Title: August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban
Author: Andrew Quilty
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
I had been thinking about a book set in Afghanistan since late 2020. The Doha Agreement, signed that February, was already working to the Taliban’s advantage. Thousands of their prisoners had been released, and battlefield commanders were capitalising on the ‘active defence’ posture the Americans had pushed Kabul into adopting while being careful not to overextend and cause the Americans to stall their withdrawal. I saw the Doha Agreement as a death knell for the Afghan Government, but I never anticipated it would come so quickly.
The book I wanted to write would follow the theme I’d been following for several years. I would chart how the United States’ refusal to reconcile with the ousted Taliban regime, and the ensuing occupation, ignited the insurgency, just as it had in Iraq.
I would follow the lives of rural Afghans whose experience of the war, unlike those in Kabul who, while also encountering horrific violence, were given an array of new opportunities, was one of deprivation and disaffection—a story less often told.
Admittedly, the fascination with those living behind Taliban lines was amplified because their lives were virtually off-limits to journalists.
An unspoken race for access among writers, photographers and filmmakers began, intensifying in recent years as the prospect of a Taliban return to power became increasingly likely.
After the signing of the Doha Agreement, with US air support curtailed and the Taliban enjoying a wave of international recognition, some commanders began to open the doors to their districts. I had already been reporting on the ruthless exploits of the CIA’s Afghan proxies from the 01 National Strike Unit in Maidan Wardak—albeit from the relative safety of Kabul and the provincial capital, Maidan Shahr—when opportunities to visit the villages where they occurred began to arise from the middle of that year.
Those trips, which, for security reasons, lasted one night at most, were indeed as fascinating as I had expected. They also vindicated the hypothesis that the punitive neglect of the rural class— particularly those in predominantly Pashtun districts—and the violent ordeals they’d endured living among—and, often in cahoots with—the Taliban, were creating an increasingly unbridgeable gap between rural Afghanistan and the central government. The lack of accountability for their suffering was self-defeating for the aggressors, and, for journalists, I believed, the war’s essential theme.
It must be said that the Taliban’s military victory would never have come without the ineptitude and malfeasance of successive administrations in Kabul and their armed forces, and the hubris of the American-led international military coalition. The Taliban’s readiness to seize the advantage after the signing of the Doha Agreement did, however, expedite the eventual collapse that the agreement ensured. The realisation that the Americans were leaving, along with the military support and air power that had given Kabul a lifeline since 2015, was the final straw.
Aside from the almost daily guerrilla-style attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government groups in Kabul—‘The years long fears of the vehicle in front of you blowing up or the guy on the motorbike opening fire,’ as a friend who read an early version of this book reminded me—the war in Afghanistan had been fought largely in remote districts since the early 2000s. As I wrote in the prologue to this book, once the momentum swung decisively in the Taliban’s favour in the spring of 2020, and areas under government control started shrinking to virtual islands accessible only by air, many rural battlegrounds fell silent. The lives of those who had gained the most since the Taliban’s fall in 2001—lives that had overcome hardship and flourished, which I’d rarely been compelled to write about—were all of a sudden under threat. While their physical safety may not necessarily have been at risk, their personal liberty, the simple freedom to choose the trajectory of one’s own life, certainly was. For them, life without choice was no life at all.
If the threat of such loss had instigated a change in what I felt was pertinent to write about, 15 August completed the about-face.
With the Taliban’s victory came a level of scrutiny and critique that no insurgency warrants, no matter the wrongs of the government it was trying to overthrow nor the infringements on human rights it would institute once in power.
Amid the chaos of that day, I hugged farewell a tearful Aziz Tassal, a journalist with whom I’d worked for years and grown to love for his gentle company and care for his wife, three cheeky young daughters and everyone with whom he’d worked. I’d spent a week sharing a room with him in Uruzgan earlier in the year, reporting for an article published by The Monthly where we traded stories about our mutual friend Aliyas Dayee, a journalist from Helmand who had been assassinated three months earlier (the article won the 2021 Walkley Award for long-form feature writing). He’d calmly taken control when the car he was travelling in with Nanna Muus Steffensen, a journalist and my housemate, came under fire during a Taliban ambush in Maidan Wardak some months before. But on 15 August, he was inconsolable. ‘They betrayed us,’ he sobbed, before undertaking his own harrowing journey to the United States with his family.
The next day I photographed Noorullah Shirzada, a photographer with Agence France-Presse, carrying his baby into the French Embassy. The photo was published the day after by the French newspaper Le monde. Farshad Usyan, a friend who I also consider Afghanistan’s best photojournalist, was also there. His passport was inside the embassy awaiting a visa, but the Taliban weren’t allowing him in. Phone calls were made and eventually someone called his name. He disappeared behind the gate before we got a chance to say goodbye.
That day, 16 August, was also when BBC correspondent Kate Clark was flown out of Kabul.
Extracted from August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban by Andrew Quilty. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
About the Book
As night fell on 15 August 2021, the Taliban swept into Kabul, capital of Afghanistan. After a twenty-year conflict with the United States, its Western allies and a proxy Afghan government, the Islamic militant group once aligned with al Qaeda was about to bury yet another foreign foe in the graveyard of empires. And for the US, the superpower, this was yet another foreign disaster. As cities and towns fell to the Taliban in rapid succession, Western troops and embassy staff scrambled to flee a country of which its government had lost control. To the world, Kabul in 2021 looked like Saigon in 1975.
August in Kabul is the story of how America’s longest mission came to an abrupt and chaotic end, told through the eyes of Afghans whose lives were turned upside down: a young woman who dreams of a university education but whose family now want to give her up to the Taliban in exchange for security; a presidential staffer who works desperately to hold things together as the government collapses around him; a prisoner in the notorious Bagram Prison who suddenly finds himself free when prison guards abandon their post. Andrew Quilty was one of a handful of foreign journalists who stayed in Kabul as the city fell. This remarkable book is his first-hand account of those dramatic final days.
About the Author
Andrew Quilty is the recipient of nine Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley, for his work on Afghanistan, where he has been based since 2013. He has also received the George Polk Award, the World Press Photo Award and the Overseas Press Club of America award for his investigation into massacres committed by a CIA-backed Afghan militia. August in Kabul is his first book.
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