‘Please, please help’: How I witnessed the Afghanistan war’s bitter end

After decades of reporting from Afghanistan, Kim Sengupta reflects on at the west’s string of failures and the dark, uncertain future facing those left behind

Monday 30 August 2021 18:06
<p>A US air force plane prepares for take-off from Kabul airport on Monday </p>

A US air force plane prepares for take-off from Kabul airport on Monday

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The last exit of western forces from Afghanistan has taken place amid carnage on the ground, bitter accusations and recriminations in Washington and London, and despondency and fear among people left behind in a shattered land.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 will be marked by the humiliating defeat for the US, the UK and their allies, and gathering darkness for Afghans who see the painstaking gains of the last two decades being snatched away as they enter a forbidding future.

The attack on Kabul airport by Isis-K last week, in which at least 169 Afghans were slaughtered, and the prevalence of other extremist groups, including al-Qaeda, was a warning that the savage civil war that followed the withdrawal of the Russian forces at the end of the 1980s may return – with all the devastation that will entail.

I have been covering the most recent Afghan war since its inception and have seen first-hand the kinds of atrocities that again seem to be the country’s destiny. Indeed, witnessing the fall of Kabul and then the desperate plight of refugees trying to flee the Taliban over the past weeks made it only too clear to me that for many Afghans the nightmare has already begun.

“I was thinking this morning that I am 20 years old, I was born the year the Taliban rule ended. The life I wanted will end now, 20 years later”, Afshaneh Ansari, a friend’s sister I had known for a decade told me on the day the Taliban entered Kabul.  

“I wanted to be an artist trying to fuse Afghan and western art. I am also an activist on gender issues,” said Afshaneh, a student at Kabul University. “I don’t think that will be possible now, not in Afghanistan, I cannot believe this disaster has happened, that our lives have been destroyed just like that.”

For others, distress is mixed with bewilderment at being let down by the west. Benesh Allaiwal, a 28-year-old human rights activist, called me on the day that the Taliban told working women to stay at home and Joe Biden had refused to extend the deadline for evacuations. The last US troops flew out of the capital Kabul on Monday night.

“I am not surprised that the Taliban and the American president would both harm us so much on the same day. I suppose something like this was always going to happen when Mr Biden announced he was going to take away the soldiers, which was a signal for the Taliban to attack”, she said.

Benesh’s family had fled to Pakistan during Taliban rule and returned after Mullah Mohammed Omar’s regime fell following the invasion by American and British troops in 2001. “The Americans and the Europeans encouraged women like me to become educated, to fight for our rights and rights of others,” she wanted to stress.

“Now these are the things that make me a target for the Talib. The only hope we have are the flights, to get to them past Taliban checkpoints, but believe me, many, many people will not be able to make it.”

The evacuation was turbulent from the start, something that was bound to be the case with the time limits and terms of reference imposed. It is true that thousands have been airlifted to safety, but many have been left behind, some are in hiding, hunted by vengeful jihadists.

An Afghan boy stands along a road holding a bunch of balloons to sell in Kabul on Monday

There is anger among many of the American, British and other western forces at what has happened – they know that people they had worked with, often in dangerous conditions, are being left behind.  

What they have witnessed, as people sought to escape the Talibs for the airlift, have been a highly emotional experience for many. On a particularly bad day, when seven people died from a crush and heat, outside the British force’s headquarters, the Baron Hotel, a soldier from the Parachute Regiment came over to say: “Do you know, I have been in the army for 12 years and what’s happening here is the worst I have ever experienced.” A younger soldier simply said: “I have never seen a dead body before, joining the army I expected to see people die, but not this, I didn’t expect this.”

On that same day a young Hazara girl, around eight years old, a hand missing as a result of an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion, had asked me to try and find her mother. “I feel very scared, I have no one,” she said. We looked but failed to find her mother in the swelling crowd. A little later the girl wandered over to where the shrouded bodies had been laid out and fainted. One of them was of her mother.

Every single foreign journalist on the ground has received desperate pleas from those trying to get away; everyone has tried the best they could, getting out individuals and families with the help of sympathetic troops and officials who have shown patience and compassion.

The pleas for help have continued even after the airlifts are ending. They are from people we know well and those we do not know at all. As I write this there are phone calls from someone I met in Herat two weeks ago. “Please, please, please help, please get your government to help, they want to kill us,” said the man. He has reasons to be frightened.

There is a deep concern for our Afghan colleagues in the media. They have been the real heroes in covering this conflict. We, the foreign media, have come here over the years, done our stint, and then gone back.

But they have continued with their work when Afghanistan drifted away from international focus, charting the atrocities of the insurgency, exposing corruption in the government. They have paid a heavy price, many had been threatened, abducted, attacked – some have been killed.

The situation in Afghanistan has had such a powerful impact on so many people – aid workers, the military, the media, diplomats – partly because we all witnessed the rebirth of a nation two decades ago and now we are seeing its destruction unfold in front of us.

The end of Taliban rule was a time of great hope. The suffocating greyness of Islamist rule was replaced by colour and light. There was music, shops opened, bright posters appeared, women threw off their hijabs. Girls’ schools and language schools sprang up, modern subjects were introduced into colleges and universities.

The Taliban leadership had fled to their havens in Pakistan. In Kandahar, at the home of Mullah Omar, with its gold-plated chandeliers, formica wall panels and a rococo mosque with green and blue mirrors, local people prowled looking for souvenirs. The warlords had grudgingly accepted that they would have to disband their private armies.

Evacuees from Afghanistan are seen at their temporary shelter inside a US army barracks in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on Monday

George W Bush assured the Afghans at the time, “You can count on the United States, we shall be staying to ensure security.” Tony Blair declared: “This time we will not walk away,” as the west had done after using the mujahideen to drive out the Russians.

But the US and UK did walk away again, this time into the disaster of Iraq in 2003. Funds for reconstruction were switched over. The thinly spread forces were denuded even further. CIA and special forces operatives on the Pakistani border were switched to the hunt for Saddam Hussein and senior Baathists.

I met one of them, Alex, a former US army ranger of 19 years experience, fluent in Dari, Pashto and Urdu, at “Camp Victory” next to Baghdad airport at the end of 2003. “We were actually getting somewhere and then we were ordered to move here. We have had to leave our Afghan agents – some of them have been killed,” he shook his head in disgust. “I was an Afghan specialist, spent years with the Muj. I don’t even speak Arabic for God’s sake, but they don’t give a f*** about Afghanistan in DC any longer. They don’t know the problems they are storing up.”

The media was focused on Iraq, which had begun its descent to the abyss after “liberation”. But fleeting visits to Afghanistan showed that the Talibs, helped by elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence service that fed and watered them, were moving back into the security vacuum, taking over rural districts and carrying out attacks in the cities.

American and British politicians appeared to be oblivious of what was happening. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary at the time, told us in Mazar-e-Sharif the war was over: “The Taliban are finished, they are marginalised, they will have no future role to play in Afghanistan,” he declared.

In 2006, with the security situation fraying, the west was back in Afghanistan with the establishment of Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) with British general, Sir David Richards, in charge. The UK went to Helmand, a deployment the then defence secretary John Reid had announced was likely to “end without a shot being fired in anger”.

One of the reasons for making Helmand the location of the UK force was to tackle the poppy harvest: 90 per cent of the heroin on the streets of Britain came from the province, which was responsible for 25 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium crop. Twenty years on, Helmand produces around 62 per cent of the national crop.

Kalaqata residents, in the Takhar province, fleeing the frontline as US fighter planes bomb Taliban positions in November 2001

The British military was extremely wary about getting involved in creating another tier of enemy among farmers whose livelihood depended on the crop, and they received little clarity on policy from London.

As the deployment took place, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley, the British officer in charge of the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah, asked me as I was leaving for Kabul: “Are you going to the British embassy in Kabul? If you are, can you ask them what exactly is the HMG policy on poppy eradication? No one has told us.”

Meanwhile the American company DynCorp started destroying poppy fields, and the farmers waited for the promised compensation. Soon the contractors took to coming over to the base for dinner with their fellow Americans. One evening, while we were there, a car packed with explosives followed them and drove into the main gate. It was the first suicide attack in Lashkar Gah.

Lt Col Worsley, a former SAS officer, a brave man of charm and modesty, died in 2016, just as he was close to making history, completing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole. He was raising money for the Endeavour fund for injured servicemen and women. In the intervening years we would talk from time to time about all that went wrong and right in those early Helmand days.

By the summer of 2006, the British had more than poppies to worry about. Helmand was aflame, where small UK units were besieged in their bases by the Taliban. The bases had been established at the insistence of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who complained of a growing Taliban presence. It was effectively inviting the Taliban to come and fight. The challenge was taken up, casualties mounted, especially after the insurgents began using roadside bombs on an industrial scale.

IEDs were the great game changer, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the casualties.  

In 2010 at Babaji, company Sergeant Major Steve Taylor, of the Coldstream Guards, said when I arrived: “Out of 130 men, we have had four deaths and 35 casualties, four of them have been double amputees, two single amputees. I have had young lads pleading that they didn’t want to go out on patrol, but you say, ‘Son, you have to go through with this, this is what we do.’ They have gone out and done the job. I could have asked for no more.”

I soon got a taste of what they faced at Babaji. During one patrol a sergeant was injured by a booby trap as he rushed to help an injured soldier. As we returned with the stretcher party, another IED, placed on a route cleared just a few hours previously, exploded, causing more severe injuries. In bases like Sangin the troops, and the journalists with them, lived under siege, under relentless attacks.

While the conflict between the western forces and the insurgency continued, a campaign of assassinations by the Talibs begun. Women became particular targets for vengeance.

I had written about five women who symbolised the brave new face of Afghanistan. Four of them were subsequently murdered, and the fifth, an MP for Kandahar, fled to Kabul after her family were injured in an ambush in which her husband died.

Safia Amajan, who had survived the Taliban years secretly running classes for girls, was murdered at the age of 65 in September 2006. I met the two killers, in their early 20s, at Sarposa prison in Kandahar. They had carried out the murder in return for $5,000 offered by a mullah in Pakistan.

Malalai Kakar, the most prominent policewoman in the country, who led a team of 10 female officers who rescued abused women, and had led the investigation into Amajan’s death, was killed a month later after being lured into an ambush with a false report that a woman was being held captive.

Zarghuna Kakar, the MP, had entered politics after watching Cherie Blair and Laura Bush speak of the importance of women playing their part in public life in the Afghanistan of the future on television. She attended Malalai’s funeral.

The MP was herself under a Taliban death sentence but had received no protection from Afghan or Isaf forces. A little while later she and her family were attacked at the local market. Her husband, Mohammed Nasir, was killed and she suffered head wounds. Zarghuna fled to Kabul with her children.

Public figures were being targeted. I met Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s strongman brother who ran Kandahar, just after a salvo of missiles had been fired at his home in Kandahar. “They have tried to kill me nine times already, they have got to do a bit better than this,” he said, waving his arm at the damage.  

AWK, as he was known, was a Chelsea supporter and a great admirer of John Terry and wondered if I could get him a signed shirt of the then Chelsea captain. I managed to get one thanks to a colleague in The Independent’s sports section and phoned Karzai to say that I would present it to him on my next visit to Afghanistan. A week later he was shot dead by one of his bodyguards.

The conflict continued, there were troop “surges” under US commanders General David Petraeus and General Stan McChrystal that won back ground from the Taliban. Joe Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice-president, however, was strongly opposed to sending extra forces, but lost the argument.

There was stalemate at the end, with the Talibs taking over stretches of rural areas and the government, backed by the west, holding the cities and towns. Isaf ended its military operations in 2014, with a relatively small force staying on.

But that small force – around 2,400 Americans, just under 1,000 from Nato, and 750 from the UK – was an insurance against the insurgents and their Pakistani backers. But this safety net was thrown away by the Trump administration at the ineptly handled talks in Qatar led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s representative, resulting in the deeply flawed Doha Agreement that gave the Taliban almost everything they demanded. 

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the suicide bomb outside Kabul airport

President Biden is now busy claiming that they inherited the bad deal from Trump. But throughout the US presidential campaign he had repeatedly affirmed that he would not reverse the pullout decision. He had done nothing since getting to the White House about the repeated breaches of the agreement by the Taliban, which would have allowed the US to review its own position.

The mantra from American and British officials was now the Najibullah example. The Afghan president left behind by the Russians was not just a Kremlin stooge after all, as the west had previously claimed, but an astute leader who had kept the insurgency at bay for three years until the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the money tap was turned off and fuel supplies were cut. That would not happen to the government of Ashraf Ghani with continuing western backing.

However, we kept on hearing from Afghan colleagues, officials and the military from the middle of July that things were going badly wrong. When I arrived in Afghanistan a month ago the Talibs had launched major assaults on three main cities, Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah.

The subsequent collapse of the Afghan forces was spectacular. Having covered quite a few missions with them in the past, in which they fought bravely and professionally, I was as surprised as anyone else by what transpired, especially after spending some time in Herat with Afghan forces and fighters of the veteran mujahideen commander Ismail Khan where they acquitted themselves well with help from US airstrikes.

What happened in Herat may perhaps provide a pointer to what has unfolded across the country. A Talib fighter had come into Herat city, then under government control and thus at great personal risk to himself, to give me and an Afghan colleague the Taliban point of view.

He was in a subdued mood, with the Talibs having suffered a serious reverse. “We fear only two things, Allah and US airstrikes,” he said, complaining that the Americans were breaching the Doha Agreement by continuing with military action.

Yet, Herat was in Taliban hands two days later. I was in Kabul by then. The Talib fighter said in a telephone call that he and his comrades did not know what had happened. “We just walked in, we didn’t have to fire a shot, the government and Ismail Khan’s men just went away.”  

Afghan soldiers who had fought there and in other cities like Lashkar Gah and Mazar describe being told by their commanders to withdraw when they thought they had the upper hand in the battle. When asked what he thought had happened, an army captain had no doubt: “Money, a lot of money changed hands, the Taliban don’t have that much money, but people who back them do.”

The final US flights have taken off from Kabul with Isis firing missiles at the airport. Meanwhile, at least 10 civilians, including six children, were reported to have been killed in a US drone strike that was supposedly aimed at a car bomb. The violence and rancour that has marked America’s longest war continues until the bitter end.

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