Afghans Try to Flee U.S.-Caused Crisis

For those left behind, crises are far from over.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Getty Images (2)

The Taliban have taken over Afghanistan, forcing the U.S.-backed Afghan government out. This week on Intercepted: Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain guides us through how the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan has concluded. With the U.S. having suffered what appears to be a stunning defeat, Intercept national security editor Vanessa Gezari, who also reported from Afghanistan for years after the U.S. war began, breaks down the historical trajectory that led to this moment. In the weeks leading up to the Taliban takeover, lines at the country’s only passport office grew longer as fears of instability and violence increased. Andrew Quilty, a photographer and journalist based in Kabul, talked to people at the passport office who were trying to leave. He later describes scenes from the country, only a day after it fell to the Taliban.

[Introduction music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Murtaza Hussain: I’m Murtaza Hussain, a reporter with The Intercept.

Andrew Quilty: It’s about 1 a.m. on Aug. 17, 36 hours since the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, in a surprisingly peaceful transition of power with the Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani.

MH: That’s Andrew Quilty, a photographer and writer based in Kabul.

AQ: The remaining 15 or so provincial capitals fell to the Taliban in a matter of days, bringing the then-insurgent group to the gates of Kabul, late on the night of Aug. 14. It was a sleepless night that night, for Kabul’s residents, who were anticipating the next day to begin violently. It was only a hastily cobbled-together agreement between the government and the Taliban that would see a peaceful transition of power.

MH: In just a short time, we saw the Taliban take over Afghanistan.

ABC News: The Taliban’s seizing back power nearly two decades after 9/11, taking over the capital of Kabul in just a matter of days.

ABC News: The Afghan President has fled the country, and U.S. troops have taken control of the city’s airport, where thousands of Afghans are also desperate to leave the country.

BBC News: U.S. and U.K. troops are engaged in evacuating their citizens while the international community tries to define its response to the Taliban’s lightning-speed victory.

President Joseph R. Biden: If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that any U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

AQ: When the agreement was made that would see the government fold, most of the Afghan security forces shed their uniforms and left their posts. 

Across the city, former members of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police could be seen walking from military infrastructure around the city, carrying sacks of belongings. And, within a matter of hours, a security vacuum developed in the city. Looting began, thieves dressed up to look like Taliban robbed people on the street, and within a matter of another few hours, the Taliban made a hasty decision to send their fighters into the city to fill the vacuum left by the retreating — disappearing — Afghan security forces.

MH: We’ll be hearing more from Andrew in a few minutes.

The two-decade-long U.S. War in Afghanistan has come to a conclusion, with the U.S. having suffered what appears to be a stunning defeat. After spending over $1 trillion and fighting a war that resulted in thousands of U.S. casualties and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, the U.S. is leaving the country with the Taliban firmly in power.

Vanessa Gezari, national security editor for The Intercept, has spent years reporting in Afghanistan after the U.S. launched the war. Vanessa shared her reflections with us on the U.S. government’s longest war, and what the recent developments mean for Afghanistan:

Reflections on Decades of U.S. Involvement

Vanessa Gezari: One thing I’ve been struck by watching what’s happening now is that the videos we’re seeing now come out of Afghanistan of men with RPGs on the streets of major cities, and the streets empty, and gunfire ricocheting around.

[Sounds of gunfire and citizens yelling.]

VG: And refugees in Kabul, in parks where a lot of us spent time picnicking or with friends, I’m just struck by how much it looks the way it did 20 years ago, when the U.S. first got involved in the war. It’s really striking and surreal how 20 years of our engagement there seems to just have been erased in a few days. 

But you also have to remember that tens of thousands of people have lost their children, husbands, brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters to this war: Afghans, Americans, Europeans, and many others. In Afghanistan alone, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown, the total dead since October 2001 are 157,000, of whom the vast majority are Afghan civilians, security forces, and opposition fighters. 

And for all those people, and many others who have been there in this period, these years won’t be erased ever. They’ll never forget what happened in this period. And while our war may be ending — maybe — the war is not ending for Afghans, and it’s probably going to continue for a long time. 

You know, for a generation of Afghans and Americans, this war was a very strange beast. It was a tapestry of cultural marvels, dark stories, death, destruction, beauty, suffering, friendship, regret, guilt, and official lies. The biggest lie has been about America, about what this country is in the world and about what we can and cannot do as the world’s sole superpower. 

American exceptionalism has now been shown in so many ways to be a bankrupt concept. We are not strong, we are not capable, we are not principled. And so I’m thinking a lot right now about the possibilities for moral recovery as a nation given the last 20 years of our history and what we’re seeing now in Afghanistan.

[Musical interlude.]

Amy Goodman: During most of the 1980s, the CIA secretly sent billions of dollars of military aid to Afghanistan to support the Mujahideen, or holy warriors, against the Soviet Union, which had invaded in 1979. 

President Ronald W. Reagan: During the past 18 months, the Mujahideen fighting inside the country have improved their weapons, tactics, and coordination. The result has been a string of serious defeats for the Soviet elite units, as well as many divisions from the Kabul army.

Amy Goodman: The U.S.-supported jihad succeeded in driving out the Soviets but the Afghan factions, once allied to the U.S., eventually gave rise to the oppressive Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. 

Peter Jennings: That’s the scene at this moment at the World Trade Center. Don Dahler from ABC’s “Good Morning America” is down in the general vicinity. Don, can you tell us what has just happened?

Don Dahler: Yeah, Peter. The second building that was hit by the plane has just completely collapsed. The entire building has just collapsed as if a demolition team set off – when you see the old demolition of these old buildings, it folded down on itself, and it is not there anymore. 

PJ: The whole side has collapsed there? 

DD: The whole building has collapsed. 

VG: The United States was attacked by Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001. We’re about to hit the 20-year anniversary of those attacks. They were horrific. 

President George W. Bush: This group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries. The leadership of Al Qaeda has great influence in Afghanistan, and supports the Taliban regime and controlling most of that country.

VG: They caught America almost totally by surprise in terms of the public. I mean, the security state was actually expecting these attacks. So that’s a whole other story. But I think the public was really caught off guard by it. 

You know, it was so surprising to people. I think that is part of why the notion of going to war, as an answer to the 9/11 attacks, was compelling for a broad range of the public. 

GWB: And tonight, the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban: Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land. The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.

GWB: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.

VG: What happened was essentially an invasion, that should have been, arguably, a police operation. 

Ostensibly, the U.S. government went there to go after bin Laden and the Taliban who sheltered him. But what’s really striking about what we’re seeing now and, actually, the negotiation process that has been underway between the United States government and the Taliban in Doha, for the better part of 10 years now, is that there was an opportunity to have that kind of a negotiation in the first months after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. And the response of the United States to that was: We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

And so what’s happening now is really painful to watch on a lot of levels. One reason that it’s painful to watch is that tens of thousands of people have died who did not need to die in this war. And that’s not even speaking about the other kinds of damage, the billions of dollars that have been spent.

We have this military, we have this giant defense infrastructure, that the people who are involved in that world and in that infrastructure — and there are many of them — need to feel relevant. They need to justify the gigantic budget that we have for these kinds of operations and for our military. And it just, it feels so wasteful and heartbreaking to think that this was really a chance for people to spend money and play with their toys, essentially. If you have a lot of guns, and you don’t use them, what are they good for? 

When I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, I was a young reporter, and it was really my first time. I had been in Pakistan the previous year, and I was living in the region, but it was my first time covering a conflict. And the thing that has really stayed with me is that the way interviews are conducted in Afghanistan is often — especially for someone new to the story as I was then, there’s a lot of history. So you sit with people for a very long time, and you hear what’s happened to them and how their families have fared over these successive wars. So they talk about what happened when the Soviets were there. And they talk about what happened during the Mujahideen era. They talk about what happened when the Taliban came to power in the 90s and held power for a number of years. And they talk about what happened when the Taliban fell, and where they were. And then they talk about what was happening at the time, about the U.S. invasion and the U.S. occupation.

Jim Miklaszewski: The first wave, 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles like these fired from U.S. and British ships and submarines; 25 warplanes off the aircraft carriers Carl Vinson and Enterprise launch strikes from the Indian Ocean; and long-range bombers dropping precision guided weapons: B-52s, B-1s, and these two B-2 stealth bombers.

VG: It was sort of the depths of sadness and suffering that people had been through there. I remember I would go out in the morning, and I would visit with people, and sit with them, and hear their stories. It was so clear from listening to those stories, what was important, and also just what it was like to live in a place where it was very easy to die, very easy to be hurt, very easy to have your life irreparably changed in seconds. And that really stuck with me.

I mean, it’s hard to convey how disappointing it is to watch this — not for the simple reasons that I think, for me, that some people are citing on Twitter that we just need to kill the Taliban. But sort of more for the reasons that I mentioned that this just didn’t have to happen.

Al Jazeera: After 18 months of talks, and nearly two decades of war, the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban have just signed a long-awaited deal aimed at paving the way to peace and the departure of foreign troops.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Just as any worthy journey begins, it is a first step, and we know exactly who we’re dealing with. If the Taliban do not uphold their commitments, President Trump and his team will not hesitate to do what we must do to protect American lives.

VG: The United States has been really appalling in how it’s handled the negotiation with the Taliban. 

I think the agreement that was crafted under the Trump administration was not a good one. The United States negotiated — put that in air quotes — an agreement under Donald Trump that seemed to basically be centered on the fact that the United States did not want to be in Afghanistan anymore, which is not really the greatest way to negotiate your exit. So if you’re broadcasting that you want to leave, and the Taliban know that you want to leave, and you’re just looking for a way out, then you’re going to take an agreement, that is not going to be a good one for most of the Afghans who are still living in this country, I think, or the chances are much greater that you’re going to do that.

That is what happened with the agreement. Then Biden inherited this agreement. And I think Biden just wants to pull off the bandaid, honestly. I think Biden has not wanted to be in Afghanistan for a very long time.

JB: That’s why I oppose the surge, when it was proposed in 2009, when I was vice president. And that’s why, as president, I’m adamant we focus on the threats we face today, in 2021, not yesterday’s threats.

VG: There are no good options at this point, in terms of policy there. So anybody who thinks that there’s really a great way to leave, I don’t think so. I don’t think there have been good options for us in Afghanistan since the very early days and years after the war. So, we’re left with this.

The Afghan people are very tough, but they’re also exhausted. This has been an extremely difficult period, in one way or another, for almost everyone in Afghanistan. And even the people who have benefited the most in this period have lived with a level of fear and anxiety. I can’t be very optimistic about how this is going to feel to people. 

I saw a story in the Times. They had a picture of a car full of children evacuating their homes in one of the big cities in northern Afghanistan that was taken by the Taliban, and you just look in the eyes of these children, and they’re terrified. And anybody can think about what it would be like to have to pick up your kids.

[Somber musical interlude.]

VG: To me, and I think for a lot of people who were alive when the 9/11 attacks happened, and in any way participated in what happened after that, either as a journalist or just even living in this country during this period, this is a very resonant time. And I hope it’s an introspective time for Americans, and a time for us to think about how — or if — there’s any possibility for us to be good again in the world. And I say “again” — [laughs hollowly] we clearly haven’t ever been the nation that was envisioned, we haven’t held to the ideals that this nation has spoken about. I feel that this moment is a reflection of how much we’ve failed to reach any kind of moral ground that we would want to stand on in the world. So what I hope is that what comes out of this is more clarity about what America is, as a country; what we do in the world; and the impact that it has. 

It is certainly true that Afghans and their leaders bear a share of responsibility for what has been happening in their country in the last 20 years. And previously, and there are many other actors who have been involved in the creation of the Taliban, including the United States, also including Pakistan, also including other actors. It’s just very unfortunate that the people who have lost the most have been the people least responsible for what has been happening in Afghanistan. So the people who are in government, the people who have profited, sometimes often corruptly during this period in Afghanistan, those people will have a better shot now at getting out of danger and saving their families than people who have suffered the most and, and have been the weakest and the most vulnerable throughout this whole period and really have not been able to, except by very small individual acts, change the course of their lives.

MH: That was Vanessa Gezari, national security editor for The Intercept.

In the past few days, we’ve seen images of Afghans desperately trying to find ways out of the country; harrowing footage shows people clinging onto U.S. military aircraft.

AQ: The day after the takeover, thousands of people descended on the airport, trying to make their way inside and onto the flights that had been rumored to be taking people out of Afghanistan to Canada.

The rumor was obviously baseless, and in fact, the airport had been entirely shut down to commercial airlines by the U.S. military, who were obviously prioritizing their own citizens.

MH: That’s Andrew Quilty, again.

AQ: On the inside of the airport, people were shot and killed by American forces, trying to control the crowd. And on the outside, the Taliban who had been firing into the air to control the crowds, killed at least one in the crowd when they turned their weapons on the crowd itself.

MH: The need to leave Afghanistan did not come from nowhere — it’s been building up for some time. The U.S. has been fighting a futile war against the Taliban for the past two decades, losing more and more ground as time passed. 

As the U.S. was pulling its forces out, Afghans were already attempting to flee the conflict. As the Taliban advanced, people panicked about the prospect of living under their rule began searching for any way they could to escape.

A few weeks ago, Andrew visited the only passport office in the country and spoke with many who were trying to leave, fearing widespread instability and violence:

Dispatch from Kabul’s Passport Office

AQ: It’s 5:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning here in the Afghan capital, Kabul. 

The sun hasn’t yet risen, but there must be more than 1,000 people already queuing here outside the country’s only passport office.

In recent weeks, the passport office has been issuing up to 5,000 passports per day as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates and people look for a way to escape.

Translator: Sarwar, originally from Balkh province, and he came here to take the passport for his daughter.

AQ: And why are you applying for a passport for your daughter?

[Translator translates the question, and translates Saldor’s answer.] 

Speaker: [Via translator] The reason for me taking the passport is the security issues. The Taliban is there, the war is there, I need to have my passport. 

But beside that, you know, there are some kinds of sicknesses [where it’s] needed only to go for treatment outside the country. But the priority, it is because of the security issues, and Taliban, and war, and these things. 

[Sounds of men shouting over each other.]

AQ: It’s not quite 7 a.m. The line outside the passport office has started to move slowly. It has also grown several blocks now. The queue stretches about 300 meters up one street, then bends around to the left to another, and then around again to the right to another. In total, it’s stretching probably around 500 yards at this point. And there are well over 1,000 people queuing up at this point.

I’m standing in front of a painted mural on the side of a school outside which people are passing as they walk slowly towards the passport office. The mural was painted in 2015 during that year’s immigration crisis, which saw Europe flooded with hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Africa. The paint is peeling now but the message is still pertinent. It says, in Dari, “Don’t risk your life or the lives of your family. Migration is not the solution.”

AQ: What made you decide to come and apply for your passports at this time?

Speaker: [Via translator] In Ghazni province, the situation is very worse. We are living in our house, [it] has two floors. The down floor, we are staying; the upstairs, for example, the Taliban is staying, and they are asking us, you know, [to] financially help them, or from one family, one man needs to go with the Taliban to the frontline. This is some [of the] kind of the conditions of them, you know? 

And so this, when I came five years before the Afghanistan, my lifetime, I think the time I’m spending my lifetime in the prison. It is very hard for me. 

The situation was bad in Afghanistan, but it gets worse in the past month or month and a half. But during this time, five years being in Afghanistan, I’m depressed psychologically. I’m affected very badly. The situation, you could see a lot of people waiting here, if it continues, we are expecting one day the human will eat the human.

AQ: After 7:30 a.m., several other queuers have formed on the road in the final approach to the passport office. There is a kind of ordered chaos to it all, and people are relatively patient.

Speaker: [Via translator] 13 years I worked with the foreigners, over three years I was in Bagram, but the major problem is that I am receiving phone calls and text messages, and they are telling me that: Don’t come out from your house. We will kill you. We will assassinate you, we will kidnap your children. You work with the foreigners. This is the reason I’m very under pressure, you know? 

AQ: And what were you doing at Bagram? 

[The translator translates the question.] 

AJ: So my job was there was some kind of water tank, and I was driving, and I was filling the tanks, you know? This was my job. 

But on the way, I don’t know who followed me, who reported to who, I don’t know who is behind the curtain, but they keep sending me the messages, “You’re working with the Americans and I will kill you.” And we don’t know if it’s Taliban, about or who is behind that. But it is less than a month [that] I’m receiving this truck, and from the time being, when the Americans try to leave Bagram.

[Sounds of people speaking over loudly in the crowded passport office.]

AQ: At 10 a.m. inside the passport office, the nominal order that prevailed outside on the streets where people were beginning their queue has all but disappeared. 

Inside the large shed-like structure with windows on all sides and fans twirling forlornly from the ceiling, people are looking completely desperate. They’re banging on windows, sleeping on benches, crying in some cases. There’s a sense of real despair.

Passport Worker: [Via translator] Actually, the situation is out of control, because all the people of Afghanistan want to have [a] passport and leave because of the situation of [the] country. Actually it is more than 5,000 per day. 

AW: Since when has there been so much demand? 

Speaker: [Via translator] Since, actually, the recent situation [occurred] mostly during when the U.S. Army left the country, so the situation got bad, and the people want to leave. [Loud yelling, a baby crying in the background.]

This makes me depressed, not that situation. When I can’t help my people, this makes me depressed.

[Woman speaking rapidly.]

Speaker: [Via translator] Very crowded, unorganized. It’s not legal. It’s illegal things, you know? 

Speaker: There’s no system in place. No instruction. No information for where I have to go. There is no belief for the future. We don’t believe to [sic] the government, we don’t believe the [indistinct word], the politicians. We don’t believe the politicians, and the political issue is not good.

AQ: Has the situation changed, because of the withdrawal of the foreign forces?

[Translator translates the question.]

Speaker: [Via translator] The problem with the foreigners, a big problem with the foreigners, they’re leaving, of course it is affecting. But the major problem is with the government. But so the government is not — there is no clear decision inside of the government to work, means to fight against the enemy. And that is the major problem.

AQ: A lot of people inside the passport office here are complaining to me about the same kind of disorder and dysfunction that permeates the government more broadly. And which has caused many people here to lose so much hope in the country that they feel they have no choice but to leave. 

Before they can, of course, if they want to leave legally with legal documents, they have this one almighty hurdle to jump through before they can. And then, of course, the next problem is acquiring a visa, and it is unlikely to happen for the vast majority of the people here in the passport office today.

MH: That was Andrew Quilty. He’s currently in Kabul, witnessing the quickly-changing developments since the Taliban’s takeover.

AQ: While the city itself is peaceful, there’s a lot of apprehension when you talk to people individually. While the war might be over, the uncertainty of what lies ahead is a burden that is no easier to carry for most Afghans.

[Credits music.]

MH: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. 

We have a collection on our site,, called The 9/11 Wars, and you can see all of our stories about the U.S. and the world 20 years after 9/11.

Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. This episode was produced by José Olivares and Holly DeMuth. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next time, I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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