A year later, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is still hazy.
To those of us watching from afar, the hasty airplanes looked more like the climax of a war movie than a coordinated military operation by the world’s only superpower. The month of August 2021 was filled with minute-by-minute updates on the chaos: desperate people trying to flee, the Taliban’s rapid advance, the terrorist attack on Kabul airport, and the planes and arrivals of thousands of migrants around the world. in temporary rehabilitation centres.
Now, director Jamie Roberts and the team at Amos Pictures have turned those events into a documentary, escape from kabuli, premieres Wednesday on HBO Max. In a difficult 77 minutes, Roberts combined hours of on-the-ground footage with interviews with Afghan evacuees, US troops, and the Taliban for a compelling look at the human instinct to survive. We see, for example, when people stand in a flooded sewage canal in unbearable heat, hoping that a US Marine will take pity on them and take them out for rehabilitation. In another disturbing scene, a group of Afghan civilians, realizing they have nothing to lose, jump onto the wing of a giant C-17 military plane. The crowd rushes to the plane, but American soldiers overseeing the evacuation still have no idea who is in the scuffle. The plane is ordered to take off, and the same body falls on the runway and disintegrates.
Roberts and his team began plotting the film within days of their return to the US on August 31, contacting British and US forces and figuring out how to bring it to Afghanistan. From January to March, he marched cautiously into Kabul, being careful not to provoke the wrath of the Taliban.
The Daily Beast spoke with Roberts on Zoom about the making of the documentary, the early pushback from the Biden administration, and the ripple effect of the devastating evacuations for thousands of Afghans and their families.
It seems that with your last few documentaries [Escape from Kabul, Four Hours at the Capitol]You did a quick job. Is this new for you? Do you like it?
I’ve spent a good deal of time on films in the past where I’ve been involved with a group for like a year—a jihadi group, a far-right group—but I think I like working at speed. Obviously if you’ve gotten older, that’s great, but there are some stories that just feel like they’re a must. Also HBO needed something within the year. A deadline sometimes keeps the mind focused.
It was fascinating hearing from some of the evacuation people who had actually gone through that nightmare, and watching them side by side with uninterrupted footage of that dreadful waiting period for weeks at the airport. How did you come in contact with them?
Talking to charities, talking to people involved in evacuation, and going through the network. We have Afghans working on the film, people I met and filmed with—they’re all on social networks. Everyone is sending messages, especially because they are spread all over the world, on WhatsApp, on Facebook. We really wanted the people who were down in the gates where the Marines were and the Talibs, the people who were on the front lines in the canal where the bomb was dropped, to be able to keep the story very focused.
To me, the most surprising “achieved” were American soldiers and servicemen – I guess because I thought America would want to put it closer to the vest than it was, in the opinion of so many, a tangled evacuation. Did you go through official channels to get them?
With the Marines, on our first approach, we were reprimanded. We tried different approaches and we talked to the Marines, who have since left, and then we started a round of talks with a mediator we met. And I think there was a groundlevel within the Marines. They were disappointed that they had not seen a representation of their story, that they had not been heard. So I think the Marines as an organization decided that maybe they would let their people speak on it. Over time, we managed to open it, and when we got to the base, we were amazed. Here they were. And the first man who came is [Lt. Col.] Chris Richelieu, who is in the movie and basically sits down and tells you about when the Taliban arrived two days before they were deployed, and then what happened when the Taliban got there, and what happened after that, from beginning to end gives you. And it felt like, well, suddenly we’re right inside the story.
,I think there was a groundwell within the Marines. They were disappointed that they had not seen a representation of their story, that they had not been heard.,
Some of his stories sound like an indictment on the conduct of the evacuation by the Biden administration. [The Marines] Talked about a lack of focus or clear directions and what they had to see because of it, but of course, the administration has control over the Defense Department and the military. Did it ever come up?
It came up. So we didn’t get access to begin with. We kept knocking on doors and trying to find out why this was happening, and we were told that it was coming from the administration. nobody [the Marines] Actually sat there and gave it to Biden, but you’re right, there was frustration about the position he was placed in. I think some people linked it back to Trump. The Afghans in particular were saying, “This is the deal that Trump signed with the Taliban and he didn’t have the Afghan government on his table,” and apparently Biden took the bat and continued. He repealed almost everything Trump had done, but he continued with this policy.
Did you come across anything that surprised you during your reporting?
One of the things I hadn’t heard before – mentioned in the DoD report, but not made clear – is how the Marines actually got control of the airspace. He said, “Okay, this Afghan Special Forces unit came over and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to partner with you. Then they got control of the actual airport and could start the evacuation. The first person told me that, I didn’t really believe them. Then another person says, and another person says. Then you start triangulating it, and you look at the paperwork. It was shocking.
You also see that there are actually several strong, brilliant characters. Hasina Safi, who was a member of the Afghan government. He had been told many times before that the Taliban was going to kill him, that he was going to be killed. It is shocking to see a woman who is so gentle, who poses no danger to anyone, who is intelligent, then has to try to surround her family, walk through a canal, [and] Go through this deadly attack course to get out the way he did.
I helped to report on the withdrawal myself. I was glued to the update in the form of videos and photos, but it wasn’t until your movie that I saw it all so clear and seamless. How did you get so much raw footage?
I got something from Taliban. A guy I met we were talking to and it turns out he was actually part of the Special Forces unit that went straight to the airport after the Americans left and filmed their friends going in. He was like, “This is our moment.” After a few meetings over coffee – green tea – he stopped giving it to me. I was quite surprised because it is a scene. You go through their experience. You can see they are happy but quite scared as they think the whole place is full of bombs and they are about to leave.
There is a man, I think he was a civilian journalist, but he filmed the coming of the Taliban. I think he realized that it was such a historic moment. And it was something they had not seen before in Kabul. There is footage of people filming in the drainage canal where the suicide bomb was dropped. So it’s not just pulled from the archives of all the usual broadcasters and a takedown. You’re seeing this from the experience of the people right at the center of it.
And after all that, Biden Called it an “extraordinary success”.
The acting ambassador himself says that it was not successful. I was surprised that he even said this because he was very diplomatic in his interview. You can see that none of them thought of that. The soldiers had great respect for the President and the government. I’m sure they were furious when they left the room, but they were quite professional. Everyone thought it was complete bullshit. He was lucky to survive, and saw 13 of his associates and hundreds of Afghans die. Many of them thought they were going to go inside and fight the Taliban. They got there and thought it was a completely different thing.
Speaking of the Taliban, I think we’ve seen from news clips and other documentaries that the Taliban are not press-shy, especially not after they took control. But how did you feel sitting in front of them? were you scared?
When we got to the point where we were sitting, we had passed the point of danger. I mean, they’re out there with all their machine guns. They have changed with RPGs, but it becomes quite common, I think. The main sense of danger was when we were filming around Kabul at night or walking through checkpoints. Journalists were being arrested. You go through a checkpoint and they stop your car and they had drunk all over the street because they were stopping people looking for alcohol. They were going from house to house, kicking in doors, breaking people’s equipment, searching for spies. It all sounded very reactionary, and you really didn’t know what could happen from day to day. Almost every other week a Western journalist or contractor would be picked up and arrested. There is no US or British embassy there, so you are on your own there. When I saw that people were in trouble, they did things that basically angered the Taliban immediately and went out of the way. Like taking a picture of someone’s face for no real reason, and then you end up in jail and you’re not going to get out, god knows how long, because now you have become a political asset.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.