people that were still there, including the friends who both could leave if they wanted to. Some of whom did, but more importantly, those who couldn’t leave or would have great difficulty doing so.
That included friends and colleagues of mine, both foreign and Afghan, but also the couple of people that worked at my house and even my dog. The guy I paid rent to for the house and things that I could sense through the communications I was having with them that they didn’t feel like I was going to come back. I could sense the worry in their voices. I felt like not going back wasn’t an option, even as sentimentally to show some solidarity by going through whatever was to come with them, rather than watching it from the safety of France or whatever it was.
Did it help those in your immediate vicinity?
Speaking to one of the members of staff that worked at my house, I was able to help him get to the airport and get out of the country. I played a very small part in that, along with several others who were overseas and orchestrating plans for hundreds of people to get out of the country. Certainly, it’s not to say that it couldn’t have happened if I wasn’t there, but certainly, for my own benefit, I was glad that I was able to help.
I hope it made them feel a little bit more assured. You know how it’s in Afghanistan. Afghans look upon foreigners as having a lot more power than we do to decide on day-to-day decisions to make things happen up to much larger decisions. At this point, it was a time when foreigners ironically could make things happen that ordinarily would be impossible.
To get the guy who worked at my house, he and his family had passports, but they had no visas. All of a sudden, it was possible to get them on a plane to France without visas. It’s unheard of. This bizarre dynamic had always played out in Afghanistan, where the foreigners are both the source of so many problems, but they also have the power to rectify them or address them in a way that Afghans simply by virtue of the passport they carried or were they born do not.
That speaks volumes to me as somebody who’s been helped by foreigners to get out of Sarajevo under siege. The reason I asked you is because I wanted to hear you reflect on it. I assure you that for those of us who try to get out when the times are the hardest, every bit of help is eternally appreciated. I hope you know that undoubtedly, your efforts certainly will be appreciated as well. However, there’s also another side, and that’s something I will try to address with an Afghan refugee down the track because there is a side of guilt that many of those who leave a place like Kabul, under those circumstances, were the lucky few.
I account myself as one of the lucky ones who left Sarajevo in ’92 and again through familial links, networks, and the ability of my parents to dig and knock on the right doors. Also, having the right connections which are rather elitist in itself. That does carry some guilt, and I’m sure that’s something that many Afghans right now who were lucky enough to escape while being grateful for escaping also undoubtedly carry out of guilt. Have you had any of those kinds of conversations? Have you come across that at all yet?
It’s not only guilt, and I’m sure you and your family experienced this as well. At that moment, where survival is the only imperative, not a lot of thought is given to what comes after survival. This is not a new phenomenon, but what I am hearing is that a lot of the people that did get out are now safe and secure, but they’re isolated. They’re living in countries where they know no one. They have no family. Afghans are far more reliant on family structures than we are generally speaking in the West and who have no status. They might not speak the language.At a moment where survival is the only imperative, not a lot of thought is given to what comes after survival. Click To Tweet
After survival comes, that next much less hit the day-to-day survival. There’s a lot of that. Over the years, I’ve heard of countless people who, for example, made it to Europe in 2015, who got there and spend years in a queue waiting to be accepted as refugees. Even many eventually returned to Afghanistan because life is as hard as it was and is, and Afghanistan is still home.
Adjusting to a country that is not your own with people who are not your family or your friends or who don’t speak the same language at a time when there was that level of intensity to live through, those were questions that people didn’t have the capacity to ask of themselves and were not a priority. That’s another issue. That question of guilt is certainly another. I’m in contact with a number of Afghans who did get out, but who, for one reason or another, had to leave their families behind and who are still trying to get them out.
The bureaucratic swamp to wade through to make that happen is mind-boggling for you and me, let alone for someone in rural Afghanistan to try and navigate. It’s incredibly difficult, and the door that was flung open so uncharacteristically for two weeks was then slammed, almost completely shut. It’s hard to squeak through it at this point.
Also, in the book, you described moments because you were quite intimately involved post the fall of Kabul in trying to get vulnerable Afghans to the airport. You fought through the thousands of people trying to do the same. In one moment, you described somebody who had an Australian visa and was by all rights eligible to come out, but they missed out. What happened there?
That was a guy who’d worked for an Australian news outlet who, with the help of that news outlet, been granted an emergency humanitarian visa and simply had to get inside the airport in order to board a raft plane and get to Australia, but there were various challenges associated with that mission. One was to get the visa itself, which was a gargantuan task under the circumstances. The other was getting on a plane or getting inside the airport.
We’ve all seen the footage of the scenes at those entry points. This guy’s visa came pretty late in the piece, and I was trying to facilitate getting him to the Australian Special Forces operators who were manning one of these gates. I was told to get there at this time, and they’ll be there waiting for you to hand him over. Sure enough, we got there with extraordinary difficulty and walked up and down the length of this sewage canal, which many of your readers would’ve seen footage of or heard about at the Abbey Gate looking for the Australian soldiers.
We saw British, American, French, Canadians, and Portuguese, but not Australians. They’d been called off the gate at this point, and they never returned. This was on the 25th of August, and as it turned out, they were all out of Afghanistan by the 26th before the bombing that occurred at that same gate the following day.
You described in detail the aftermath of that suicide attack at Abbey Gate. It killed 170 or more 170 civilians and 30 US troops. Describe what the mood was in the lead-up to it and what happened afterwards, because you were, again, around there. You were very close to the incident. What happened?
I wasn’t close to it on the day, but in the scenes I described to you, we were right on the spot where it happened 24 hours before, but on the day and on the day prior when I was there, there had already started to be warnings about an ISIS attack on the airport. This wasn’t anything particularly new in Kabul. We get these threat reports every week and it got to the point where you would acknowledge them and then go about your day-to-day life and maybe slightly change your patterns of behaviour, but it wouldn’t interrupt your day-to-day life.
The threat was a little bit more acute in this situation because it was such a target-rich environment for ISIS. There were so many international soldiers vulnerable, and the security environment had totally broken down. Access to particularly American service members had never been more achievable in the last few years. The likelihood certainly increased, but it’s an international airport. The perimeter of which would be 20 kilometres or something.
We all balanced the risk and thought, “Something might happen, but the chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are still slim.” In the WhatsApp and Signal threads that me and my other journalist colleagues, foreign and local, were part of. Also, the security threads were constantly updated with threat warnings and so on. Sure enough, one of them started to ping at around 6:00 PM on the 26th of August 2021, and it was reports of a double bombing follow-up attackers at one gate or another at the airport, but it wasn’t clear for some time how serious it was.
At the time, when I first saw those messages, I was under very light detention, but I was with some Taliban fighters who wouldn’t let me leave the place where I was. When I asked to take some photographs, they said, “We have to ask our commander.” I’d been taken into this university that they were securing and waiting for his approval to leave.
The irony is that they were securing a university.
Once I was able to get free, as it became a habit in these situations, I headed straight for the hospital where a lot of the wounded and dead from these incidents would be taken. It quickly became clear that it was a serious attack. There was like a conveyor belt of casualties coming in. It probably wasn’t until the next day that we started hearing figures of 170 civilians and, in the end, 13 US service members.
It was horrendous, and what a scary time for everyone. that’s a nuanced point that this was the closest ISIS could get to international troops, particularly US troops, for a very long time. That’s something that hadn’t occurred to me. Even from an analysis perspective, it’s a very interesting point to consider.
It created this heightened sense of threat, which played in the ISIS’ hand as well, where you had the US with the hair-trigger and, ultimately, conducting a drone strike against a vehicle being driven by someone that was wrongly believed was another ISIS attacker. I believe it was the last American drone strike in Afghanistan before the withdrawal, and it ultimately killed tens in the centre of Kabul.
You’ve written about this extensively elsewhere that this collateral damage, as we would call it, was certainly a part of the undoing of the international mission. Do you still believe that?
I do. As I said, the way the Americans, in this case, responded to it further plays into their opponent’s hands, in this case, ISIS, who reap the benefits of the fallout of yet another incident of collateral damage. I don’t know how you conduct a war that doesn’t rankle the local population the way it did in Afghanistan. I suppose by more precise, more judicious soldiering, but I’m also aware that war is a very, at times, imprecise activity.
This is supposedly what drones were designed for to minimise the collateral damage and the consequent fallout and creation of new enemies that more clumsy ground operations and dumb bombs were more liable to create. The more heightened the circumstances, the more tolerance there is for collateral damage, and therefore, the greater the risk of further undermining the mission, which by this point, the time that this drone strike was conducted was up and over. It was sadly another somewhat apt and poignant and exclamation point on the twenty-year war.
That’s a good way to put it. You’ve spent some time in the book describing the airport. You also used one of the ANSF soldiers to describe the circumstances in that he found himself, but you also used that part of the book to tell the narrative of the chaos at the airport. Also, the images that went viral around the world of Afghans holding onto American planes and sitting on the wheels, etc., and a number of them falling to their death as the plane took off. How was that incident, or how were those scenes and the entire narrative surrounding those last few flights departing received by locals in Kabul that you were engaging with?
It all contributed to the sense of desperation. I wasn’t aware of these images until maybe even the morning after they occurred. Such was the intensity of those moments. There was just so much happening on our phones, trying to keep up with the WhatsApp threads and everything that was happening. We were trying to keep across what was happening across Kabul in the airport with efforts to get people out and keep in touch with foreign friends who were trying to get in the airport and out.
However, once those images started to make their way into social media if anything, it probably enhanced the need as it was perceived by Afghans to get out. If these people are so desperate that they’re clinging to the undercarriage of a C-17, then this must be serious. If we don’t already feel the threat from the incoming Taliban, then maybe we should. We should get to the airport and get inside at any cost.
It’s mass hysteria and panic.
It was that mob mentality where the sum of the individual parts could have all been a lot worse than it was. The fact that there were no major flare-ups between the international forces that were controlling the perimeter from the inside and the Taliban forces that were controlling from the outside. It’s astounding. Also, the fact that there were a lot of deaths and casualties around the airport in those two weeks, but the fact that there weren’t some seriously monumental mass casualty incidents, aside from the bombing in the drone strike, is pretty astounding.
After everything you’ve seen in your nearly decade in Afghanistan, what are your thoughts on regime change? Can it work? If it can, why hasn’t it worked in Afghanistan, given what we know about all the foreign investment that’s gone in?
When was the last time it worked in a way that is widely seen as successful, I wonder? That’s not a rhetorical question.
Probably Timo is the only one that we could almost throw up as an example. However, circumstances are vastly different, and there are vastly different tensions underlying it and hugely different cultural dynamics.
What happened there that didn’t happen in Afghanistan?
You’re hitting on something that I’m trying to identify and bring to light through the show. If you’re ever going to contemplate this again, to do so only with your own lens of how the world should look is wrought with danger. This is something you and I spoke about in our last episode, an Afghan I alluded to at the start. I put myself in this camp.
I embraced Afghanistan when I was there in a rather simple narrative because I had to. That’s what it is. That’s what you do. You’re there to do a job. Not only do you not have the time to explore and peel back the nuance of a place, the architecture, and the machinations. Everything we talked about so far, the hedging of the bets, it’s very easy to call the gentleman I described, Rahimullah, a Talib. Undoubtedly, he probably carried some IED parts at some point in time because that was what he had to do in order to survive. I’m sure there are many Rahimullahs out there who had one son in the ANA, one in the ANP, and another one in the Taliban for the very same reason, to hedge their bets.
Ironically, it was Rahimullah who ended up being the go-between for the Taliban and the ANA to negotiate in that village. I suppose his hedge had worked to the point that he had gained the respect of both parties to the war to the extent that he could now be a peace broker.
Again, therein lies a lesson.
He played his cards well.
Also, don’t fight a sword with a sword. You can’t fight fire with fire, etc. Whatever the ancients have left us by way of rhetoric, we should probably think about it more deeply than we often do.
I was going to say one thought on that. None of these regime-change missions happens because the main motivation is stability in that country. It’s always driven by domestic political goals. I suppose if those domestic political goals outweigh the imperatives in the country in question and the considerations of the dynamics they’re in, it’s always going to be hard for there to be a lasting outcome in the mould that the invading party desires. The buy-in from the local population has to be overwhelmingly supportive rather than polarised. If it wasn’t, it certainly became that way in Afghanistan.None of these regime-change missions happen because the main motivation is stability in that country. It's always driven by domestic political goals. Click To Tweet
Also, domestic interest from those who are instilling the regime change. As you’ve alluded to already, interests internally will also be dictated by the local social groups. Their own interests will dictate how they behave. None of us exist in a vacuum, and this is something that’s important for us to double-click on. When we deploy as a military to a combat zone, to a war, to a peacekeeping operation, we don’t exist in isolation. We become part of that ecosystem, and in our actions, we’ll have equal and opposite reactions.
They will either become part of the problem or, hopefully, part of the solution but without understanding what influence you’re going to have. You’re just bumbling in the dark, and when you don’t understand the local context, either you’re going to be exploited and used for local interests, or you’ll make the situation even worse.
One example that I’ll throw out there is when we were in Bosnia post the war, starting across the regime as you and I chuckled about last time, I was approached by local businesses saying, “Let’s put in a bid to the EU. I’ve got people who will do all the work at a third of the price that we’re going to put in the bid, and you and I will spend the money.” This is the parallel economy that we don’t consider when we come from the West.
I’ve seen us in Iraq as well, where the post-bombing conflict industrial complex comes in with its own aims and views of the world. The locals oftentimes will wet their lips going, “Here we go. It’s payday.” I don’t say this lightly because that undermines their plight. I don’t mean to do that because they’re the ones that are suffering and are in hardship, but there is a parallel economy that exists when you are a cash-loaded foreigner.
That’s the means of survival as well because you see this happen time and again and you go, “Make hay while the sun shines.”
You take it while you can because you don’t know when the foreigners will either go or who’s going to conquer you next, or when the next war will come around. My last question for you, Andrew, is what’s next for you? Firstly, let me ask you, how are you coping? It’s because Afghanistan has been your home for a significant part of, if not your life, then certainly your professional career. How are you coping with what’s happening, and how are you dealing with it?
With difficulty, for sure.
What happened to your dog?
The dog is still in Kabul with a friend who’s taken over the house that I’ve rented. It’s a transition that I hadn’t anticipated the difficulties of trying to work out on the run. I’m trying to work out who I am outside of Afghanistan after a time when I had a very clear goal and purpose and quite simple life. Once that’s all stripped away, it’s a pretty naked feeling, but I’m spending a lot of time reconnecting with friends and family and taking steps to work out who I am and what’s important to me. I’m reassessing life and priorities outside of Afghanistan. It’s been pretty trying at times for sure. What’s next, professionally, I don’t know at the moment.
My biggest priority is coming to terms with this transition and taking a bit of time for myself that even though what we’re talking about happened a year ago now, I haven’t had a chance to do. It’s something that I feel like while getting back out there, getting active, and producing work again quickly is very tempting. This is a time that I probably have to spend a bit more, concentrate a bit more, and focus on myself, I suppose before I go rushing off and following that instinct, which I’m trying to recalibrate it.
It’s an interesting position you’re in because, in a way, and what you mentioned previously when I asked you about the guilt and shame of those Afghans who’ve left, I suspect you’d probably carry some of that guilt too, undoubtedly. However, you’re in a rather unique position as a Westerner to empathise and understand the plight of the refugee.
You are lucky that you have the right passport. You are lucky that you have a country that you can come back to and call home, etc., but there’s something in that. There’s a powerful narrative. At least, it resonates with me as a former refugee, and even given some of the words you’ve used, what you recognise as the pain of those who have fled is something that struck a chord with me.
On that note, I do, in many ways, feel your pain, but I do wish you the best of luck. I trust that we will catch up again. This has been a very insightful conversation, and the book, August in Kabul, it’s an extraordinary read because it is so deeply personal and it is written by somebody who has deep personal connections and ties.
Again, in my humble view, you tell a little bit of your story through the characters that make up the pages, and undoubtedly, this wasn’t an easy thing for you to write, but thank you for putting it out there and bringing Afghanistan back onto the centre stage for those who choose to read the book. Thanks a lot.
Thanks a lot for having me.