In the beginning, the US military campaign in Afghanistan was officially known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Raised ideals and ambitions are inherent in such a title, but 20 years later they look hopelessly misplaced. As the names go, it now reads like a tragically bad joke.
Afghanistan today is a graveyard of Western ideals that many Afghans had come to cherish. I apologized to many of those people during the 11 days since the Taliban takeover that we stayed in Kabul, a city we have now left.
One of the reasons we stayed at the Serena Hotel, in the center of the capital, is that it is also home to the Qatari embassy. The Gulf Country has played a huge role in all of this. The Qataris were the go-betweens when the Americans and the Taliban negotiated the end. We felt we would be relatively safe as long as we were close to the Qataris.
It was the Qataris who got us out of there. Myself, cinematographer Sean Swan and producer Lutfi Abu-Aun are also indebted to NBC news correspondent Richard Engel, who used his contacts to ensure we were on a flight from Kabul to the Qatari capital Doha. Driving from the hotel to the airport, we almost certainly passed people who would die later in the day in the suicide bombing close to one of the entrances.
In the beginning, the US military campaign in Afghanistan was officially known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Pictured: Troops in Kabul on August 25
The dividing line between Taliban-occupied Kabul and the American-occupied part of the airport was a coil of harmonica wire.
At that gorge stood a line of armed Taliban, now wearing Western military combat gear. A stone’s throw from them were soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the most legendary units of the United States Army. The look on the Americans’ faces was one I’d never seen before. It was a seething humiliation.
A long drive over the tarmac brought us to the platform used by the gigantic C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft that were the workhorses of this evacuation. The Hercules C-130, affectionately called ‘Fat Albert’ by the British, has been a reliable sidekick. Orderly, quiet columns of Afghans were led in one line to the plane.
The world has answered the call and I have lost count of the nationalities of the various planes we watched while waiting for ours. It was depressingly impressive to witness the evacuation. Nations united are doing a decent thing. It’s great to see, but then you remember the shame of it all.
When our time came, we shared the huge cargo hold in the Qatari C-17 with about 200 Afghans en route to Italy. We would get off in Doha. Since the Qataris are flying over Iran, our journey only took two and a half hours. Our hosts were brilliant.
They gave the Afghans and us food and water. Patient Qatari soldiers were as bored as bored, curious Afghan children teased them during the flight. The landing in Doha was as soft as a butterfly with sore legs.
Afghanistan today is a graveyard of Western ideals that many Afghans had come to cherish. Pictured: Troops in Kabul on August 26
We’re safe and sound, but my head is still in Kabul.
Sunday, August 15 is a day that should live in shame. The height of the US surrender and failure saw the Taliban force their way into Kabul unopposed. It was a walk-over where our principles were trampled in the dust.
Millions of hearts sank as fear filled the air. The possibilities that are hopes and dreams vanished as helicopters dropped flares and their rotor blades covered the retreat to the capital’s airport.
President Biden had convinced himself that at some point in the course of twenty years a just cause became a lost cause.
There was no bumper sticker to encapsulate a confused American company that had stagnated and seemingly aimless. Sorry Joe, but an own goal was not the answer.
The day after they rolled into town, a number of Taliban sauntered into our hotel’s restaurant.
Unable to avoid each other, we exchanged awkward pleasantries through our translators. It dawned on me that the last time Taliban gunmen broke into this restaurant was in 2014. Then they sprayed the place with machine gun fire and killed nine guests.
The dividing line between Taliban-occupied Kabul and the American-occupied part of the airport was a coil of harmonica wire. Pictured: An American soldier at the airport on August 27
Now they were trying to figure out what napkins are for.
They took over hotel security, performing all the duties and using all the detectors and X-ray machines originally installed to keep them out.
One day, when one of them held up a mirror to inspect the underside of our car, I thought to myself, “If you don’t know where car bombs can be hidden, nobody will.”
Thursday’s bombs made it the deadliest day for Americans in a decade. No doubt the Biden administration will use the attack to justify its original decision to order the withdrawal. I do not agree. I think he initiated the greatest self-imposed humiliation the Western world has ever endured.
He may have ended one of America’s “forever wars,” but in doing so he left a bloody, indelible stain on his presidency forever. Poor Afghanistan.