A year later, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is still unclear.
To those of us watching from afar, the rushed airlifts looked more like the climax of a war movie than a military operation coordinated by the world’s only superpower. August 2021 has been filled with minute-by-minute updates on the chaos: the desperate masses trying to escape, the rapid advance of the Taliban, the terrorist attack at Kabul airport and the thousands migrants who slip on planes and arrive at makeshift resettlement centers around the world.
Now director Jamie Roberts and the team at Amos Pictures have turned those events into a documentary, Escape Kabul, premiering Wednesday on HBO Max. In a tight 77 minutes, Roberts fuses hours of on-the-ground footage with moving interviews with Afghan evacuees, American troops and the Taliban for a compelling look at the human instinct for survival. We watch, for example, people standing in a flooded sewer channel in the unbearable heat, hoping that a US Marine will take pity on them and single them out for resettlement. In another disturbing scene, a group of Afghan citizens, feeling like they have nothing to lose, jump onto the wing of a huge C-17 military plane. Crowds rush to the plane, but American troops overseeing the evacuation still don’t know who’s who in the fray. The plane is ordered to take off, and a single body falls and crashes onto the runway.
Roberts and his team began planning for the film days after the US withdrawal on August 31, contacting the British and US military and figuring out how to get to Afghanistan. From January to March, they marched cautiously in Kabul, careful not to provoke the ire of the Taliban.
The Daily Beast spoke with Roberts on Zoom about the making of the documentary, the Biden administration’s initial pushback and the ripple effect of the disastrous evacuation for thousands of Afghans and their families.
It seems that with your last two documentaries [Escape from Kabul, Four Hours at the Capitol], you worked quite quickly. New to you? Do you prefer it?
I’ve spent a lot of time on films in the past where I’ve been embedded for about a year with a band – a jihadist band, a far-right band – but I guess I like working to the beat. Obviously, if you have more time, that’s great, but there are some stories that feel quite urgent. With that, HBO wanted something within the year. A deadline sometimes focuses the mind.
It was fascinating to hear from some of the evacuees who lived through this nightmare and to see them side by side with uninterrupted footage of that horrific period of waiting for weeks at the airport. How did you come into contact with them?
Talking to charities, talking to people involved in the evacuation, and going through networks. We have Afghans working on the film, people I’ve met and filmed with, they’re all on social media. Everyone sends messages, especially because they are spread all over the world, on WhatsApp, on Facebook. We really wanted the people who were at the gates where the Marines and the Talibs were, the people who were on the front lines in the canal where the bomb went off, to be able to keep the story very focused.
For me, the most surprising “get” was the US servicemen and servicewomen – I guess because I thought the US would like to keep this closer to the vest, as it was, in the opinion of so many of people, of a failed evacuation. Did you go through official channels to get them?
With the Marines, on our first approach, we were pushed back. We tried different ways and spoke to Marines who have since left, and then started a series of discussions with an intermediary we met. And I think there’s been a groundswell within the Marines. They were frustrated that they hadn’t seen their story represented, that they hadn’t been heard. So I think the Marines as an organization decided that maybe they would let their people talk about this. Over time, we managed to open it, and when we arrived at the base, we were a little surprised. They were there. And the first guy that walked in is [Lt. Col.] Chris Richardella, who is in the film, sits down and tells you from start to finish when they deployed two days before the Taliban arrived, then what happened when the Taliban arrived and what happened. then happened. And it was like, OK, all of a sudden, we’re inside the story.
“I think there was a groundswell within the Marines. They were frustrated that they hadn’t seen their story represented, that they hadn’t been heard.”
Some of their stories sound like an indictment of the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation. [The Marines] talked about the lack of focus or clear directions and all the things they had to witness because of that, but of course the administration controls the Ministry of Defense and the military. Has this happened before?
It happened. That’s why we didn’t have access initially. We kept trying to knock on doors and explore why this was happening, and were told it was from the administration. None of [the Marines] really sat there and gave it to Biden, but you’re right, there were frustrations about the situation they were put in. I think some people linked this to Trump. Especially the Afghans who were saying, “This is the deal that Trump signed with the Taliban and didn’t have the Afghan government at the table,” and obviously Biden took up the bat and carried on. He repealed almost everything else Trump had done, but he continued that policy.
Was there anything you were surprised to discover during your reporting?
One of the things I hadn’t heard before – it’s alluded to in the DOD report, but it’s not explicit – is how the Marines actually took over the airfield. They said, “Well, this Afghan special forces unit came in and said, ‘OK, we’ll partner with you.'” They had different rules of engagement, so they started running over people and shooting at them, and that was then they took control of the actual airport and were able to start the evacuation. The first person who told me that, I didn’t really believe them. Then another person says it, and another person says it. Then you start triangulating and you look at the documents. It was shocking.
You also see that there are several really strong and brilliant characters. There is Hasina Safi, who was a member of the Afghan government. She had been told several times before that the Taliban were going to kill her, that she was going to be assassinated. It’s shocking to see a woman like that, so sweet, who poses no threat to anyone, who’s smart, then have to try to get her family together, wade through a canal, [and] go through this deadly assault course to come out like she did.
I myself helped to report on the evacuation. I was glued to the updates in the form of videos and photos, but it was only from your film that I saw everything so clearly and without interruption. How did you get so many raw footage?
I had some from the Taliban. One guy I met, we talked and it turns out he was part of the special forces unit that entered the airport right after the Americans left and he filmed his buddies coming in. He said, “This is our time. After a few meetings over coffee, green tea, he ended up giving it to me. I was quite amazed because it’s a scene. You are taken through their experience. You can see they are happy but quite terrified because they think the whole place is bombed with bombs and they are going to explode.
There’s a guy, I feel like he was a citizen journalist, but he filmed the arrival of the Taliban. I think he just realized it was such a historic moment. And it was something they had never seen in Kabul before. There’s the footage there with people filming right in the drainage canal where the suicide bomb went off. So it’s not just taken from the archives of all the normal broadcasters and a deletion. You see it from the experience of the people who are at the center of it all.
And after all that, Biden called it an “extraordinary success”.
The acting ambassador himself says it was not a success. I was surprised he even said that, because he was very diplomatic in his interview. You could see that none of these people thought that. The military were very respectful of the president and the government. I’m sure when they came out of the room they were angry, but they were pretty professional. They all thought it was a complete shit show. They were lucky to make it out alive, and they saw 13 of their colleagues and hundreds of Afghans die. Many of them thought they were going to fight the Taliban. They arrived there and they understood that it was a completely different thing.
Speaking of the Taliban, I think we’ve seen in news clips and other documentaries that the Taliban aren’t press-shy, especially not after they take over. But how was it for you to sit in front of them? Were you afraid?
When we got to the point where we sat down, we were kind of past the point of threat. I mean, they’re there with all their machine guns. They came up with RPGs, but that’s becoming quite normal I guess. The main sense of threat was when we were circling around Kabul at night or going through checkpoints. Journalists have been arrested. You go through a checkpoint and they stop your car and they have booze all over the road because they stopped people looking for booze. They went from house to house, breaking down doors, breaking people’s equipment, looking for spies. It all seemed very reactionary, and you didn’t really know what, on a day-to-day basis, could happen. Almost every two weeks, a Western journalist or contractor would be picked up and arrested. There is no American or British embassy there, so you are sort of on your own. The times I’ve seen people get in trouble is when they did things that immediately pissed off the Taliban and broke the rules. Like taking a picture of someone’s face for no real reason, then you end up in jail and you won’t get out for God knows how long, because you’ve now become a political asset.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.