‘This is what it was like’: reliving the devastating US withdrawal from Afghanistan

Over a year out, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan still seems, from afar, shocking, swift, baffling. In a matter of days, the Afghan government – and a fraught, nearly two-decade war by western countries to uphold it – collapsed. Escape from Kabul, a new, day-by-day account of the hellish last gasp of the war in Afghanistan, submerges in that confusion; by mid-August 2021, Kabul remained the only secure route out of the country, and tens of thousands of people crowded the airfield, desperate for a way out. “It was like doomsday at Kabul airport,” says Muslim Hotak, a student who tried to flee with 5,000 others in the initial run on the airport on 15 August 2021.

Related: ‘If it were the UK, police would have opened fire’: the explosive film about Trump’s Capitol Hill rioters

Escape from Kabul, directed by Jamie Roberts, embeds in the chaos, blending horrific images familiar to news consumers – crowds crushing toward a closed gate, children pushed against barbed wire, anguished people clinging to the wheels of a moving plane – with first-hand accounts of the evacuation. As with Roberts’s previous film Four Hours at the Capitol, which used first-hand accounts and archival footage for an on-the-ground accounting of the January 6 insurrection, Escape from Kabul trains specifically on a discrete event: the 15 days at Kabul airport before the US withdrawal deadline of 31 August 2021.

It’s neither a history of the doomed War on Terror nor an explainer of the decisions leading up the humanitarian disaster at Kabul airport – Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban signed at Doha in 2020, which excluded the Afghan government, or the Biden administration’s faulty assumptions on how long Kabul would hold. Instead, the 77-minute film assembles a visceral collage of archival footage (often shot on cell phones) and recollections from three main parties: the US Marines tasked with keeping the airfield clear, Taliban commanders encroaching upon the airfield and complete takeover of the capital, and Afghani women and students who endured harrowing conditions for a shot at leaving.

“We live in a world where it’s very hard to make sense of an increasingly complex information landscape, increasingly complex and fragmented political landscape,” said Dan Reed (Leaving NeverlandIn the Shadow of 9/11), a producer on the film. “Hearing from people who were at the center of a big, important story that changed their lives and changed world history, just speaking to you about what it was like – at the heart of it, it’s ‘that could be me.’” You could be tasked with trying to maintain a semblance of control as the walls are closing in, as expressed by several marines whose mission is to hold the airport as Afghan citizens beg for an escape. The compartmentalization is clear – as one marine puts it in the film on forcing back crowds with every good reason to leave, “It wasn’t pleasant for them, it wasn’t pleasant for us.”

You could be a student, a female newscaster, a government minister on behalf of women, a family member of someone who assisted the US military, faced with an impossible choice – “we could die trying to leave, or we could be killed”, says Malalai Hussainy, a female student in her first year of university who stood for four days in sewage water, oppressive heat and crushing crowds for one of the 124,000 spots on an aircraft out of Kabul. A handful of Taliban commanders who were also surrounding the airport in the final days of the evacuation have their own justifications; one recalls how US forces slaughtered two of his family members. Others have fought the Americans since they were children.

“In the end, an intellectual grasp, a Wikipedia grasp of what’s going on doesn’t really connect you to that event,” said Reed of the film’s assemblage of first-hand accounts, sans narration or analysis. “You will come away from our documentary kinda feeling that you kinda get what that was like. But you won’t come away feeling like you have a perfect grasp of the negotiations [to withdraw from Afghanistan] and the history.”

Many of those first-person accounts were filmed in Kabul during the early months of this year, when Roberts and his team negotiated meetings with Taliban leaders when it was “a stage where it was open country a little bit”, he said. (The film ends with a chilling post-script: as of July 2022, the UN confirmed numerous systemic human rights abuses, particularly against women, under the Taliban.) “We wanted the suicide commanders who encircled the airport, we wanted the guy who came in on the motorcycle with his men to explain what the story was like, right from the front,” said Roberts. “That took a long time – a lot of meetings and a lot of working through networks, going to literally when they’re on checkpoints talking to them to going to the very top Talibs and working down.”

Roberts and his team obtained footage filmed by Taliban soldiers who eventually took over the airport and government buildings. The crew also worked with Afghan citizens whose attempts to leave the country were unsuccessful. “We really wanted to represent them and we wanted to do it openly, so you could see their faces, so you could see them as humans, that was the whole point of the film,” said Roberts.

Escape from Kabul depicts a mosaic of the unfathomable – how you could be so fearful as to hand an infant over to American forces beyond the airport gates, a desperate sacrifice for a better future; what that might feel like to receive, when your mission as a marine is to keep the crowd at bay for a devastatingly slow evacuation process. Why someone would cling to the wing of a plane as it took off; how that might feel to witness them fall back to earth. The anxiety felt by soldiers anticipating a suicide bomb attack; the gruesome aftermath of the survivor who awakens in a bombed out sewage canal next to his dead brothers, three of the 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US military personnel killed in the attack claimed by the Islamic State. How this all could’ve happened in the first place. “What we didn’t anticipate was the sheer desperation and fear and willingness of the people to put themselves at tremendous risk to get themselves and their families out of Afghanistan,” says Major Jordan Eddington, one of the marines maintaining control of the airfield, though it seems unthinkable how, given the promises made by western forces, that couldn’t be foreseen.

The film does not delve into the larger chain of events for such a gut-wrenching failure, instead remaining firmly rooted in the experiential. But Reed allows that “The United States and Great Britain and the allies invested in a system that was hollowed, and that was never going to be able to take the strain, and never really committed enough to do a completely alternative system.” The main failure was one of imagination, “not understanding how quickly the collapse would happen when it began”.

“There was no regard for all those people who lived on that thin crust of westernized existence in Kabul,” he added. “They were the people who bought into the dream that we sold them and then they were the people that we abandoned. There’s no other way of looking at it.”

The documentary, then, stands in a for a way of looking toward the people swept up in the current of events beyond their control, who made it out, or were left behind, or celebrated a long-fought victory over invading forces. “We have an opportunity now to make a lasting reminder of how messy and how bad and how appalling this can be if we don’t take more care when we turn our back on a very expensive failure,” said Reed. “Look at these people in the face. This is what it was like.”

  • Escape to Kabul is available on HBO in the US and on the BBC in the UK

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