It was the most shameful capitulation of its kind in my lifetime. Worse than Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. Worse than Phnom Penh in April 1975; worse than Saigon, only 13 days later. Unlike those other military defeats, where governments and armies were out-thought and out-fought, the fall of Kabul was an entirely unforced error.
President Joe Biden actively chose to abandon a thriving city that was wholly dependent on American support. If it hadn’t been for that, Kabul would still be in the hands of President Ashraf Ghani. Biden had months to think about it, and plenty of people tried to dissuade him, but he took no notice. It is scarcely surprising that, as a result, Vladimir Putin decided it would be safe for Russia to invade Ukraine only six months later, and China increased the level of its threat to Taiwan.
And so those dreadful scenes at Hamid Karzai International airport continued for days on end, as panicking crowds, desperate to escape, blocked the airport road, while mobs tens of thousands strong besieged the terminal building. People fainted in the heat and were trodden underfoot. Babies and young children were passed over the heads of the crowd to the protection of Westerners, never to be seen by their families again. Many British and American soldiers who tried to keep order at the airport are said to be still receiving counselling. “I’ll never get those screams out of my head,” says a cameraman who was there.
The horrors worsened. An Islamic State volunteer worked his way into the depth of the crowd and detonated his suicide vest, killing at least 140 people, including 13 Americans. Three days later, Afghan and US intelligence learned of another intended attack, and an American commander ordered a drone strike against a white Toyota sedan whose driver had stopped off at what was thought to be an Isis safe house. A Hellfire missile hit the car as it headed for the airport. The seven children and three adults inside it died instantly. Three weeks later, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted, “After deeper post-strike analysis, our conclusion is that innocent civilians were killed.” No one was disciplined.
As the Taliban forces approached the outskirts of Kabul on 16 August, panic broke out in the city. The boss of one Western organisation yelled over and over that everyone had to get out. “Her eyes kind of glazed over. She was paralysed with fear,” said one of her colleagues. But fear of what? It’s true that the Taliban are deeply unreconstructed, and capable of ferocious violence; they executed government officials and soldiers on their way to Kabul. But they weren’t fanatics like, say, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who crucified their captives, or the Shining Path in Peru, who skinned them alive, or Islamic State, who sawed off their prisoners’ heads and filmed it in close-up. In fact, during those early days after the Taliban takeover, it was Islamic State members who were most at risk; the Taliban identified them as worse enemies than the Americans or British.
Directly after Kabul fell, a Taliban detachment headed for Pol-e-Charki gaol on the edge of town and massacred 150 Islamic State-Khorassan Province prisoners there, including the group’s former leader, Abu Omar Khorassani. For the time being, officials of the former regime, women’s rights campaigners, Westerners, former soldiers and everyone else who felt themselves to be targets were reasonably safe. The Taliban victory was so total – the Taliban commander Mohammed Nasir Haqqani said that when his group reached the entrance to the city, there wasn’t a single soldier or even policeman on guard there – that they had Kabul to themselves. Their difficulties were sorting out street patrols and trying to decide which government buildings to base themselves in. A senior Western aid worker who had the fortitude to stay now says there was a period of three months in which people could organise their escape.
Ultimately, the responsibility for this humiliating episode lies with Donald Trump, who signed an irreflective, principle-free agreement just to have something – anything – that looked like a foreign policy success before the 2020 election: every other possibility, from the Middle East to North Korea, had been a failure. Biden, when he came into office, could have dumped it. But he decided that his own standing would benefit more from sticking with the supposed peace deal than from continuing the war; though it wasn’t much of a war, and if it was unwinnable, it was pretty much unloseable, at least as far as protecting Kabul was concerned.
Biden believed what his intelligence people told him: that the Afghan army was strong enough to stand on its own. It was the ultimate mistake. In a situation such as that in Afghanistan, where a foreign power has overwhelming influence on the host government, the intelligence agencies usually depend on their local counterparts; and they have a vested interest in talking up the chances of the existing regime. In Iran in 1978-79, the CIA and MI6 kept assuring their governments that the Shah was safe, because Savak, Iran’s intelligence service, told them so. In Afghanistan, only five days before the Taliban swept in, the CIA reported that Kabul would be safe until at least November. Why? Because the Afghan National Directorate of Security told them.
The city’s sudden fall shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Kabul had changed hands three times in the 19 years before 2021, and each time it happened with stunning speed and a minimum of fighting. True, after 2001 the Afghan armed forces had 20 years of training and state-of-the-art equipment from the West, but every time I went out with them on operations they were totally dependent on their Western advisers. Many officers were claiming pay for soldiers who, in Falstaffian style, didn’t exist. It was an act of willing self-deception to believe they would fight alone if the Western powers pulled out, especially given the panicky way they left.
The US military left Bagram air-force base outside Kabul without informing General Asadullah Kohistani, the Afghan commander. He said he only found out hours afterwards, though looters moved in within minutes of the last American plane taking off at 3am. And if the Americans were flying out, abandoning three and a half million items of kit, what was there to keep the Afghan forces at their post? Only six weeks after the Americans made their moonlight flit from Bagram, Kabul fell.
It was an odd coalition that took power. Some senior Taliban figures spoke excellent English and seemed eminently reasonable. One still follows me on Twitter and rebukes me when I say something he doesn’t like. There were top figures who had been on the negotiating team in Doha in 2020, and had convinced Trump’s officials that they would scale down their campaign and do a deal with President Ghani’s government. And then, of course, there were the mountain men, the kind of Taliban that journalists such as me were familiar with, who weren’t accustomed to sleeping in houses and regarded women as being only marginally more useful than donkeys.
Now, after a year, the regime has settled into shape. Some people in the government are reasonably approachable: a recent finance minister studied at the University of Illinois, for instance. But the Taliban in the streets can be pretty rough and unreconstructed, and they are the ones that the great majority of people have to face. Arrests, torture and murder, ordered by local commanders, are frequent. A former top government legal official who taught at Khost University was recently reported to have been killed by the Taliban.
No single description fits them all. My friend, the combat cameraman Peter Jouvenal, is now a businessman trying to operate in Afghanistan; it’s not easy. Last December, soon after we had a convivial dinner in Kabul, he and his associate went to look at the British ambassador’s abandoned house; Peter thought he might rent it as an office. They took photos. Someone rang the police and they were arrested for spying – despite their letter of permission from the Ministry of Commerce. The police and security officials then tried to justify the arrests by inventing evidence. So far, so Taliban.
The British Foreign Office, with no real foothold in Kabul, had to start negotiating from scratch. Yet they found the Taliban easier to deal with than they’d expected. The commander of Peter’s gaol had been a prisoner of the Americans in Guantánamo, and had been tortured for 15 years. Far from making him vindictive, his experiences determined him to treat his prisoners properly. Peter had to beg his gaolers to feed him less, and the worst privation he suffered was that there were only Harry Potter books to read. His contacts in the Taliban government told him they were worried that China would try to take over Afghanistan, and were anxious to keep good relations with Britain. Peter and his colleague, plus several other Brits, were flown to London at the end of June.
The Taliban, though obsessively inward-looking, have learned the hard way that they need outside help. The threat of famine that hung over Afghanistan last winter was averted by the UN World Food Programme and organisations such as the International Rescue Committee. The earthquake near Khost in June, which killed at least a thousand, brought help from many countries. It is difficult to persuade the Taliban that women are not second-class citizens, that every country needs to educate its girls, that ethnic groups such as the mostly Shia Muslim Hazaras need the state’s protection rather than persecution. But it’s clear the Taliban are in Kabul to stay, at least for the next few years, and that they are open to negotiation. What happened in August 2021 was appalling. But having failed the people of Afghanistan so utterly last year, we mustn’t simply turn our backs on them now.
This article was originally published on 27 July 2022. John Simpson’s “Unspun World” resumes on 7 September on BBC Two.
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special