Inside the Fall of Kabul

Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As the U.S. withdrawal approached, analysts thought it would be months before the Taliban brought the fight to Kabul.

Instead, to the shock of the world, the Afghan capital fell in a matter of hours.

This is the story of why it happened and what came after — by a reporter and photographer who witnessed it all.

Inside the Fall of Kabul

By Matthieu Aikins

Photographs by Jim Huylebroek

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Inside the Fall of Kabul

Against all predictions, the Taliban took the Afghan capital in a matter of hours. This is the story of why and what came after, by a reporter and photographer who witnessed it all.

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Dec. 10, 2021, 6:05 p.m. ET

Part 1
The Withdrawal

After dark on a mild July evening, I made my way through a heavily fortified neighborhood in downtown Kabul. Over the years, the capital’s elite had retreated deeper behind concrete walls topped with concertina wire; sometimes they even added a layer of Hesco barriers on the sidewalk, forcing me into the street as I passed. I buzzed at the home of a former government official, went inside and climbed the marble stairs to a rooftop party. I’d been to a few of his gatherings over the years, some of them raucous with laughter and dancing, but this was a quiet affair, with a small group of Afghan men and women, mostly young and stylishly dressed, sitting in a circle under the lamplight.

The mood was grim. In recent weeks, large areas of the north, places that had not historically supported the Taliban, had suddenly fallen. A new assessment by the U.S. intelligence community predicted that the republic could collapse as soon as six months after the last American forces left. Yet President Biden was pressing ahead with the withdrawal. That very night, American troops were flying out of Bagram Air Field, the giant base north of the capital where the United States had built a prison to house detainees.

I greeted the guests in Persian, and when I was introduced by the host as a foreign journalist, they fell silent. “Tell us what you think is going to happen to Afghanistan,” a young woman said, turning to me. She added sarcastically, “We’ve probably said the same things already, but we believe them when we hear them from a foreigner.”

A park in Kabul in July.

Like many people in Washington and Kabul, I thought six months was overly pessimistic. The government had a considerable advantage in men, weapons and equipment, and it still held the cities. Surely, I said, Afghanistan’s power brokers, fractious and corrupt as they were, would unite and rally their forces for their own survival.

As civilians, the guests at the party faced a stark question that summer, which they repeated to me: Berim ya bashim? Should we stay or should we go? Afghans had endured the agony of displacement and exile for 40 years; the latest wave began in 2014 at the end of the U.S. troop surge, which was followed by an economic recession and the steady loss of territory to the Taliban. The following year, when Europe’s borders collapsed and a million people crossed the Mediterranean in boats, Afghans were the second-largest group among them, after Syrians.

But the people at this party weren’t likely to cross the mountains or sea with smugglers. Some had studied abroad and returned; others had no intention of leaving, like Zaki Daryabi, publisher of the scrappy independent paper Etilaat-e Roz, which had become known for exposing corruption within the administration of President Ashraf Ghani. Some were waiting for a chance to leave legally, with dignity, for work or school. Yet opportunities for Afghans were rare; they had the worst passports in the world when it came to travel without a visa. Now they were faced with the prospect of becoming refugees.

“I have seven visas in my passport — I can leave,” an older Afghan businessman said. “What about the guy who has no chance, who just has a little house and a little shop?”

“One of them’s me,” Zaki said as he stood up for refreshments. He tapped himself on the chest and grinned ruefully. “One of them’s me.”

Zaki Daryabi at his newspaper’s office.

The Taliban were advancing on the capital, but the prospect of a peace deal frightened many of the guests, as much as the continuation of the war, which had mostly afflicted the countryside. At the insistence of the United States, negotiations between the government and the Taliban were underway in Doha, and a power-sharing agreement that would bring the Taliban to Kabul was seen as a disaster by the urban groups that had benefited from the republic’s relative liberalism and international support, particularly working women.

At the insistence of the guests, a young poet, Ramin Mazhar, stood to read. Slender and stooped, Ramin had a gentle manner that belied his ferocious iconoclasm. Many of his poems, which he posted on Instagram, could be considered blasphemous by fundamentalists. I asked him earlier whether he had published any printed volumes. “No,” he said, smiling. “They’d kill me.”

He recited several of his poems; one, set to music by a singer named Ghawgha Taban, had become an anthem for Kabul’s progressives. After Ramin was finished reading, someone put the song on the stereo, and the guests sang along from the rooftop, their voices growing louder:

A market in the Kote Sangi neighborhood of Kabul in early August.

The day before, I went to see Rangina Hamidi, Afghanistan’s acting minister of education, at her home in Kabul. We were in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic’s third wave, which had filled the hospitals with gasping patients, and the government had closed schools in response; Rangina herself was still recovering from an earlier bout with the virus. She coughed a little as she greeted me on the lawn, where her daughter’s pet goat, Vinegar, stood watching us.

“I’m still having trouble with my memory,” she told me. There were gaps in the lost year. Rangina had returned to work at the ministry, but she felt isolated, part of a political class confined to guarded compounds and armored cars.

In the living room, I embraced her husband, Abdullah, and marveled at how tall their daughter, Zara, who was in fifth grade, had gotten. She was just a baby when I met the family almost a decade ago in Kandahar, the Pashtun heartland that was the birthplace of the Taliban. I used to visit their home during my reporting trips there. I admired Rangina’s ability to bridge two worlds, as a driven entrepreneur who founded a handicraft collective and a woman enmeshed in the social life of Kandahar, one of the most gender-segregated cultures on the planet.

There were few women like Rangina in high office. She was born in Kandahar, but her family, escaping the Communist regime, had gone to the United States as refugees in the 1980s, when Rangina was a child. She majored in women’s studies and religion at the University of Virginia and considered herself a proud feminist; that was also when she chose to start wearing the hijab, which strengthened her connection to her faith.

Her father, Ghulam Haider, an accountant by trade, raised her to pursue the same opportunities in life as a man. He was her hero growing up. When she moved back in 2003 to help in the reconstruction of their country, he was inspired to follow her. At first, they were full of hope. She met Abdullah, an engineer, and founded the handicrafts cooperative; her father became Kandahar’s mayor as the streets filled with American soldiers and the war intensified. In 2011, he was assassinated by a suicide bomber.

Rangina Hamidi with her daughter at home in Kabul.

We sat down for dinner around a tablecloth spread on the carpet, and Rangina heaped my plate with samosas. “Thank you, Madam Minister,” I teased, and we laughed. She told us the story of how she ended up in the cabinet. Four years earlier, she moved to Kabul after a friend recruited her as the first principal of Mezan, a coed private school that offered an international English curriculum. After a couple of years, the school’s success had attracted the capital’s elite. That, she believed, was why she received a call last year from the president. She thought Ghani wanted to know about Mezan’s online learning programs for the pandemic; instead, he asked her to become his minister of education. Shocked, she asked for time to think.

Until then, Rangina had resisted joining the Afghan government; it was dominated by warlords who, she believed, were responsible for killing her father, more so than the Taliban. Those who took part became corrupt themselves, or else were hounded into leaving. But Rangina had long admired Ghani, who as minister of finance in the early years of the republic acquired a reputation as a brilliant technocrat, arrogant but personally incorruptible. When she met him in person at the palace, she was enthralled by his intellect and his vision for reform — a true patriot, she thought. Even his infamous temper reminded her of her father, who didn’t suffer fools.

Praising her work at Mezan, Ghani told her he wanted someone who could help him modernize Afghanistan’s outdated curriculum. Rangina believed that the cultural gap that had grown between the cities and the countryside could be bridged by marrying a traditional version of Islam — one that drew on great Afghan scholars like the poet Rumi — to contemporary teaching practices. When she said yes, she became Afghanistan’s first female education minister since the Communists, who brought radical new opportunities for women to go to school and work in the cities, gains that were wiped out after they were overthrown by American-backed Islamists in 1992. The Taliban, who took power four years later, instituted a ban on girls’ education after puberty. As a result of the American invasion in 2001, an entire generation of Afghan girls had gone to schools and worked at jobs that had been denied to their mothers — an entanglement between the military presence and women’s rights symbolized by a mural outside the U.S. Embassy depicting the girls’ robotics team alongside the American flag.

With American troops finally leaving, that progress was now at risk. In many areas controlled by the Taliban, which they called the Islamic Emirate, girls were only allowed to attend school until sixth grade, which Rangina’s daughter would enter next year.

A cafe in Kabul in early August.

The American withdrawal that had brought the republic to the brink of collapse began in February 2020. That month, the chief negotiator for the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad, dressed in a navy suit, sat at a table in Doha, Qatar, beside his turbaned Taliban counterpart, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, signing copies of a document titled “The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” President Donald Trump, who came into office intent on ending the United States’ longest war, had appointed Khalilzad, an Afghan-born, naturalized U.S. citizen who previously served as ambassador in Kabul.

Afghan government officials were notably absent from the table in Doha — the Taliban had long refused to negotiate with what they considered a puppet regime. But, as a result of the deal, in exchange for U.S. troops being out within 14 months, the Taliban agreed to talks with the republic. Khalilzad and his team had hoped to make the final U.S. withdrawal conditional on peace between the Afghans, but Trump insisted on sticking to the timeline.

Now the vast gulf between republic and emirate had to be bridged. Khalilzad and his team, who believed that Baradar’s side was genuinely interested in reaching a deal, proposed a power-sharing arrangement led by someone “acceptable to both sides” — a definition sure to exclude Ghani. “He hated that, because it means that he has to go,” Khalilzad said of the Afghan president, whom he had known since they were boys. “I didn’t see another way.”

Ghani insisted that he would hand over power only to an elected successor. (He declined to respond to questions.) He proposed a caretaker government and new elections overseen by himself, a nonstarter for the Taliban. But Baradar and his team never offered a concrete counterproposal of their own, insisting instead on a prisoner exchange. Some believed that the Islamists were simply running out the clock until the U.S. forces left.

“The Taliban were not serious about peace,” said Matin Bek, a senior official on the negotiating team. True power within the movement, he thought, resided not with Baradar’s group in Doha but with the military commanders on the ground and the senior leadership hiding in Pakistan. It seemed clear to Bek that the rebels wanted to see if the government could survive on its own before they would accept anything short of outright victory. “If we could put up resistance and stand without the Americans, only then would they enter into real negotiations.”

As the withdrawal progressed and the Taliban gained strength on the battlefield, Ghani grew isolated; allies deserted his government, some with an eye to Khalilzad’s proposed power-sharing arrangement. And so the president came to rely on a shrinking core of trusted aides, who encouraged him to fight the Taliban. Foremost among them was Hamdullah Mohib, the president’s right hand and heir apparent, who, as the national security adviser, controlled much of the information about the war that was presented to the president.

Hamdullah Mohib (center), the Afghan national security adviser, at a military demonstration in Kabul in 2020.

When Ghani selected Mohib to lead the office of the National Security Council in 2018, he had no military or security experience. He had studied computer systems engineering in Britain, where he emigrated as a teenager. In 2009, Mohib helped with Ghani’s first, unsuccessful bid for president, running his website. Five years later, Mohib again volunteered for Ghani, who emerged as the improbable victor from a crowded field, though the disputed result had to be brokered by the United States amid evidence of fraud on all sides. In the West, Ghani was hailed by many as an educated reformer, co-author of the book “Fixing Failed States.”

With Ghani in the palace, Mohib’s rise to power began. The following year, at age 32, he was sent to Washington as Ghani’s ambassador. I got to know him in those days; easygoing and approachable, he seemed successful at the networking the job required, as he lobbied for U.S. support for the war effort. Three years later, Ghani brought him home to coordinate security policy, providing him a house next to his own on the palace grounds; their wives became close, and Mohib’s young children played with the president, who was old enough to be their grandfather.

But Mohib quickly ran into trouble in his new role. As tensions grew between Kabul and Washington over Trump’s plans for withdrawal, Mohib lashed out publicly against Khalilzad, accusing him of seeking personal power as a “viceroy.” Outraged, the Americans froze Mohib out of meetings for a year, and many expected him to lose his job, but the president stuck with him. Eventually, Khalilzad told me, he forgave Mohib at Ghani’s personal request.

Mohib’s team, like much of the Ghani administration, attracted a young cadre that reflected the president’s technocratic values. Favoring tailored suits and speaking excellent English, many were raised or educated abroad, a type that some referred to as “Tommies,” after the brand Tommy Hilfiger. “Young, educated, well-spoken, corrupt,” said Sibghat Ghaznawi, a doctor who had been a Fulbright scholar in the United States with many of them. He said those who succeeded in the palace tended to excel in chappalasi, or brown-nosing, and telling their superiors what they wanted to hear. Last year, when Sibghat became a senior adviser to the office of the National Security Council, he said that Mohib warned him not to be too negative with the president. He already knows these things, Mohib told him, so you don’t need to be reporting what he already knows.

A military demonstration in Kabul in 2020.

In Afghanistan, the causes of state weakness preceded the Ghani administration and went deeper than any particular individuals: a 40-year civil war fueled by foreign superpowers, malignant corruption and the Pakistani military’s covert support for the Taliban. Above all, the U.S. occupation had created a state dependent on American troops and foreign money. As the republic entered a downward spiral, Ghani and his team struggled to consolidate their authority, alienating many who supported the republic. “They were always scared that if a potential deal happens between negotiators, they might be pushed out,” Bek said.

Last year, for instance, Ghani ordered Mohib and the security council to review all district police chiefs and governors; ultimately, they replaced a majority, more than 200 of each, in what was seen as a damaging move in the middle of intensifying violence, one that sidelined local commanders. “The Taliban seized this moment and made peace with those people,” Bek said.

The Islamic Emirate understood a basic lesson from Afghan history, which was that the nation’s wars have often ended with individual commanders switching sides; that was how the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s and how they were defeated in just several weeks in 2001. After they signed a deal with the Americans in Doha, the Taliban promoted a policy of afwa, or amnesty, privately reaching out to power brokers with a clear message: The Americans are leaving, the republic is falling, but the Emirate will forgive those who surrender.

In this battle for hearts and minds, the government’s answer was its psychological-warfare program, overseen by Mohib and the security council. For years, the United States and its allies had funded psy-ops for the Afghan forces, spending heavily on advertising with the local news media. According to Afghan officials, the intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, also made covert payments to Afghan journalists and civil society in exchange for their support. Another initiative was the creation of thousands of fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter dedicated to promoting the government and attacking its critics, work known by the Pashto term Facebookchalawonky.

But these messages did not spread much beyond the bubble world of the Kabul elite, where civil society had largely moved online, as demonstrations and events were targeted by terrorist attacks. Afghanistan’s vibrant cyberspace must have been attractive to officials cloistered within blast walls and armored cars, but it failed to capture the reality of the countryside, where only a fraction of the population had access to the internet.

Sibghat, the adviser to the security council, told me that he was surprised how often social media was cited as evidence during meetings, where many made arguments that he considered demonstrably false: that the Taliban were militarily weak, and it was simply that no one was taking proper action against them. That the insurgents could never act independently from Pakistan. Above all, he said, many working for the council clung to the belief that the United States would never leave Afghanistan. There was simply too much at stake: counterterrorism, regional power, precious minerals. “They’re not so stupid to have spent that money here and then leave,” was how Sibghat characterized the prevailing view.

Bek and other officials also told me that there was a persistent belief within the government that the United States would remain, particularly after Biden defeated Trump. In fairness, there was hope within the U.S. establishment too; in February, a bipartisan group set up by Congress recommended making the withdrawal conditional on peace between Afghan parties — a move that the Taliban said they would react to by resuming attacks on U.S. forces.

Biden and his staff felt that they had been put in an untenable position by his predecessor; there were only 2,500 troops left in Afghanistan, so staying and fighting would have required a new surge. In April, Biden announced that U.S. troops would be out by Sept. 11. “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” the president said. “We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely.” Mohib, who answered written queries, told me he knew the Americans would leave: “We were planning for their departure.” He said that what they consistently asked for was a “gradual and responsible withdrawal” that would allow Afghan forces to adjust. “We never got that.”

An Afghan soldier looking at Taliban positions during the battle for Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, last spring.

On July 15, I went to the palace to see Mohib. Above the gate tower, a giant tricolor of the republic fluttered against a clear blue sky. After passing through security, I walked across the long, deserted lawn toward the building that held the Office of the National Security Council. I waited in the council’s empty reception room until one of Mohib’s staff members, a young woman who had studied in America, brought me upstairs to his office, where he sat behind his desk. Our conversation was mostly off the record. He seemed exhausted as we spoke about the desperate fighting in Kandahar City, which had been surrounded by the Taliban.

Only a few days before, there had been a farewell ceremony for Gen. Austin S. Miller, the long-serving U.S. commander. The military had completed 90 percent of its withdrawal, well ahead of Biden’s deadline. This rapid pace was intended to reduce the risk of attack during the retreat, but it had a devastating impact on Afghan security forces. The U.S. military had spent billions to train and equip a force in its own image, heavily dependent on foreign contractors and air support. But the Afghan Army’s notoriously corrupt generals stole their men’s ammunition, food and wages; while security forces were supposed to total 300,000, the real number was likely less than a third of that. Out in the districts, the army and the police were crumbling, handing over their arms to the Taliban, who now controlled a quarter of the country.

Ghani had repeatedly insisted that he would stand and fight. “This is my home and my grave,” he thundered in a speech earlier in the spring. His vice president, Amrullah Saleh, and the security council were working on a post-American strategy called Kaf, a Dari word meaning “base” or “floor,” which envisioned garrison cities connected by corridors held by the army and bolstered by militias, similar to how President Mohammad Najibullah clung to power for three years after the Soviet withdrawal. “It was very much the Russian model,” said Bek, who returned to the government as the president’s chief of staff that month. “They had a good plan on paper, but for this to work, you needed to be a military genius.”

Earlier in July, Ghani was warned that only two out of seven army corps were still functional, according to a senior Afghan official. Desperate for forces to protect Kandahar City, the president pleaded with the C.I.A. to use the paramilitary army formerly known as counterterrorism pursuit teams, according to Afghan officials. Trained for night raids and clandestine missions in the borderlands, the units had grown into capable light infantry, thousands strong. They were now officially part of the Afghan intelligence service and were known as Zero Units, after codes that corresponded to provinces: 01 was Kabul, 03 was Kandahar and so forth. But according to the officials, the C.I.A. still paid the salaries of these strike forces and had to consent to Ghani’s request for them to defend Kandahar City that month. (A U.S. official stated that the units were under Afghan control; the C.I.A. declined to comment on details of their deployment.) “They’re very effective units, motivated, cheap,” Mohib told me in his office, saying Kandahar would have fallen without them. “They don’t need all sorts of heavy equipment. I wish we had more like them.”

But the Zero Units had a reputation for ruthlessness in battle; both journalists and Human Rights Watch have referred to them as “death squads” — allegations that the C.I.A. denied, saying they were the result of Taliban propaganda. I had been trying to track these shadowy units for years and was surprised to see them, in their distinctive tiger stripes, given glowing coverage on the government’s social media accounts.

In Kabul, I met with Mohammad, an officer from one of the N.D.S. units that operated around the capital, whom I had known for a few years. Mohammad had worked as an interpreter for the unit’s American advisers and as an instructor for undercover teams that carried out arrests inside the cities. He said morale had plummeted among his men, now that the Americans were leaving. According to Afghan officials, the station on Ariana Square was empty by late July. But Mohammad’s team still received advice from the Americans. He showed me messages that he said were from the C.I.A., urging his unit to patrol areas around Kabul that had been infiltrated by the insurgents. “The airport is still in danger,” one message said.

The front line between Afghan government forces and the Taliban on the edge of Kandahar City in early August.

The bubble world did not survive on psychological repression alone. At the end of June, I had visited an Afghan journalist named Shershah Nawabi at the office of his small news agency, Pasbanan. A group of young men and women sat at computers in the sparsely furnished office, guzzling energy drinks.

“Here, take this, I can’t publish it,” Nawabi said, handing me the draft of an article titled, in Persian, “Latest Report: 98% of Government Officials’ Families Live Outside Afghanistan.”

The story listed the countries where the families of the Ghani administration were living, from the president — whose children grew up in the United States — on down. Out of 27 cabinet ministers, it claimed, only two had families who resided in Afghanistan full time. “In the event of a crisis in the country,” Shershah had written, “all government officials will consider fleeing.”

He had been leaked the information by sources inside the government. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I called them to try to verify the info.” The N.D.S. got wind, and one of his contacts at the intelligence service warned him not to endanger himself and his staff by publishing it.

It was clear that the consequences could be severe. There was growing concern in the international community that the Afghan republic was stepping up pressure on dissidents, especially after Waheed Muzhdah, a prominent commentator, was mysteriously assassinated at the end of 2019, an attack that many blamed on the government.

On July 11, Hedayatullah Pakteen, a young university professor who had been part of Muzhdah’s circle, was arrested at his home by intelligence agents and held for seven nights. He said he was hung by his wrists and beaten repeatedly, in an attempt to get him to implicate several others who were accused of links with the Taliban. He was freed after a campaign from his friends in the media; he said he was forced to sign a document promising that he wouldn’t give interviews anymore. His friend Abdul Ghafar Kamyab, a defense lawyer known for taking the cases of people accused of being Taliban, was snatched from the center of Kabul and was missing for more than 40 days; he told me he was tortured severely, including with electric shocks.

According to Sibghat, the adviser to the office of the National Security Council, during the previous year he had participated in discussions about a group of lawyers and professors, former friends of Muzhdah, who called themselves peace activists. Sibghat told me that some officials had argued that they were Taliban sympathizers who should be arrested and “squeezed,” which Sibghat understood as a euphemism for torture, until they agreed to stop speaking to the news media. Sibghat said he argued against it, pointing out that the Communists had used such methods and failed; Mohib, as was his habit, remained aloof without saying anything definite.

Torture had long been common in the republic’s prisons, as documented since 2011 by the United Nations. The U.N.’s biannual reports cataloged a list of methods that included waterboarding and sexual assault, much of it carried out by the N.D.S., which was advised by the C.I.A. and British intelligence (both agencies have denied any involvement with torture). That July, according to Afghan officials, the British had gone to the government to protest the existence of an N.D.S. “hit list”; the Afghans fired two senior intelligence officials as a result. (The British government declined to comment.)

But as much as Kabul’s journalists feared violence at the hands of the government, some worried that if the republic fell, worse would follow. At the end of July, I visited Zaki, the publisher I met at the rooftop party, to see how he was faring. We sat upstairs in the office of Etilaat-e Roz, cups of green tea and a packet of thin Esse cigarettes between us. “So what do you think is going to happen?” he asked with a smile.

Zaki was slight, with delicate features; he and most of his staff were Hazara, a historically oppressed Shia minority. He hadn’t studied or lived abroad; he came from his village to Kabul for college and had founded his newspaper with a loan from friends. Over the last 10 years, Etilaat-e Roz had slowly grown, scraping by with ad sales and subscriptions, resisting emoluments from powerful sponsors. It finally attracted foreign grants from places like the Open Society Foundations and had become known for its bold exposés of corruption in the government.

But with the system disintegrating, Zaki said that he had been thinking about the role of the gadfly differently. Criticism, like objectivity, made sense only within a shared set of values. “If we’re talking political philosophy, and the question of a republic versus an emirate, well, that’s different,” he told me. “We’re liberals. We believe in freedom and democracy.”

Afghan Army soldiers being evacuated from a base in Helmand Province last spring.

The entire order had been dependent on foreign money, which created space for progressives like Zaki. But opposition to liberalism, or what was labeled “Westernization,” was not confined to the Taliban. A broad streak of political Islamism cut across Afghan society; even among Hazaras, there were reactionary clerics who would have been happy to lash Zaki and the other men and women who hung out in the cafes near the office. Even under a power-sharing agreement, Zaki feared that freedom of the press and women’s rights would be the first areas of compromise. But Etilaat-e Roz was his young life’s work, his fourth child. Of course it was his other three children who made the choice to stay so difficult.

“Some of us have no choice but to keep doing this, because of what we believe,” Zaki told me, with his rueful smile. He was going to remain as long as it was possible to do his work, as long as some foothold remained in the capital, however narrow, above the abyss that was opening. “We’re working as if Kabul won’t fall,” he said. “If Kabul falls, Etilaat-e Roz will fall, too.”

Lining up for water at an informal camp for internally displaced people in Kandahar in early August.

The republic’s accelerating collapse, which had begun in the rural areas, soon reached the towns and district centers, and finally the cities. On Aug. 6, Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz, became the first provincial center to fall to the Taliban. Nader Nadery, a member of the republic’s negotiating team from Nimruz, was called for a meeting with the president; he told Ghani that several of his relatives had been killed there. “I said that things are falling apart, the chain of command is broken and people are not telling the truth to you,” Nadery told me. “He answered, ‘Yes, it will take another six months for us to turn it around.’” Stunned, Nadery left the palace wondering what kind of information the president was getting.

The day after Nimruz, a second capital, Sheberghan, fell. The next day, three capitals fell in the north: Sar-i-Pul, Takhar and Kunduz.

That evening, I went to see Rangina. Zara’s goat, Vinegar, which cried incessantly when left alone, had been taken into the guard shed for the night. I sat with Rangina and Abdullah, discussing the rumors of martial law circulating in the capital. Behind Rangina, I could see the reflection of the television in the window as the evening news played images of burning buildings, refugees, soldiers promising to die for their country. There were increasingly strident assertions about what a Taliban takeover would mean: stories about the forced marriage of young girls and widows to their fighters, even sex slavery. It would mean a return to the brutal days when men without beards were flogged in the streets, when women were not allowed to leave the home without a guardian, of public executions in soccer stadiums, of stoning and amputations, a massacre for everyone who had worked for the foreigners, a genocide for Afghanistan’s Hazara minority.

In the past, these kinds of statements had always been followed by a “therefore”: Therefore, America must not leave Afghanistan. Therefore, the war should continue. Now they were bleak predictions.

Rangina Hamidi at home in Kabul, after the city fell.

Rangina was frightened; the defense minister’s home was blown up just a few days earlier. But she was also skeptical about some of the claims of Taliban savagery; she told me about how the staff at a local education ministry in a recently captured province had posed for a photo with their new Taliban boss, seemingly unharmed.

I had been planning to travel to the south for research, and I thought I might stay at the office of Rangina’s cooperative, Kandahar Treasure. “Are you sure you want to go now?” she asked.

I didn’t understand how quickly things were falling apart; maybe I was in denial, too. I went to Hamid Karzai International Airport three days later, on the morning of Aug. 11. It was busier than I had ever seen it, a crush of passengers headed for the international terminal. The domestic side was quiet and tense. There were flights to the main cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, where, like Kandahar, battles were raging as the Taliban laid siege.

I went through security and sat in the boarding lounge, but I couldn’t get in touch with the fixer who was supposed to pick me up in Kandahar. I couldn’t get in touch with anyone there, in fact. Finally, a journalist friend called using the internet at the military base at the airport there. The Taliban had shut down the mobile networks in preparation for an all-out assault.

I got up and walked back out through security. The airline staff chased me down.

“I’m leaving,” I said. “My trip has been canceled.”

“Why?” They stared at me suspiciously.

“Because the phone networks are down. My office won’t let me go.”

I waited as they took a picture of my boarding pass and passport.

“He’s the third person to cancel like this,” one woman whispered anxiously.

When I got my documents back, I walked out against the flow of Afghans leaving their country. In the parking lot, there were groups of families, some crying and some silent, people in their Western outfits for travel, suits and T-shirts, girls with big up-dos and painted faces, matrons taking photos, men in turbans and karakul hats and prayer caps, the families embracing and then dividing, one part walking away, the others left watching.

The next day, Kandahar City fell.

The Afghan defense minister’s residence in Kabul was attacked with a car bomb and then stormed by Taliban fighters in early August.

Part 2
The Fall

For months, American leaders had been reassuring the Afghans that the military withdrawal did not the mean the end of U.S. engagement. Even after the last troops left on Aug. 31, a 650-strong security force was supposed to remain behind to protect the massive embassy complex. And with the U.S. Embassy remaining, other Western organizations were more likely to stay, too, and supplies and financial aid would continue to flow to the republic.

But now the rebels were advancing as fast as their motorcycles could carry them. On Thursday, Aug. 12, the city of Herat fell, and the Taliban captured Ghazni, 70 miles southwest of the capital. The Taliban had promised not to harm embassies and international groups, but the specter of the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. diplomats in 2012 hung over the Biden administration. If even a single American was harmed, how could the Democrats defend having trusted the Taliban?

On Thursday, Biden ordered the embassy to shut down, and diplomats began destroying classified materials and shifting operations to the airport, where 3,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines were being flown in to evacuate American citizens and their allies.

The Taliban would soon be at the gates. Could Kabul be defended? In theory, the capital boasted an impressive force: tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers, among them the country’s most elite units. But even if Kabul could be held, Ghani seemed to have finally accepted that the war was lost and had opened secret talks with the Taliban. According to Afghan officials and U.S. diplomats, his envoy in Doha, Abdul Salam Rahimi, had been developing a back channel to the movement’s leadership — not only to Baradar, the chief negotiator, but to the two powerful military deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mawlawi Yaqoub, son of the deceased leader Mullah Omar. The Taliban said they did not want to fight a bloody battle for Kabul, one that could mean the destruction of its banks and embassies and nongovernmental organizations, of its institutions, of the entire system.

On Thursday, the same day that Biden ordered the embassy to close, Rahimi, who had recently come back from Qatar, met with Ghani and Mohib and explained the proposal he had worked out with the Taliban, according to the officials. It was, in essence, a negotiated surrender; the Taliban would agree to a two-week cease-fire so that a delegation from Kabul could travel to Doha and work out the details of a transitional government. The Taliban would be in charge, but their rule would be “inclusive,” which meant some republic officials might take part. Ghani would call a loya jirga, a gathering of notables, who would approve the deal. Then Ghani would resign and hand over power to the jirga, who would ask the Taliban to form a government.

Immediately after the meeting, Khalilzad’s team in Doha, which had been in the loop about the back channel, received two calls. The first was from Rahimi, explaining that Ghani had agreed to the deal and was prepared to step down. (Rahimi did not respond to a request for comment.) The second was from Mohib. According to a U.S. diplomat involved in the negotiations, Mohib described the meeting in more conditional terms: Ghani would agree, but only if he was certain that his terms were being met. (Mohib denied this, claiming that he made “no reference” to Rahimi’s discussions.)

That night, seeking clarity on Ghani’s intentions, Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, spoke with him by video conference. According to the U.S. diplomat, Ghani said he would agree to the deal, to Blinken’s relief. He was prepared to resign.

“It was closer to Rahimi’s version than Mohib’s,” the diplomat said. Now the Afghans needed to carry out the peaceful transfer of power; they had, in theory, two weeks until the Americans left the airport, during which time the Taliban were supposed to remain outside the city.

The fate of the capital’s millions of inhabitants hung in the balance.

Afghan soldiers firing at the Taliban on the front line in Kandahar in early August.

On Friday, Aug. 13, Kabul’s residents awoke to news of the American evacuation. It was the Islamic day of rest. Though the Taliban were advancing, they still hadn’t reached the nearest cities, and Kabul’s streets were quiet as I drove to visit Rangina. She had invited me for lunch, and I found her in the hall by the kitchen, her sleeves rolled up, scraping out pumpkins alongside the cook. She cleaned up and joined her husband and me; she said she had just turned down a request from the National Security Council to turn the schools into shelters for refugees. “They just reopened the schools, and now you want me to close them?” she said. “If you want to do that, then declare martial law and do it.”

People from neighboring districts were pouring into the capital, fleeing ahead of the Taliban, who the U.S. Embassy had warned were committing war crimes. Given Afghanistan’s bloody history, they had reason to be fearful. In 1992, after the Communist government collapsed, the mujahedeen tore the capital apart fighting one another. Four years later, the Taliban hung the former president, Najibullah, and brandished whips against those who played music or shaved their beards. And in 2001, the United States and its warlord allies had hunted down the vanquished Taliban around the country; some were shipped off to detention centers and tortured. Now many were certain that despite their promise of amnesty, the Taliban would take revenge.

Rangina was getting calls from friends and relatives in the United States, telling her to flee before it was too late. “How many of us are you going to save?” she asked. “Thirty-five million? And then live with shame for the rest of my life? Because I had the American passport in my pocket, and I could just leave.”

Her phone rang, and she answered on speaker. It was an employee from her cooperative in Kandahar City, who said that one of his relatives, a former police officer, had been pulled from his home by Taliban fighters and shot.

“Allah!” Rangina exclaimed.

“Be careful, be careful,” Abdullah told him.

“We don’t know what the hell is going to happen,” Rangina said, after they hung up. We looked out the window, to where Zara was playing on the lawn with four other girls. Only one had an American passport. Rangina’s mother, who is in the United States, had begged her to send Zara there, if she and Abdullah were too stubborn to leave. Rangina was considering it.

“This guy doesn’t agree with me,” she said, turning to her husband. “Unless he’s changed his mind, I don’t know. Have you? You want her here? And if these wild animals come and, God forbid. … ”

We looked at Abdullah, who was silent for a moment, as if some memory was stirring in him. He was older than Rangina. He had fought the Russians, lived through three regime changes, seen bodies in the streets and homes gutted by looting. And he knew how vicious the Taliban had been with their opponents in the 1990s. He was ready to give his life to protect his wife and daughter; he also knew that might not be enough. But he didn’t want Rangina and Zara to be separated. “Then you leave, too,” he said.

“I’m not leaving,” Rangina replied.

A line outside the passport office in Kabul in early July.

That night, I went to a farewell party in the Green Zone, on the same blocked-off street as the Canadian and British Embassies. Many of the foreign nationals based in Kabul left the country during the pandemic to work remotely, but the few who remained had been as surprised as everyone by the sudden collapse of the government. As we gathered on the front lawn of an NGO guesthouse, gorging on hoarded wines and whiskey, some were in tears, while others danced manically.

The decision of the U.S. Embassy to pull out meant that most other Western organizations were evacuating, too, although the embassies of Iran, Russia and China — America’s rivals — were going to remain. As a rumor spread at the party that the U.S. military would shut down commercial flights at the airport in a few days, people got on their phones and tried to rebook; most tickets were sold out.

Afterward, a friend persuaded me to go with him to another party at a senior Afghan official’s house, someone close to Ghani. I’d been there a couple times. It was a blast-walled compound with AstroTurf in the yard, mirrors on the walls, exotic pets and a bountiful liquor cabinet. Once we got past the guards, we found just a few people sitting around, glued to their phones. I sat next to the official, who liked to D.J. at parties.

“Three thousand troops are coming, you think that will change anything?” he said. He showed me a message on his phone. “This is info from the TB side. They’ll take 17 provinces, in a power-sharing deal with the government.”

That was roughly half of the country. “I don’t think they’d settle for less than total control now,” I said.

He shook his head angrily. “No, they’ll realize if they take it all, the Americans might come with a hundred thousand troops,” he said. He tapped his head. “They’re rational. They have advisers from Pakistan, from China, from Russia. You think these guys with the long beards are making decisions?”

Ghani had banned senior officials from leaving the country, but the day after the party, my host made it out through the airport, accompanied by a relative of the president.

On Saturday, Aug. 14, the start of the workweek, the streets of downtown Kabul were in a frenzy, crowded with people running desperate errands. Some were trying to obtain passports or plane tickets, while others stood in long lines outside the banks. There was a shortage of cash. The value of the afghani had dropped suddenly; people wanted dollars.

Early that morning, I went for a jog in the park by my house and found it crowded with displaced families in tents, the air thick with cooking smoke and the stench of the outdoor toilets. Taxis and vans loaded with mattresses and a few household goods rolled up, and people piled out, seeking what free space was available.

I was busy that day with my own errands, like finding a satellite phone, even though for months I’d been making contingency plans with my housemate, Jim Huylebroek, a Belgian photographer. We’d talked through various scenarios for the fall of the capital, at first with the idle enthusiasm of preppers, and then with growing earnestness. Would there be a breakdown in communications? Martial law, house-to-house fighting, abductions? Riots and looting?

The New York Times, like most Western media organizations, was preparing to evacuate its staff. But Jim and I were both freelancers, so we could choose to stay. I had been watching what happened when the Taliban captured the cities of Herat and Kandahar. There was some violence, but there were no massacres, no executions of captured officials; the movement seemed to have control over its fighters. Now that they would govern, it was in the Emirate’s own interest, I thought, to stick to its promises, especially when it came to foreigners.

What I feared most was a chaotic interregnum before the Taliban could establish control, in a city filled with armed men. We might have to hole up in our house, which had solar power and was well fortified with bars on the windows; Jim and I stockpiled everything from canned goods to buckshot.

A boy named Hanif being treated in a hospital in early August after he was hit by a stray bullet during fighting near his house in Kandahar.

That afternoon, Ghani called a meeting at the palace, a gathering of the country’s most powerful men. The former president, Hamid Karzai, sat in a semicircle with leaders of the mujahedeen, former Communists, contracting barons — men who were handed power by the Americans in 2001, when their enemies, the Taliban, seemed utterly defeated. They had presided over two decades of plenty, when a rain of billions from abroad had enriched a minority, even as poverty among the people had grown. Now they faced the ruin of the republic.

Mohib was there, but the bellicose vice president, Saleh, wasn’t — the daily Kabul security meeting he normally led had been canceled that morning because of his absence, one participant said, though no one made much of it at the time. Ghani asked the others what they had to say. Karzai spoke of his fears for families like his own, who, he pointedly noted, were still in Kabul. The time had come for painful sacrifices, Karzai said, but he did not explicitly call on Ghani to resign. His point seemed clear enough, and it was echoed by the others, who pleaded with the president to avoid bloodshed and destruction in the capital.

If Ghani had in fact agreed to a deal with the Taliban through Rahimi’s back channel, then the meeting was mostly political theater. But Ghani didn’t explain the details, whether out of caution or pride, or because he still hadn’t decided if he would go through with it. He simply told the others that a delegation should go to Qatar immediately; he would accept whatever agreement they made with the Taliban.

The president left the meeting, and afterward, a group stood outside in consternation. Some, unaware of the secret talks, wondered if the president understood he had to resign. There was confusion over who would go to Doha. Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, an adviser to the president, was sent to ask Ghani, who answered that he would decide after he talked with the Americans.

That evening, Ghani met with the commander of U.S. forces and the acting ambassador to discuss the security plan for Kabul. The Americans promised to provide air support and surveillance. Then Ghani spoke by videoconference with Blinken. Again, according to the U.S. diplomat, they discussed the back channel for an orderly transfer of power to the Taliban.

By that night, Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan had fallen, and the Taliban continued their rapid advance on the capital. The republic’s forces, utterly demoralized, were simply laying down their arms, allowing the rebels, after their long, lean years in the mountains, to take possession of billions of dollars worth of vehicles and weapons bought by the United States and its allies. The competition between commanders for booty and the prestige of being the first to conquer territory added momentum to the Taliban’s advance — as did rivalries within the movement. The Taliban leadership was largely from the south, especially Kandahar, but most of the insurgency around Kabul had fallen under the command of the Haqqanis, a family-led network of fighters from eastern Afghanistan that was close to the Pakistani military. Several months earlier, a senior figure, Khalil Haqqani, began making contact with Afghan officials, his former aide told me, paving the way for a push on Kabul from the east. The Taliban’s own psychological warfare was paying off: By now, cities were falling without a fight, surrendering after a mere phone call.

A deserted checkpoint in Kabul the night after the city fell.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the provincial governor of Nangarhar, the gateway to Kabul to the east, received his counterpart from the Emirate. Taliban fighters entered the city without firing a shot. As the sun rose, Haqqani sent a voice message congratulating the governor for handing over power peacefully: “You will have a place in history, for protecting the people’s lives and property.”

Taliban forces from Kandahar, meanwhile, hurriedly advanced north, toward Wardak Province, whose capital, only 10 miles from Kabul, fell around 10 o’clock on Sunday morning.

The road was now open to Kabul, where the police and the army were starting to desert their posts. Saleh, the vice president who had run security meetings for the capital, had secretly escaped to his home province of Panjshir, which helped throw the chain of command in Kabul into disarray. Local criminal gangs — many of them connected to the police — were waiting for their chance to start looting. At 9 that morning, when the police abandoned the station in District 7, near the king’s old palace, local gangsters, some dressed as Taliban in turbans, began to loot the station of weapons and other valuables, according to residents; they were joined by passers-by, who carried off computers and furniture.

By noon on Sunday, Aug. 15, Taliban fighters had reached the gates of the capital. The rebels gathered at the eastern and southern outskirts of the city on motorcycles and captured pickups, dusty and tired from the road, and waited.

Shortly before 10 o’clock that morning, the president sat in the shade of a courtyard at the palace, reading a book. He had met with Rahimi, who updated him on the back channel talks with the Taliban; that same morning, Khalilzad was meeting with Baradar in Doha to discuss the proposal for a peaceful transfer of power. Then Ghani met alone with Mohib, followed by a larger group including Bek, who said he suggested that the president call an emergency cabinet meeting in order to rally his officials. It was then that many learned that Saleh had escaped; the meeting never happened.

At 10 a.m., Khpalwak, the adviser, arrived in the courtyard, in order to find out who was supposed to travel to Doha to negotiate the handover. Karzai was sitting in his house next door, ready to leave that evening or the next morning on an Afghan charter flight. Khpalwak told me that Ghani said that Mohib should go to Doha, as well.

Jawed Kootwal, Khpalwak’s chief of staff, had snapped a photo of the president from his office window — Ghani’s frequent reading breaks had become a joke between him and his friends. Now Kootwal watched as his boss left and Mohib arrived with a man wearing a white robe and an Arab headdress. Kootwal took another photo, which he would later publish online. The man, a United Arab Emirates official, was named Saif, an acquaintance of Mohib’s who was well connected with Afghan power brokers. The meeting had not been listed on the president’s schedule that day.

Traffic on the ramp to the main road in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Aug. 15, the day the city fell.

It was nearly 11 a.m. when I stepped out of my house, and the traffic jam in the city had grown even worse. The cars in the street were at a standstill. Jim and I had no idea what would happen next. We were too busy to dwell on it; the sight of an entire world dissolving produced a certain numbness. There was the relentless sound of helicopters, while around us life continued as it had to — the shops and markets were open.

I had planned to meet two former translators from the U.S. military, who were desperately hoping to be evacuated with the departing forces. They got stuck in traffic and finally ended up walking the last mile; when they arrived, we decided to sit in the yard of a nearby restaurant, and have an early lunch.

Over a pan of chicken karahi, the translators, Mahdi and Nadim, told me about the time they’d spent with the U.S. Special Forces. Each had extensive combat experience, and several Green Berets had written them recommendation letters, but they’d still been waiting for years to go to America under the Special Immigrant Visa program for local employees. There was a backlog of some 20,000 applications. According to a U.S. official, Ghani had resisted a mass airlift, arguing that it would spark panic, and charter flights didn’t start until the end of July. In recent months, as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, their wait had turned to agony. Mahdi had reached the final stage and submitted his passport; in July, he was called to the embassy, where it was handed back to him, stamped “Canceled without prejudice” — most likely a paperwork snafu, he was told, but it would eventually be resolved.

“We don’t have any more time,” Nadim said, his voice rising. The two translators were certain the Taliban would behead them if they caught them. “If you don’t hear from us, it means we’re dead — so tell our story.”

It was almost noon; my phone had been on silent the whole time. I looked up and saw my driver walking toward us, a look of shock on his face.

“People are saying the Taliban have entered Kabul,” he told us. “They’re inside the city.”

Taliban fighters on the outskirts of Kabul on Aug. 15

Around 11 a.m., officials at the palace heard gunfire. Panic seized the N.S.C. building as rumors spread that the Taliban were attacking the palace. From his window, Najib Motahari, Bek’s chief of staff, could see some of Mohib’s staff running across the lawn, fleeing toward the gate — Tommies, he thought contemptuously.

On social media, there was talk that the Taliban had arrived at the outskirts of the city. Were the Taliban breaking the agreement for a cease-fire? At the N.S.C. building, Bek met with Rahimi, the president’s envoy, and began making phone calls, trying to find out what was happening. They spoke with Baradar’s team in Qatar, who insisted that their forces had not entered the city.

The Taliban were as surprised as everyone else by their lightning success; they weren’t prepared to take control of the capital and feared a confrontation with the Americans at the airport. To confirm the cease-fire agreement they had made with Rahimi, the Taliban spokesman now posted a statement online: “Because Kabul is a big city with a large population, the mujahedeen of the Islamic Emirate do not intend to enter by force, and negotiations are underway with the other side for a peaceful transfer of power.”

To the American team in Doha, the statement was validation that the back channel was in contact with the Taliban’s military leadership, who could deliver a cease-fire on the ground. “To have them release a long statement like that about their fighters does not occur without Yaqoub and Siraj’s blessing,” the U.S. diplomat told me. According to several Taliban commanders I later spoke to, they had received orders not to enter the capital. And local residents said that the Taliban massed at the city’s gates were in fact holding back at that point.

Bek, reassured, posted a message on Twitter at noon: “Don’t panic! Kabul is safe!”

But while Khalilzad’s team might have been optimistic about the cease-fire holding, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had decided to get the last of its staff out immediately and haul down the flag. Twenty minutes after Bek’s post, the embassy sent out an alert that prompted many of Kabul’s foreigners to make a sudden dash to the airport. A security adviser at the embassy posted a WhatsApp message to a group of expats, giving a deadline of 5:30 that evening for helicopter evacuations from the Green Zone: “Urgent Update — the US Embassy advises that all foreign missions move to HKIA immediately.”

Outside the U.S. Embassy on Aug. 15. A mural encouraging girls and boys to dream of the future was later painted over by the Taliban.

Hearing the driver’s news, I quickly paid for our meal and said farewell to the two interpreters. I told my driver to go home to his family and set out on foot. People were wild with fear, having heard that the Taliban were in the city. Some shouted into phones; others dashed heedlessly through traffic. The sound of helicopters and jets was loud in the sky. A motorcade of Land Cruisers, sirens blaring, forced its way through the intersection.

It was noon when I got home, and I found my housemate, Jim, with his camera in hand, already wearing a traditional robe. I donned mine; we both spoke Dari and could usually pass for locals. He wanted to take a walk and see what was happening in our neighborhood; it wasn’t clear to us, from the rumors and official denials on Twitter, whether the Taliban had actually entered Kabul.

The last shopkeepers were locking their gates as we walked down Chicken Street. Workers were rushing out of their offices and heading home. Now and again, we could hear scattered gunshots. There was a police headquarters and ministry nearby; some guards were still in uniform, but others stood wearing robes, ready to run. Some checkpoints were deserted.

A police commander lived on our street, and when we got back, we found his guards milling outside his house, most of them in plainclothes already. I had a sudden sense of the fragility of the social contract that bound us; our shared reality was melting into air. I was as worried about being robbed or shot by them as I was about the Taliban.

“Our leaders sold us out,” one of the police officers said. “If the Taliban come here, what can we do?”

We looked up. An American gunship was circling over the city, firing off shimmering flares.

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