August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan
Andrew Quilty, Bloomsbury Academic, £18
Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, ending decades of war with a military takeover secured by America’s ignominious surrender, the extremists have deployed terror to impose control, while extending hospitality to old friends who helped them to victory, including Al-Qaeda.People are detained, tortured and killed, some as public spectacle, all without due process as Afghanistan is now a land without law.
Human rights have been sacrificed on political bonfires – first by Donald Trump, the former US president, who struck an exit deal with the Taliban in 2020, then by President Joe Biden, who stuck to it and, latterly, by the United Nations, which operates in breach of its non-discrimination principle as the Taliban have banned it from employing women.
Non-stop evacuation loop
On July 4, 2021, I spent the afternoon with friends on a Kabul rooftop watching helicopters take off from the US embassy for the three-minute flight to the airport, in a non-stop evacuation loop. The US military had already left, turning off the lights at Bagram airbase, 50 miles away. It was almost 20 years to the day since the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the subsequent invasion that drove their Taliban hosts from power.
When the republic’s collapse came in Afghanistan, the only surprise was the date. I had thought it would all go belly-up on September 11, one of Biden’s proposed end dates. As it turned out, that was when the Taliban held a flag-raising ceremony at the presidential palace.
August 15 was the day war ended. On August 30, at one minute to midnight, the last US military plane left Afghan soil. The two weeks in between are the indelible postscript to a flawed attempt to turn Afghanistan into a modern, democratic state, and a war that killed or injured thousands of Allied and Afghan military and civilians.
Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, and his closest coterie helicoptered away to their own historic shame. As Taliban gunmen roamed Kabul’s streets, police shed their uniforms while panicked crowds rushed to the airport to escape what many believed would be a bloody orgy of victory and revenge. Images of people falling from American planes became a symbol of perfidy. A suicide bomb among the desperate crowds on the airport perimeter was the nadir.
Photographer Andrew Quilty’s book, August in Kabul, captures the aftermath of the Taliban takeover. His talent with the camera has won him numerous awards, yet there are few of his photographs here, an omission of his true strength. His written reportage is urgent and detailed, though short on contextual analysis.
His disgust for war is obvious, though he showed a paucity of empathy in his social media posts in the days after the takeover, declaring Kabul to be safe. Not for Afghans it wasn’t, then or now. Fear remains as intense as the desperation to escape, and many people are working as hard today as they were two years go to evacuate the vulnerable.
The events of August 2021 were the culmination of 20 years of failure. The causes are well documented in books written to mark the 20th anniversary of the war, updated after the collapse.
A catalogue of failure
The catalogue includes: missed opportunities and misunderstanding of Afghanistan’s history and culture, and political and social complexities; too much money going to the wrong people; widespread corruption; a lack of leadership and strategy; over-dependence on US and Nato largesse; and, ultimately, an unwillingness to believe the Americans when they said – from Barack Obama in 2011 onwards – they were leaving.
The chaos of the collapse and the end of fighting opened up areas that for years were no-go zones controlled by groups such as the Al-Qaeda/Taliban off-shoot Haqqani network, which still runs a profitable line in kidnapping foreigners.
The Taliban of the shadows took form as the homoerotically romanticized savages of the western imagination: long-haired youths with burning-coal eyes, draped over each other, AK47s slung over their shalwar kameez. For Afghans who suffered interminable war, this was the face of horror. It is here that Quilty’s photographs might have made up for the weakness of his writing. This book is a missed opportunity to examine both sides of the nightmare.
Instead, he retells the story from within. Interviews with government insiders provide a description of incompetent, confused and confounded leaders. No news there. Interviews with US military and diplomats come with the expected mea culpas.
More interesting is the turmoil of the Amini family: middle class, aspirational, invested in the huge potential and hope the US and western allies brought and then snatched away. How each member deals with the implications of the collapse, according to generation and gender, imparts the pain of a silent, thwarted majority.
They scream, shout, plot and turn on each other. The father burns photos to destroy evidence that he worked for the republic. Sons plead to join siblings abroad. The mother wants to stay to secure the family home. Given what the Taliban do to women, daughter Nadia chooses, eventually, to leave. This saga is the spine of the book, as it touches closest on the humanity of freedom’s end.
The catastrophe of our time
Afghanistan is the catastrophe of our time. Unlike the western powers, the Taliban learnt lessons during those 20 years that they applied while negotiating with Trump. Their ability to spin is skilful, telling the credulous that ‘guidelines’ for women are in the works, and ‘moderates’ in their ranks just need time. It is an insult to us that the UN is overseeing the dismantling of the rights of 40 million people, in our name.