Escape From Kabul unfolds over eighteen monumental days in August 2021, from the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan through the subsequent evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghan citizens from Kabul airport after the Taliban seized the city. The documentary combines footage from those on the ground at the airport and exclusive interviews with Afghan citizens attempting to flee, U.S. Marines tasked with managing the evacuation, and Taliban commanders and fighters who had recently taken the city.
CFR panelists discuss this HBO documentary, the U.S. withdrawal, and the legacy of twenty years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Escape From Kabul premieres on HBO on September 21.
AMOS: Thank you very much. I would like to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations, a screening I hope all of you had the chance to watch and today’s discussion of the HBO film documentary Escape From Kabul. I do hope you had a chance to watch it over the weekend because it is a remarkable documentary. It’s so compelling that I watched a second time.
We’re looking for a lively discussion about the film, about policy a year after Kabul was taken over by the Taliban. We’re going to talk for thirty minutes, as you heard.
I’d like to introduce our discussants: Laurel Miller, director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group; Jamie Roberts, director and producer of the HBO documentary Escape From Kabul; and Elliot Ackerman, author, The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan.
Jamie, I want to start with you and ask sort of the—you know, a technical film about the documentary, part of the power of it was the recordings off of people’s film—phones, that that somehow showed the chaos, and there was a moment where I thought this could have been even worse than it was.
So I wondered if you can talk about just the process of gathering those cell phone videos and how you went about doing that.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Thanks so much, Deborah.
Well, before we left for Kabul we did some deep research here and we really tried to gather as much as we could. But the thinking really was that we needed to get into Afghanistan and really make links there and see if we could source video, a lot—especially video that was sustained a long amount of time.
So I think the film that I’d made before was Four Hours at the Capitol and, you know, we really learned that if you have long takes of video it allows you to verify things but also you can really understand how a situation develops.
So over in Kabul, made lots of links with people, with citizen journalists, and kind of pulling things in that way. Also, with members of the Taliban, who, especially near the end of the film, you’ll see they go into the airport and that was filmed by the Talib special forces member himself.
And you know, I was speaking with him. They were proud of their victory and they had this video, so he was kind of happy to share it when he understood that we saw this as a historic moment, too. Not necessarily in the same way that they did, but it was documentation all the same.
And then, finally, there was—there were U.S. servicemen who—servicemen and -women who had filmed. And there was one in particular that I’d come across early on, and it took a long time of discussion but we—I think we got about ten hours of material from him. And we didn’t use it all in the film, but some of those visceral moments are from his bodycam, and also what it allowed us to do was really understand, again, the run of events.
So it might not have made the film but it allowed us to actually make sense of it because especially for the first few days after the Taliban rolled into the city there weren’t really many journalists down at the airport. It was just a huge mass of people and then, obviously, journalists start to arrive. So any material that allows us to really make sense of what was happening amongst the chaos was really valuable.
AMOS: So I want to talk about this. As a viewer you are catapulted into the action. You know, you’re almost immediately taken to August 15 when the Marines say all hell breaks loose and so you don’t have any chance to get used to how rapidly this whole thing is falling apart.
So let me ask all the panelists, why did it fall apart so quickly and how much of a surprise was it to Washington? Had they gamed out what would happen if it collapsed this quickly?
Elliot, you’ve written a book about this. Let me start with you, and then Laurel and then Jamie.
ACKERMAN: Well, I think it’s important to—you know, to keep in mind, you know, Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means. So once there was a political fait accompli in Afghanistan that the U.S. was withdrawing, military events started to come about subsequently and very, very quickly.
We saw the collapse of a whole number of cities early in August with the eventual collapse in Kabul. So, you know, we can look at the—you know, the equipment the Afghan military had, the numbers that they had.
But those numbers and that equipment, you know, only is relevant if there’s a political reality that supports it and the political reality that supported it was no longer there. And so in that respect, the collapse seems inevitable.
Whether or not it would happen on quite so quick of a timeline, I think that surprised just about everybody to include the Biden administration and I think the chaos you see at the airport is the result of the Biden administration’s surprise because they were very much counting on there being a decent interval from the pullout of American troops to the final end game between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
When there was no decent interval, there was no contingency plan for a mass evacuation of Afghan nationals and partners, and what I think the film documents so well is just how visceral that collapse was. I mean, you see—you know, you see children, babies, being passed over the gate. You hear accounts of very small children being trampled to death, of people passing out from exhaustion and dying. I mean, I would encourage people to watch the film. It was visceral.
You know, I participated in some of the evacuation efforts myself this summer with my Afghan colleagues, you know, coordinating things. But even I until, frankly, I watched Jamie’s film didn’t have a sense of just how visceral it was up against the barricades and I thought I knew until I watched this movie.
So, you know, you’re really to be commended. It’s a great piece of cinema and an important documentation of what happened so I hope people watch it.
AMOS: Laurel, do you agree that it was a surprise to Washington and it shouldn’t have been?
MILLER: Well, I can’t say what was in the minds of policymakers here in Washington. There seemed to be some surprise from what was said publicly. I wouldn’t say that it was a surprise to me.
I mean, to answer your question about what caused the collapse, you can look at what some of the proximate causes were of what precipitated the collapse. But there are also the longer-term dynamics that are important and, you know, to briefly summarize those, for twenty years the U.S. over promised and under delivered on what it could on the kinds of changes that it could effectuate in Afghanistan and, I mean, over promised to itself and to the American people, first and foremost.
My own view—and I don’t think I was alone in this—but my own view at—in the months and, really, in the few years leading up to the final collapse was that there were really only two possible scenarios once the U.S. decided finally to pull out and began to pull out.
One was that there would be Taliban advances in the immediate aftermath of a withdrawal and then a protracted fight for the urban areas of Afghanistan that could grind on for some period of time.
The only other plausible scenario was rapid collapse, rapid downward spiral, precipitated by a kind of crisis of confidence among the Afghan population and, more importantly, security forces and government as to whether they could sustain the fight in the absence of the Americans that, in fact, we saw.
I thought the sort of grinding on fight for the urban areas was somewhat more likely. I mean, it was the sort of the—you know, the problem with this kind of analysis and projection is that it’s always easier to predict a continuation of a trajectory that you’re on than a dramatic change to that trajectory.
But the alternative scenario of rapid collapse, I thought it was, basically, impossible for the U.S. government, including intelligence agencies, to predict how likely that was because it was going to depend on the aggregation of a lot of individual choices among Afghans, a lot of people within the security forces, sort of putting their finger in the wind and seeing which way it’s blowing and making rational individual judgments about what to do, and there’s just no way to have your finger on the pulse of that.
So I—you know, I thought contingency planning for rapid collapse was, certainly, warranted, given the plausibility but, you know, unpredictable likelihood of that scenario.
Now, we could talk a little bit if you want to at some point about, you know, what could you have done if you had predicted that this was going to happen. That’s another matter. But I don’t think it was surprising, even if it was shocking, you know, viscerally and emotionally even without being intellectually surprising.
AMOS: Jamie, I was curious, where did those Marines come from? It was one of the reasons I watched it a second time because I thought, I don’t know where they were. It looks like they’re coming in from a desert. But they get called up, a hundred and fifty of them. Go to the airport. Did they feel like they had been thrown—let me put it this way. When did they know they had been thrown into this maelstrom?
ROBERTS: Well, I learned a lot about the Marines on this—working on this film, which Elliot will be able to speak. I hadn’t realized before—I hadn’t really thought about it—but Marines, when they go into a situation like this, quite often they’re pulled together rapidly from all different locations, different skill sets. You know, you have people that can fly. You have—they’re coming from boats. They’re hitting the ground. So all of these parts come together very quickly.
Now, they had been—they’d been preparing in the months leading up to it. They’d been planning and wargaming. But they were literally given—there was—I think gunner Callan (ph) and Richardella, who were in the film, they were there a few days before. They were—and, really, they were given some—they were given an outline of what was going to happen. They were expecting an evacuation but they expected it to be orderly. They were going to get there, set the ground, and then more people were going to come in.
Obviously, what happened on the 15th was the Taliban—they rode into town, completely changed the situation, and then all of the city almost in a kind of viral sweep headed towards the airport—a lot of the citizens of the city but also from outside of Kabul because that was the only exit door. Bagram had been closed. There was no real other way out apart from some of the borders and the Taliban were there. So it created this situation.
And then the Marines—as you see in the film, we have a hundred and fifty of Richardella and his men, and then as days go on more managed to get in. But the airfield had to be just—that was why the mission was to keep the airfield open because it was the only way you were going to be able to get people out but also more Marines and more military personnel in to be able to actually enact the evacuation, which was spiraling. It was many more people than they thought it originally—it was originally going to be.
AMOS: And do you think there’s long-term effect on those people? Do they feel like they were thrown to the wolves out there?
ROBERTS: With the Marines, I mean, I think a lot of them are extremely proud of what they did. But there was definitely a lot of frustration with, I think, the Biden administration, the situation they were put in, and maybe also the credit that they were given or not given.
I think that maybe that a lot of them felt like the story of their experience people outside hadn’t really understood and understood the kind of cards they’d been handed. It was—you know, they didn’t have the weapons they needed, the vehicles they needed. The situation wasn’t as it should have been.
And I think they were extremely proud of what they did but a lot of them—you know, there was a lot of people that we spoke to that, clearly, had PTSD. I think you see one of the—Maria Solis (ph), I mean, I don’t want to—I wouldn’t speculate on her medical situation but she was extremely upset about what happened and there are a lot of Marines that were the same because they saw awful things, you know, and then they came back and they questioned if it really needed to play out in that way.
AMOS: Elliot, can you speak to that? I’m sure that you wrote about it.
ACKERMAN: Yeah. Certainly.
So the Marines that were sent in to the airport were part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. So at any given time the Marine Corps in the United States have two Marine Expeditionary Units. These are regimental size units of about two (thousand) to three thousand deployable Marines that, basically, just float.
We have one Marine Expeditionary Unit that’s typically in the Pacific, one that’s in the Mediterranean. So the 2/4 MEU—I actually deployed with the 2/4 MEU about fifteen years ago. They’re—and they’re like a rapid contingency force.
So when I was with the 2/4 MEU in 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon. We ran what’s called a NEO, a non-combat evacuation operation. So the mission in Kabul was a NEO. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has what’s called a battalion landing team attached to it and in this case it was the First Battalion of the Eighth Marine Regiment, which was led by Colonel Chris Richardella, who features, you know, very prominently in Jamie’s film.
And so I think—and what he gets at in the film is that one of the huge challenges the Marines faced was, you know, Kabul International Airport was barely a functioning airport, and Jamie has amazing footage of showing what the Marines were having to do to keep the runways clear of people, at one point using Apache gunships for crowd control. I mean, literally flying helicopters about five feet off the ground just to move people off the airfield.
So the challenges the Marines had to just get enough of their people in to manage the situation was one of the foremost tasks in the days after August 15. Eventually, two Marine battalions were at the airport in addition to a number of Army soldiers. So their numbers start to swell and they are able to kind of get greater control of the airport.
One thing I would just—I think it’s sort of just culturally maybe germane to bring up, and Jamie and I were talking a little bit about this before the session started, is—and maybe why the Marines want their story told—is, you know, these wars have been waged increasingly out of sight for most of America.
You know, these wars were not generationally defining but for a small segment of America they were defining and have been the—they’ve been the defining experience of the last twenty years of my life and many others’. And we all know each other. So Chris Richardella, who’s the colonel in that film, he and I actually went to—through Quantico together when we were twenty-four years old.
The First Battalion of the Eighth Marine Regiment is the battalion that I fought in as a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant in Iraq. The commanding officer of that MEU, who’s a full bird colonel so one rank senior to Chris Richardella, was my commanding officer when he was a major in Afghanistan in 2008.
I don’t bring this up because it’s anything special. It’s actually very unremarkable. All of these intersections in the service exist. Everybody knows each other. But so often fewer and fewer Americans know us.
And I think as much as this war in Afghanistan is about the end game in Afghanistan, it should also be about the end game in America and our relationship with war and that gets to the themes you were talking about like, you know, PTSD and how the Marine Corps and how all the services processed this loss in Afghanistan.
AMOS: Laurel, I wanted to ask you, there’s something about the film that is very chilling when you watch it as a woman. You can see the fear in so many young women and it’s mostly because of the unknown. There’s a phone video of a woman who looks like she’s just come out of The Handmaiden’s Tale and she’s terrified. You know, she’s in white and she’s running and she’s saying the Taliban have come.
But they don’t know what’s going to happen and I wondered if you thought that there was—there could have been another path—there could have been another way to talk to them early to deal with this issue of how they were going to treat women.
MILLER: Well, I think, you know, there are plenty of women in Afghanistan who are old enough to know what it was like under the Taliban before and so the fear that they—I mean, I can’t speak for Afghan women but I think it’s logical to assume that the fear that some of them felt was related to what that experience was before when women’s lives were highly restricted under the earlier Taliban regime in the late 1990s.
You know, I don’t know what could have been, certainly, by foreigners, outsiders, what could have been conveyed before that would have been helpful in that regard. I mean, I guess, you know, the one thing I would point out is that I think it’s unfortunate that many Americans involved with Afghanistan over the last twenty years strayed in their—in what they were saying to Afghans from the reality, that the United States did not invade Afghanistan to free the women of Afghanistan and was never going to stay in Afghanistan to keep the women of Afghanistan free. It’s just simply a fact.
I mean, you know, the United States did not invade Afghanistan and depose the Taliban during their rule when it was well known what women’s lives were like. The U.S. invaded because of its own interests related to counterterrorism. Once there and involved in a nation building mission there was a lot of focus on empowering women through programs that the U.S. government paid for and through its own political advocacy in the country.
But it was never going to be the case that the status of women in Afghanistan was going to be a rationale to keep American forces in the country and, you know, I can say from my own part and my own diplomatic involvement there and afterwards, you know, in a tiny little way I was among those trying to convey the point that you cannot rely on the United States to sustain the reality that women were experiencing over the last twenty years and that their struggle for rights in Afghanistan was going to be, you know, long outlasting the American presence in the country.
But I do think there was over promising before. I think that the rhetoric that came to sustain the political argument for American engagement in Afghanistan could have been read by some, maybe even many, Afghan women as suggesting that the U.S. was going to perceive itself that it owed it to Afghan women to stay and that’s just not the political or military reality of the situation.
AMOS: But, Jamie, this was supposed to be Taliban 2.0. You know, they agreed to certain things when the Trump administration was negotiating with them and, you know, when you look at those guys they’re not their fathers. You know, this is a new generation. They were not in Kabul twenty years ago. They weren’t old enough.
Did you have any sense from them that they are different, a different ideology, that there are still—obviously, there is somebody who—I mean, they just closed down a bunch of schools again, I think, last week.
But did you have a sense from the ones that you interviewed that they were any different from their fathers?
ROBERTS: Yeah. I mean, they were at pains to tell me that, some of them, not least because I think, you know, they didn’t come in like some of their fathers may have where they’d taken people’s mobile phones or they’d remove televisions and, you know, they weren’t out there destroying cassette tapes and throwing them around like possibly they had in the past.
I think there were a lot of Taliban that had come into Kabul and stayed there a little while and actually started changing themselves. When I was there, people would say they’d softened their view on certain kind of ways of life in the city.
At the same time, I think it’s kind of well-known that there’s a schism in the high level of the Taliban and actually within the whole Taliban as a structure.
You know, they won the war on this kind of hardline rhetoric and now they have peace. They’re in control of the place. So you’ve got the hardliners want to remain as they were and they think, you know, that’s why they fought jihad. That’s why they won the war. That’s how they got control.
And then you have other people who maybe want their children educated. They might have even sent their daughters over to Pakistan—some of the leaders have—and now they’re kind of having difficulty reconciling these different sides, and you’re seeing factions and fights. I think even in the first days there was a shootout in the palace between some of the different sides about these differences.
So there is Taliban 2.0. I mean, it’s a different world just due to interconnectivity and social media. But those differences are causing difficulties and, ultimately, the people at the end of the line at the top of the hierarchy are the hardliners. That’s why you’re seeing the schools still closed. We’re still seeing—and it seems to just veer that way. Anytime progress is discussed it kind of—it reverts back to the kind of hardline rhetoric.
AMOS: Elliot, I wanted to get to one more point before we open it up to the audience and that is, you know, so many of you worked on getting Afghan translators out and in many cases you did not succeed. There are still people there in hiding and afraid for their lives, and I wondered if you can talk a little bit about how big that operation got.
The Atlantic wrote a piece. I teach journalism and I had a student write a fantastic piece about this. So there were a lot of people willing to talk and I had the idea there were a lot of people working on this.
Can you talk about it?
You know, during—particularly during those last two weeks of August, I think just about everybody I knew who had either, you know, served in Afghanistan in uniform, worked there as a journalist or as an activist was in some way, shape, or form trying to get out Afghan interpreters or Afghans who had worked for the government or for our government.
So the—and the effort got pretty large, and in my own case the Afghans whose cases, I think that I was working on, you know, at first were ones that I knew but very quickly went outside of the purview of people that I knew and we were making lists and manifests for flights, you know, and it was very much sort of—we talk about Taliban 2.0. It felt like Schindler’s List 2.0, and it felt like there was something deeply wrong about the fact that we all knew, first of all, the only reason these people could get on these lists is because they had in their cell phone the contact number of somebody who knew somebody who might be able to get them through the gate.
That is not what should determine whether or not a person, you know, has to live the rest of their life under the Taliban or in the case of reprisals is killed by the Taliban, and so we know that’s been going on. So it’s gotten pretty large. I think what’s sad now is how small it’s gotten. There’s, really, no viable means to get people out of Afghanistan.
I’m still in touch with a few. And we also have many of our Afghan allies who got out of Afghanistan but have not gotten to the United States and are in countries that are not quite as sympathetic to their plight as we might be in the U.S.
And then, lastly, if you’ll allow me, you know, I think the last point it’s very important not to lose sight of, particularly as we’re, you know, one year out from these events and we have other events that are begging for our attention like Ukraine and otherwise, is, you know, we have about eighty thousand Afghans who we’ve brought to the United States and they are currently here on a humanitarian parole.
So their immigration status is in no means certain. They will be, if their immigration status is not changed, deported from the United States, and their path to work here is also uncertain.
So there is legislation that’s sort of wending its way through Congress. It’s bicameral legislation—the Afghan Adjustment Act—which would put these individuals on the pathway to have green cards and to eventually become citizens, and it’s critical that that legislation get pushed through not just for the interests of those Afghans but also for the interests of our country.
I mean, you know, these people are—you know, they might not hold blue passports but in my book they’re American heroes, so many of them, because they fought alongside us for twenty years.
AMOS: So—well, I’m going to sneak in one more question—I have two minutes—and that is going forward, you know, we fought—we, the United States, the Americans—fought the Taliban for twenty years. Now we have to recognize them as a sovereign government.
How difficult is that? Do we hold them—do we keep their money until every Afghan dies of starvation? I mean, what happens, going forward?
MILLER: Well, we don’t have to recognize them in any kind of formal, you know, sort of legal sense. That’s not required in order to engage diplomatically with the Taliban in at least limited ways and it’s not required in order to provide support for the Afghan people.
There is, I think, a need on the part of Afghans, certainly, for support and help from the international community. The country is in very dire humanitarian and economic straits, and humanitarian aid alone is not going to solve that problem and it’s not really sustainable.
The conundrum is how does the United States and others in the international community provide support in ways that lead to no benefit for the Taliban. That’s really impossible.
I mean, any kind of help that the United States provides to support the Afghan people and to restore, you know, even a minimum level of economic activity is going to have some indirect propping up effect for the Taliban regime and there’s just no way around that.
But the reality of the lives that Afghans—women, men, children, others—are living today and the fact that the current situation is a consequence of American policy decisions I do think means that there is an obligation to provide some assistance there even if it has some—even if it means that you have to engage with the Taliban in order to provide that assistance to the Afghan people.
What you can’t do is provide support for the Afghan people with any expectation that you’re going to get something from the Taliban in a political sense in return. They are not engaging in a transaction with the United States or the international community whereby if you provide certain number of dollars of support they’re going to change their views about girls’ education or about having a more inclusive, much less a more democratic form of governance, in the country.
Their priorities on how they govern the country, these policy choices they’re making, are driven by factors that have nothing to do with financial support for the people of Afghanistan. So the choices that the U.S. needs to make and other donors need to make need to be to do things that have inherent value for the Afghan people without expecting anything from the Taliban in return, even though, you know, of course, you continue to press for the kinds of changes you want to see. But you can’t buy them.
AMOS: And, Jamie, just quickly, do they feel to you like they’re there to stay?
ROBERTS: Yeah, very much so. I mean, there’s talk a lot about resistance happening up in Panjshir and different areas. But, you know, the Taliban have got complete control. They control the police. They control—every street there’s an armed Talib. There’s American-funded ANA tanks outside the airport.
You know, I don’t really see—they’ve got—it’s hand in glove. There’s complete control. I can’t really see how it can change.
AMOS: Thank you very much.
I’d like to open it to questions. I wouldn’t like to. I would like to keep doing this. (Laughs.) But we are going to now open this from the audience. So if you can, you can see some instructions down at the bottom of your screen and we will open the questions to you.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will be from Alex Wallace.
Q: Hi. Alex Wallace here. I’m a media advisor.
My question is for Jamie. Having done a ton of reporting on Afghanistan over the years, I was amazed by your access to the Taliban and I just wondered—I mean, you’re lucky if we get one—you get one Taliban on camera and you got ten. Could you just walk me through how that happened? I was really impressed.
Yeah. I mean, we had—I was out there for two months solid and, really, it was every day I was—we’d be speaking to different types of people and, obviously, keeping them very separate. So we were very interested in people who were trapped, who were trying to get out. We thought that was probably the most important voice, which is why we give it to the end of the film. But also Talibs. We really want to hear, you know, how this event looked through their eyes. And, really, it was sustained different approaches.
So somewhere there’s a real hierarchical nature, which I’m sure you know, of the Taliban. So if you spend enough time speaking to people, explaining to them why this story is important and treating them with just regular respect, but a lot of green tea, again, passed up the chain of command, you kind of get somewhere that way. There’s different departments that you can kind of work, as it were.
And also, there’s just the regular—you know, going to the location is very important in something like this. So we went—I went to the different gates often, you know, every other day to film but also speak to the people who were there. And a lot of the Talibs had moved off and gone around the country, but you still had a lot that were actually in the city and you can get—move through the contacts that way.
So, really, it was kind of social chains and drinking tea, eating food. That’s a massive thing in Afghanistan and it doesn’t really matter who you are. That’s a thing that matters, and if you break bread with people you can talk and really build relationships that way and that was a big way.
You know, I had lunch with the Taliban almost every other day and it was just for the means of trying to get access because they want to hear you out. They’re interested. There wasn’t many Westerners around. They want to know your story.
First of all, they want to know if you’re a spy but after that they want to know why you’re there and why you’re interested, and I think they could see that, you know, we—not just me but HBO, BBC, were genuinely interested in what happened and they were the people there that could tell us. Because we wanted to hear from the Marines but also the people on the other side of the gates that was them, and a lot of them understood that.
There’s a lot of—they don’t keep time very well and there’s a lot of messing around. A lot of people wouldn’t talk to us. But, fortunately, some would and I think that, for us, that was really enlightening for the story.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Mary Beth Long.
Q: Well, first of all, I missed the first couple minutes of your presentation. I apologize. I want to thank all of you for your attention to an incredibly important topic.
This past week, we all celebrated in our own way—celebrated probably isn’t the right term—recognized September 11 as the anniversary of us having going in the first place with Taliban and those who, like many of you, are still working to get people out and still have a list of 1,200 people running from safe house to safe house in Mazar-e-Sharif and who still have people who have been stuck over a year in Humanitarian Village woke up to learn that one of the interpreters to a Delta Force unit who’s been in the UAE for over a year tried to commit suicide because of the despair and the lack of a path out of even the UAE, recognizing that his brethren who are still in Afghanistan have a bigger issue to face.
Why—many people, I think—and you raised it, I think, Mr. Ackerman—the U.S. PTSD implications in the Marines and what has happened and then unrecognized that the impact of all of this on our forces as well as the implications for our enemies abroad is huge.
They see incredible weakness. They see an America acting in a way that was hereto untold and unforeseen and, yet, we have to turn to the BBC for at least what sounds to be, like, an amazing coverage.
Why the silence from the American press? Why the what appears to be this lack of interest in the far-reaching implications not only of what happened but what’s going to happen because of this? Why isn’t, as part of the September 11 coverage, people weren’t really looking at the questions Ms. Miller, Ms. Amos, Mr. Ackerman, and, Robert, you’ve been looking at? Why is it that the BBC is producing this and, yet, there’s almost nothing in the U.S. press about the negative implications of what’s happened?
ACKERMAN: Should I take a crack at that?
AMOS: Go ahead, Elliot.
ACKERMAN: Thanks so much for that question, Mary Beth.
You know, my impression of why the American public has been disengaged with the wars, I think, it’s rooted into the way these wars were constructed. So this isn’t new—a lack of engagement by the American public, particularly with the war in Afghanistan.
There’s actually a poll that Rasmussen put in the field before the 2018 midterm elections and before the Trump administration really started talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan. So I feel like that was sort of a low point of American engagement in Afghanistan. And when they put that poll into the field 42 percent of Americans—it wasn’t that they didn’t care about Afghanistan as an issue. Forty-two percent of Americans didn’t even know if the war was still going on. They actually couldn’t say. It had slipped that far out of our national consciousness.
So the question becomes: How did that happen? Every war the United States has fought since the Revolution has needed a construct to sustain it. And by construct I mean, really, in terms of two factors—blood, who’s going to fight it, and treasure, how are we going to pay for it.
So the American Civil War, the construct was, if you look, the blood—the first ever draft in the United States comes out of the American Civil War. The treasure—the first ever income tax that we have is also from the American Civil War.
You know, the Second World War the construct is war bond drives and a national mobilization. The Vietnam War the construct is a draft that eventually leads to an anti-war movement that finishes that war.
After September 11 happened America went to war again and the question was, OK, what’s going to be the construct to sustain these wars, and we—our construct that we put in place now through four different presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat, has been the following.
Our all-volunteer military will fight this war and we will pay through it through our national deficit. About—between a quarter and a third of our national deficit right now comes out of the wars on terror and there’s never been a war tax. Unless you know someone who’s served in uniform or served yourself you’ve, basically, been—you’ve been insulated from these wars.
So the American public has been completely anesthetized to the—you know, the war in Iraq and now the war in Afghanistan for twenty years and because of that if you—you know, if you were to ask me how did America wind up fighting a twenty-year war, it’s because of this construct. That’s why it went on for so long.
And so when we get to the end of it if the result is a certain, I mean, outside of the very dramatic events in August and many Americans just not liking the images, but if the result is that a year later there kind of is still this general sense of American apathy around the war in Afghanistan, you know, I would just point to the preceding twenty years.
And I think that as we walk away from these wars, if there was one lesson that I would like to, you know, put up in lights for America as we go forward it would be, you know, be very leery of a political class that as it goes to war tells you that this is a war where you’re not going to have to feel the cost, where someone else is going to fight and you can just go about your life as usual because you’re probably going to wind up getting a very, very long war that leaves the nation in a position in which it is morally compromised, as we are now with regards to Afghanistan at the end of it.
So there are probably many other reasons why people aren’t feeling this but that is sort of the—that is what I’ve always fallen back on.
MILLER: If I may just jump in for a moment to say there is still some excellent reporting of Afghanistan out there.
I mean, I have to commend the New York Times’ consistent coverage of Afghanistan and a lot of excellent coverage around the withdrawal process a year ago and, I mean, I’m just—you know, there are others as well. But, I mean, that’s one news organization that’s continued to devote resources.
There aren’t a lot of people on the ground there now. Still, the conditions are very difficult for researchers and journalists. But my own organization, for instance, we publish regularly on the situation in Afghanistan. We have people who do research on the ground there.
And books are beginning to come out. There—recently, Carter Malkasian wrote an excellent long history, published—he’d been writing it for a long time—history of the whole twenty years of war in Afghanistan that, I think, also does some valuable work in beginning to point to what some of the reasons for failure were.
In addition, Congress has established a commission to examine the whole twenty-year experience in Afghanistan in all its dimensions. I’m one of the commissioners that was appointed by Congress to look at this.
It’s a, you know, three- to four-year effort to do that and that’s because there’s a lot. If you’re going to be serious about examining in depth what happened, why it happened, what lessons to learn, then it takes time to do that.
So, yeah. I mean, it may not be a highly, you know, sort of popular media focus of attention but I do believe there is information out there and there will continue to be.
AMOS: Let me just—
ROBERTS: Can I just—it was—
AMOS: Can I ask you, Jamie, a question? Did the BBC—were they aware that this would come out around 9/11? Was that the point?
ROBERTS: Well, this—I wanted to actually say it was actually HBO were by far the lead partner in this and we make films at the—Amos Pictures, the production company I work out with HBO a lot, and HBO are very willing to do deep dives into difficult subjects like this like nobody else. So we’re very appreciative of that.
The 9/11—I think, really, the—we wanted to—our timeline was, really, set a year after and just after that. It was—the film took a bit longer than—because of the access to Afghanistan. We were aiming originally for the one-year anniversary. Obviously, that is around the 9/11 anniversary, which is a huge date that foreshadows this whole event. That’s the kind of two connecting points is 9/11 to what happened last year.
But no, really, it was a year after or thereabouts we were putting the film out and I was actually delayed by about a month and a half because it was impossible to get our kit over there at the time because there was barely anybody there. And, as Laurel says, there are some brilliant journalists there working with very small means. You’re talking about just people on their own—I think Charlie Faulkner at The Times and some excellent people at the New York Times.
So people are covering it. I mean, from my perspective, maybe the—it’s not being covered that much, as much as maybe it should because there is anathema towards it. There is this—it was an attritional war. Access was prevented to get into the British military and the U.S. military. It was difficult for journalists for a long time.
So we weren’t seeing the story in a way that we can maybe relate to. It was often Afghan National Army and the rest. So, you know, that it feels like there’s lots being written and done about Afghanistan but it does feel like it needs to loom large and not least because, you know, there was a $2 trillion spend on the Americans. I think the embassy alone cost 2 billion (dollars).
That’s a huge amount of money. A huge amount of lives have gone into this war and it doesn’t feel like it’s being covered enough.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from John Hauge.
Q: Thank you. John Hauge from the Global LPG Partnership.
Have you seen any credible estimate of the number of immediate and extended family members of the Afghan translators and other assistants to the U.S. who wanted to get out? What is the bottom of the iceberg? Because my concern was we were never going to be able to meet the demand in the short time that we’ve had till the end of August.
MILLER: I mean, just to jump in. You know, I don’t have the specific answer to your question of how—you cut out a little bit. I think you were asking about how many are still there, and I think that’s—I don’t know if anyone has the real answer to that question.
But I guess one thing I would say is that one of the serious issues with there having been an evacuation which wasn’t planned to happen was that there was no prioritization, really, of who got out. I mean, there was a little bit in the sense of—you know, of current employees of embassies, for instance, or for—of the U.S. military having access to getting out early.
But there was, frankly, a lot of Afghans who got out who never worked for the U.S. government, didn’t have any claim on getting this—there’s this category of Special Immigrant Visa for which people who did work for the United States were eligible and many were in the application pipeline, which was a long pipeline, at the time of the withdrawal.
But there were some—you know, I can’t put a number on it but some—I think, significant number of Afghans who got out who would never have been eligible for that visa. There were people who worked for nongovernmental organizations, not even current employees but former employees in various capacities, who got out and then others who didn’t.
And, you know, it’s not to say that people weren’t in—I mean, people were desperate to get out and people who were—you know, it’s not for me to judge who is more deserving and who is more desperate to get out, and I think that would have been a hard judgment to make.
But in the end, it was not an evacuation, you know, specifically and exclusively of people who worked for the U.S. and NATO. I think there—you know, there is an ongoing effort to continue to get people out. My understanding is that does continue to be a high priority of the U.S. government. But it is more difficult.
ACKERMAN: Yeah. I would just add the numbers that I’ve seen have been consistently that you have an outstanding number of about three hundred thousand Special Immigrant Visas. So if you factor in that we have got about eighty thousand people in the United States that might give you a general sense.
But I think these numbers are, you know, extremely fuzzy at this point because Afghanistan just information wise has turned into a little bit of a black hole.
And, you know, just to emphasize what Laurel said, the—you know, the evacuation itself—and Jamie really captures this visually so and in such an amazing way in the film—is so much of the messaging was, well, you know, if you have the paperwork or if you are an American citizen go to the airport and you will be allowed in.
But the pandemonium at the airport—I mean, getting to the front of one of these crowds to signal a Marine to get waved into the airport it was like the equivalent of telling someone to go to see—you know, you’re going to go to see the Rolling Stones at Altamont and you need to wave to the band on stage and get them to call you up onto the stage.
I mean, it was incredibly difficult, even for people who had all of the appropriate documentation, to just get into the airport.
MILLER: I just want to make one point clear, though.
You know, I think in principle there could have been a much more orderly and prioritized evacuation on paper. However, once you started any evacuation, even one that was planned to be an orderly evacuation, I think you would have precipitated—the moment you started to execute on that plan you would have precipitated the kind of panic and chaos that, ultimately, ensued and you would have been—you know, the idea that you could have an orderly evacuation in a—within a bubble of an overall collapsing context, I think, is really implausible.
That’s not to say that there shouldn’t have been better, different planning than there was. But I do think you have to distinguish between what might have been a better plan on paper and what you would have actually still seen on the ground once you start that process and you precipitate the crisis of confidence that there was.
ACKERMAN: Yeah. And I would add, Jamie, too, I think it’s going to be fascinating to see what comes out of your commission because there were a number of points, too, when the Taliban was in conversation with senior U.S. military members about how much of Kabul they wanted to take and when, and the U.S. military ceded parts of Kabul in which they collapsed around the airfield in a way that wasn’t necessarily a fait accompli.
The Taliban were willing to slow their retreat in Kabul to precipitate more space for people to get to the airport more easily and were in active conversations in the lead-up to August 15 when they came into Kabul, and that’s been reported on as well.
So I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion about this, you know, to include the letter that was delivered to the White House in May and signed by Representatives Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer and a whole—more than two dozen Congress people asking for an evacuation to Guam or at least a contingency plan for an evacuation to Guam like was done at the end of the Vietnam War, and that letter was actually met with silence. The White House never even answered it.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Fred Roggero.
Q: Hi. First of all, well, I’m Fred Roggero, retired Air Force, and thank you all very much for your time, today’s fabulous presentation.
And, Jamie, well done on the documentary. It’s terrific.
Elliot, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of this long war and why.
But, Jamie, I do have one question about the film. We got access to the Taliban, which was fabulous, and it was the in-the-trenches viewpoint, which really gives it a lot of credibility. My hat is off to those Marines that you talked with.
Was there an attempt by you at the start to go any—to senior ranking people in the Department of Defense or in the Marine Corps even of itself? Or is that something that just happened or did you say, no, we’re going to cut it off at this level?
And, likewise, was there a deliberate determination not to go out and to take a look at our international partners who were also there on the airfield to sort of see if their experiences were similar, the same, or how they handled those?
And then, finally, was—maybe it’s a sequel in there but a trenches view of the State Department and their workings because they have a huge role, of course, in a noncombatant evacuation typically. Is that going to be something that we’ll ever see or get looked at later on?
Thank you very much. An outstanding job, again.
ROBERTS: Well, great question, Fred.
In terms of top level, we approached at the very senior level the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps, and, initially, I mean, we were met with quite a lot of resistance and we were told that was coming from the White House, and we were told that was coming from the White House and the Biden administration didn’t want to share about what happened in Kabul, really, is what we were told, and we were told that quite a few times.
So we didn’t expect the Marines to come out like they did and we were really happy that they did because that really gave us a view into the story that we would never have seen otherwise. So we did go.
Now, with the international partners, I mean, we—I met up with the British military. We spoke with other international agencies, but the British military—I’m based in London, so I had lots of meetings with the MOD and we did use some of their footage.
Going to Afghanistan and looking at the actual location, it became very clear that the U.S. were by far the lead partners. You know, they had—and it was the Marines that were right there on the gates, and we wanted a film that was narrow and deep in its focus. So we could have told all these—lots of stories, and there’s huge amounts. You know, there was the Baron Hotel story. There was the Serena Hotel story. There was what happened in the palace. You know, we did interview the U.S. negotiator Khalilzad and we interviewed people from the palace.
But, really, as we developed the film it just became clear that we needed to really focus on where this catastrophe was happening right on that frontline and, really, just be bold in the storytelling and try and tell that story rather than all these other ones. Because I think before this happened we actually had the discussion in this office saying we should do a twenty years of Afghanistan. There’s a big series here. We were trying to see if we could get that going.
But there wasn’t—to be honest, there wasn’t a huge amount—we were, like, this is going to be impossible to get away. Who’s going to be interested? Afghanistan’s gone off the table. It was only really when this event happened that people started to lock on a little bit and we saw an opportunity to try and do a story here, to be frank.
In terms of the State Department, we spoke with the acting ambassador at the time and we looked at the State Department’s story. But, again, I think we were drawn, really, to the three factors of the U.S. Marines, who were right there in the gates, the Taliban, and then the evacuees who got out and the evacuees who tried to get out.
Because, really, at the end of the film what we try and leave you with is the fact that there are still so many people there stuck in this situation, not least partners with America, with NATO, but also women. You know, half the country there is now living in uncertainty without education.
They’ve gone back twenty years in time, in their minds, and the real thing that really chimed with me was that there’s twenty-year-old women who have educated, bought into this dream that we’ve all sold them, you know, the fact that you’re going to have education, you can be an international person who might be able to do business wherever you want. And now the Taliban have come and it really did look like Handmaid’s Tale. The first episode of that is kind of what happened.
You’ve got guys in Hiluxes turn up with machine guns and say, you get inside. You cover up. Otherwise, you’re going to get hurt, and that’s the situation now in Afghanistan.
But so, really, I mean, yeah, I hope—I’ve done a film about Afghan children leaving Afghanistan before. This story is very focused on what happened during the evacuation. But either myself or somebody, there definitely needs to be a longer look at the last twenty years in Afghanistan because it was a huge project and there’s so many stories there. Some incredible, many painful, but important.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Meena Bose.
Q: Thank you.
To echo the previous questioner, the film was so compelling. I’m very grateful to have had the chance to see it and I’m looking forward to sharing it with others when it becomes—I think it goes public next week, if I’m correct.
Follow up on the last two previous comments about pandemonium with the departure from Afghanistan and whether that could have been done differently. From an organizational perspective, not strategic, and so this is really directed to anyone on the panel, what could have been done differently between May and the end of August?
The original departure date, I believe, was September 11. That was then pushed up by about two weeks. Could this have been a more staggered departure process? Would that have reduced the pandemonium? I think Laurel’s point that that was unavoidable with an exit date is persuasive.
But the images in the film of just the chaos outside the gate, just people waiting for days, the families being torn apart, and then the number of deaths that happened, it’s just—and the stories from the Marines on the ground were, really, just very scary and disappointing.
So I’m just wondering organizationally—putting aside the strategic questions—what could have been done differently?
ACKERMAN: I could offer a military answer as to what could have been done differently, particularly as the—you know, as the Taliban were moving into Kabul there were—and it’s been reported—there were conversations between senior Taliban commanders and American Taliban—and American commanders about the pace of the Taliban entry into Kabul.
You know, we know later on—it’s documented in the film, I think, very well, the communication that was going on between the Taliban and Americans and how sort of uncomfortable it was for we, as Americans, to suddenly be coordinating with the Taliban as they were holding sort of exterior security on the airfield and we were holding interior security.
But there were conversations that the Taliban were having with American forces as to the pace of their advance into Kabul because they knew that we would need to get our people out, and the decision was made that the only thing we needed the Taliban not to move on was the airport itself.
So I think you can make a compelling case that had we expanded that security bubble that would have provided much more areas of egress into the airport and reduce the scenes of pandemonium that you had at these choke points, which were the North Gate—what’s called the unnamed gate and then, ultimately, the Abbey Gate and that choke point, you know, led to the deaths of thirteen U.S. service members and over a hundred and fifty Afghans. So I think there’s a—you know, that’s more of a tactical conversation.
You know, there’s also a conversation about the date certain. You know, I think for a long time the narrative around the end of Afghanistan was that it was also a fait accompli that we had to take our terms from the Afghanistan—from the Taliban, that September 11, 2021, was an absolute hard date, could not go past it, and then that became the end of August was a hard date, that we couldn’t go past it.
At the same time, I think we lose sight of the fact that, like, you know, we are the United States of America and NATO. I mean, we have significant military resources at our disposal to change those dates, to bolster our forces. The entire Eighty-Second Airborne Division, for instance, out of Fort Bragg, one of their key divisional tasks is air fort seizure. That’s what they—that’s why they are parachute qualified.
I mean, you could have reinforced the airport in ways that just never seemed to be on the table for the administration and change the dynamic in Afghanistan in those months. The decision was made not to do so.
So if it felt as though our back was up against a wall, and it, certainly, felt that way and seemed to be that way, I would make an argument that it was a wall of our own making, and we erected that wall in April and we announced that a date certain we would leave.
And the events that followed came from that announcement and there were many people warning along the way that this was going—this was how it was going to end up to and including, as I mentioned, you know, the number of legislators pleading for just some type of process to get people moved to Guam or to at least have a process to expedite the SIV process so you get people moving out to Guam.
And, you know, those warnings were left unheeded and I think the greatest example of the fact that the administration was completely caught flat footed is that half the administration was on vacation when this happened. They weren’t even in Washington, D.C.
So I think that—you know, that’s an indictment that the mentality just wasn’t even there for the types of contingencies that could have changed the reality on the ground, and I would just encourage people to watch Jamie’s film because it shows in really visceral terms what happens when those types of worst case scenarios are not planned for.
MILLER: Just—I mean, a couple of quick points.
One, I actually respectfully disagree a bit on this point about the date and setting the dates. The fact is that the date that the Trump administration had negotiated with the Taliban for departure from Afghanistan was May, not August or September.
And so it was the U.S. that unilaterally decided what the date certain was going to be. It wasn’t the Taliban that set those terms. And, in fact, the whole reason for the negotiation with the Taliban was that the U.S. wanted to withdraw. I mean, there was a political decision to withdraw. So if you’re going to do that, at some point you have to set a date and it was the U.S. that set that date and changed it over time.
You know, the one thing that could have been different was that, you know, a decision—I mean, there was never a decision to execute a massive evacuation. Ultimately, a massive evacuation is what happened and it—the decision-making caught up with the reality as it unfolded.
But the one thing that could have been different, in principle, would have been to decide to have at an earlier time period, months in advance, a massive evacuation and then the instructions—the orders to the military to do what you needed to do at the airport, et cetera, in order to implement that could have flowed from that.
But, you know, as I said earlier, I mean, even if there had been that decision you would have had different kind of planning that would have been put in place. But there was a lot of—you also had the conundrum that beginning to do that planning—to make that decision, do that planning, and begin to execute on it would have triggered a crisis in Afghanistan with even more certainty than the crisis that did unfold when the U.S. withdrawal started to happen.
AMOS: So I’d like to thank all of you. We are at our deadline and at CFR we get out on time.
And so I want to thank everybody and congratulations to you, Jamie, for an astonishing film. Really astonishing. It could have been worse is the thought I came away with. Could have been a lot worse.
I’d also like to thank Elliot Ackerman, who wrote The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, and Laurel Miller, director of the Asia Program, International Crisis Group.
It’s been a great hour. Thank you all very much.