Luftwaffe. That’s what we see when we emerge from the bowels of a Qatari C-17 military transport plane. The word “Luftwaffe” is plastered across the side of a hulking grey German plane taxiing across the apron of Kabul international airport – an echo of a world war from another century; an emergency airlift in today’s Afghan War that has drawn in the world.
As it lumbers out of view, the plane reveals the airfield. It is a dystopian scene: grey beasts from the world’s mightiest armies on the tarmac, helicopters clattering overhead against the backdrop of Kabul’s stunning snow-dusted massifs. In every direction, lines of Afghans snake across a military airfield. Young, old, men, women, families huddled together, children clutching teddies and toys – they are all quietly filing towards a flight taking them to an uncertain future, away from a country changing by the hour as the Taliban consolidates its control.
Dreams of a nation
“It breaks my heart to tell you this is the brain drain.” Bilal Sarwary, the Afghan journalist who always found the right word at the right time, is in the queue. I’m startled to spot him in the sea of faces waiting to board the same Qatari transport plane from which we had just disembarked.
“Today is the day a generation of Afghans buries their dreams,” he tells me. I remember the Bilal I met in Kabul in the winter of 2001, the skinny Afghan kid with a cheeky smile whose claim to fame was selling a fake statue at an exorbitant price to a prominent British journalist in an antiques shop in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. By sheer force of personality, he got himself into a US university and became a BBC reporter with unrivalled contacts and the chronicler of a nation’s pain. “I tried my best to tell the story of the people of this country.”
Just months ago, he named his infant daughter Sola, for “peace”, showing his stubborn hopes for a country that had yet to give him a year of calm. Now the life he’d built was in a duffle bag, every passenger only allowed to carry one piece of luggage. He holds his baby daughter in his arms, his young wife by his side. Safar khosh, the Afghans say, may your journey be happy. This journey is the saddest of all – leaving, and losing, everything. Multiply Bilal by the thousands; this feels like a nation emptying of some of its best and brightest – though millions of Afghans, including supporters of the Taliban, will stay, for better, for worse.
Into the eye of the storm
A rat-a-tat of sustained small arms fire breaks the loud hum of engines at 2am. We find out later that a firefight erupted involving Western soldiers and “unidentified gunmen”. We spent the night at the airfield, delayed by discussions with British and American soldiers who couldn’t understand why journalists would want to travel in, when they’re desperately trying to get people out before the 31 August deadline. The Taliban is unequivocal: it’s time for you to go. Foreigners should leave; the Afghans should stay. But some foreigners will remain, at least for a while. It’s hard to explain this curious character of our profession. Decisions like this are not a reckless romanticism; they’re based on a constant and careful assessment of risks, and – when necessary – a collegial exchange of exit strategies.
It had been a week since some of us were on the last commercial flight to travel into Afghan airspace – which circled for nearly an hour above Kabul as the Taliban stole a march into the city, and then had to turn back; President Ashraf Ghani and his aides slipped away on a plane out. Now, on 22 August, we’d finally landed after a week of exhausting all possible options to return.
Armed and dangerous
The next day, in the summer heat, we’re taken to the civilian side of the airfield where a hoarding of President Ghani hangs in pieces. The iconic “I Love Kabul” sign with its bright red heart is decorated with razor wire, blocked by American soldiers. Our escort arrives. A bus provided by the Qatar embassy – the country that has hosted the Taliban political office for years, as well as the negotiations that led to the US-Taliban deal in 2020.
We leave American soldiers behind, but not their uniforms or guns. Strangely, some elite Taliban fighters are sporting US-issued uniforms and cradling American-made M4 rifles. In their lightning advance across the country, they acquired an eye-watering amount of booty gifted to Afghan government forces by Nato armies. Turbaned and triumphal, they wave us into the city, into the gridlock of Kabul traffic on streets dotted with white Taliban flags.
Checking in to Taliban-land
I’ve spent so much time over the years at Kabul’s Serena hotel that it feels like a second home. Now the Taliban controls its outer perimeter. I see one of the hotel’s Afghan guards standing next to a Taliban fighter as we approach the main gate. We exchange knowing smiles. At the front desk, young receptionists in brightly striped blazers go through the motions they know by heart to check in guests; most of life as they knew it has checked out. “We’re here physically, but my soul has left,” one young man whispers.
Looking for the exit
The Taliban is telling educated Afghans they’re needed now. The days are counted before the last US and British soldiers depart. I’m overwhelmed by messages from Afghan friends pleading for help – to get to the airport safely, to secure a seat on a flight, to protect loved ones from Taliban fighters knocking on the door. People the world over, including in Britain, are opening their hearts and homes to Afghans, but it’s not enough.
More than 30 years ago, in the last days of the Cold War when Western nations shut their embassies as Soviet troops pulled out, I also stayed to tell this story. Kabul, then as now, was consumed by uncertainty and fear, and a yearning for a life that would get better, not worse.
Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent
[see also: The Taliban’s new reign of terror]
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat