Chaos, confusion and desperation in the run-up to US’ exit from Afghanistan. An extract.
(Specialist Nate) Nelson hadn’t expected the Afghanistan he’d learned about through the media and movies over the course of the war, nor that which he’d heard of through the stories of his National Guard sergeants who had already deployed: about IEDs, and a platoon’s experiences in the Korangal Valley, in the country’s north-east, as shown in the documentary film Restrepo. That was because he knew the American involvement in Afghanistan had declined significantly in recent years, and that there hadn’t been a single casualty since February 2020, Nelson’s unit was assigned to diplomatic security, protecting the embassy and the airport using a dozen C-RAMs stationed between the two sites. The ‘diplomatic security designation meant that Nelson and his National Guard colleagues would be staying beyond the 31 August withdrawal date set for foreign ‘combat’ forces.
‘Life really wasn’t bad,’ says Nelson. ‘There were restaurants, all these stores. We had this cafe with a fake garden and fake grass and you could buy a smoothie. I felt like I was on vacation. You could get a massage, you could get a great haircut, the food was actually very good, and we figured we could coast like this until the end of the deployment [February 2022]. Even though the Taliban was taking ground each day, you still felt like the war was a world away.’
In fact, aside from superficial changes, Kabul was closer to the city described by Nelson’s father, who had visited the capital for his work as a cartographer with the British military in the 1960s. Nelson sent his father photos of the bare mountains on the northern side of the airport. ‘Oh,’ his father responded. ‘That all used to be forest. Then the Russians napalmed everything.’ He told Nelson how Westerners would travel to Kabul to ski. ‘It really was like a regular country,’ he said.
Every couple of days, Nelson would check a BBC interactive map contrasting the territory controlled by the Taliban with that controlled by the government. And by the start of the second week of August, the blotches of colour denoting government control were shrinking by the day. But Nelson says there was ‘this thinking that Washington had, and that our leadership had … that the Afghan forces would at least be able to hold until after the fighting season and regroup or something’.
Nelson recalls how, during pre-deployment training in Oklahoma, ‘everything was making jokes: “It will probably end up like Saigon or something.’” But even after the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, fell on 12 August, Nelson checked himself. ‘There’s no way this will be like Saigon,’ he thought. ‘That was in ’75, in Vietnam. We have all this technology now and we’ve been in this country 20 years. Things will be different.’
Nelson says that on 15 August, when corporal Cummins and Charlie Company arrived, and as thousands of Afghans converged on the airport, ‘we really didn’t have a lot of troops on the ground—only 600 NATO troops and the Turks’, with the Americans hoping the latter would stay on after 31 August to run the airport.
That same night, Nelson was ordered to rally at the unit’s command post. ‘We didn’t really know what was happening,’ he says, but ‘suddenly, everyone was wearing full kit. The mood on the base was definitely heightened.’ His first sergeant stood to address the company: The Taliban is now in the city. We still have a job to do.’
Nelson and his gun partner drove from their command post around the eastern end of the runway and prepared for the overnight shift at gun number 8—it was in a cordoned-off yard 200 metres from where Hamed Safi and his family would enter three days later. ‘There was gunfire going on throughout the city now’, says Nelson. ‘It was just crazy because, just over the course of one day, or one night, suddenly, the war was now in Kabul and it was right there in front of us.’
At 9 a.m, the American troops whom (Captain Arman) Malik had spoken with about the weapons returned. They said they had no vehicles of their own and asked if they could use any of his. Malik unloaded several M240 machine guns from one of the ARU Humvees and helped the Americans couple them to the turret mounts. In total, Malik parted with 11 humvees. He also gave the troops four single-use rocket launchers. ‘They were very grateful’, he says.
Soldiers from the same unit returned several times over the next hour and a half. Each time, Malik gladly handed over more vehicles, until his fleet had shrunk to about 10 from the 30 he’d started the day with.
At 10.40 a.m., a new American team in a small convoy stopped alongside Malik. The troops were suspicious, questioning Malik and loading his weapons and crates of ammunition into their own vehicles. They then ordered him into a vehicle, preventing him from returning to his Ranger to retrieve his personal belongings, and drove him to their camp, past a cordon separating the Afghan and international sectors on the military side of the airfield. One of the troops told Malik to keep walking to the military passenger terminal. When the Americans outside the terminal forbade him entry, he merged with the crowd, some in ANSF uniforms, that was waiting beyond a gate where a statue of a golden eagle ordinarily greeted arriving soldiers and military contractors. Some of the men Malik had fired warning shots near earlier in the morning were in the crowd outside the gate and jeered at him.
Malik saw the unit to whom he had given the vehicles and started talking to an Afghan interpreter who was working with them: ‘I told him I’d helped the unit and that all I wanted was help to go back to get my keys and cash.’ Also in his Ranger was a set of civilian clothes. Malik had no intention of joining the hordes trying to flee the country aboard an evacuation flight, even after having off-loaded the KKA and ARU arsenal to the Americans. But if he was to make it through the Taliban fighters guarding the airport’s gates, he would have to shed his uniform and blend in with the civilians. However, the American troops were preoccupied and barely registered Malik’s request.
By now, major Behzad Behnam had started responding to Malik’s messages, but he had few contacts among the conventional American forces with whom he suspected Malik was dealing, and he could provide scant help from Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was now marooned. Complicating matters for Malik, bedlam was breaking out across the airfield, with thousands of Afghans invading the tarmac, clinging to a taxiing C-17, and duelling for several hours with thin lines of American and Turkish soldiers in what looked like some kind of modern-day infantry charge.
By late that evening, several hundred more American troops had arrived in-between intermittent runway invasions, and aircraft were once again coming and going without interruption. Malik climbed into the cabin of one of three damaged Mi-17 helicopters that had sat discarded by the flight line for as long as he had been coming to the airfield. He lay on the dusty floor and slept fitfully for two or three hours amid the clatter of gunfire. It was the first time he’d rested since the night before the Afghan Government had collapsed.
‘I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since it all began’, says Malik of the morning of 17 August. ‘I tried many times to get to my clothes, but the Americans wouldn’t allow me in.’ He decided to forget his attire and the keys and cash he’d left in his Ranger. It had probably been looted by the crowds the previous day, anyway, he reasoned. Inside a maintenance workshop he found a pair of oversized jeans covered in motor oil. He pulled them on, tightened the waist with his army belt, and then slipped into a pair of rubber sandals he found outside the workshop’s bathroom door. On top, he would make do with his threadbare undershirt.
When a few hundred Afghans broke free of the American lines on the commercial side of the airport and rushed to the idling transport planes on the military side, Malik ran to join them and was eventually herded across the runway to the civilian terminal buildings. Others who were trying to leave said the Taliban fighters at the main gate knew there were government soldiers inside and were checking the phones of anyone trying to leave, so Malik combed his phone for anything that might reveal details of his past life and deleted it all. But the Taliban fighters guarding the airport entrance were more focused on controlling the masses outside, and Malik made his way out of the gate and into Airport Circle without incident. He began walking along the same road the KKA and ARU convoy had driven three days earlier, past the JSOC entrance halfway along the airport perimeter and towards Martyr’s Square at the south-western corner of the airfield.
Malik tried to call his brother, but his phone wasn’t allowing him to dial out. A wave of exhaustion suddenly overcame him. He was weak from hunger, his head pounded from dehydration, and his throat was as dry as the road. He had no cash for a taxi to reach his family in Emirate City. Each step became an ordeal. When a friend called, Malik asked him to rendezvous at Martyr’s Square with some clothes and money.
‘I was so hungry’ says Malik. ‘I couldn’t take another step.’ So he sat on the median strip to rest. An ANA pick-up driven by a grizzled Taliban fighter rolled past. Six or eight young fighters, some wearing plundered ANA jackets in spite of the heat, stared out from the vehicle at the crowds. The crowds stared back.
A boy of four or five walked up to Malik. ‘Uncle, if I ask you something will you grant my wish?’
The boy twice more asked Malik to confirm the request, and each time he agreed.
‘Will you give me 10 rupees so I can eat something?
‘He didn’t know I hadn’t eaten myself for three days,’ says Malik.
‘He was just a little boy. He was in need and I couldn’t help him.’
AUGUST IN KABUL: AMERICA’S LAST DAYS IN AFGHANISTAN AND THE RETURN OF THE TALIBAN
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