A New York Times Story About Evacuating Its Staff Out of Afghanistan After the Taliban Takeover

From a New York Times story by Mujib Mashal and Thomas Gibbons-Neff headlined “5 Desperate Days: Escaping Kabul”:

KABUL, Afghanistan — This was as far as they would go, a dozen Marines inside the gutted Kabul airport, fanned out beside a blue gate by a fountain bearing a landmark sign — “I ❤️ Kabul.’’

One of us, Thomas “T.M.” Gibbons-Neff, a correspondent from the Kabul bureau of The New York Times, had moved with the troops to the gate in the hours before dawn. The other, Mujib Mashal, a Times correspondent who grew up in Kabul, carefully approached T.M. in the darkness. The Marines would not move toward him onto de facto Taliban turf.

“We cannot go any further, Mujib. We cannot,” T.M., a former Marine who had served two tours in Afghanistan, said into his phone.

Moments later, the Americans saw Mujib step into the eerie half-light under a flickering street lamp, along with his escort: three Taliban fighters who clutched their rifles nervously.

Behind them, in the murky distance beyond, was a group of more than 120 people: current and former Times employees and their family members.

It was the early morning of Aug. 19, after days of chaos and terror; days when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban; days of tens of thousands of people rushing the airport to escape; days of trying, and failing, again and again, to evacuate the Times families.

When the Taliban went on their blitz through Afghanistan’s cities in August, many of The Times’s Afghan employees and their family members did not yet have passports, let alone visas to anywhere. Some of them were just days away from receiving their documents when the Taliban walked into Kabul uncontested on Aug. 15, and senior Afghan officials fled the country.

In the days that followed, a chartered plane had closed its cabin door in our Afghan colleagues’ faces, its crew panicking and taking off with empty seats. The Times group, including dozens of children, had huddled under the open sky all night and all through the next day near the runway as food and water ran out. They had been charged and beaten by Taliban fighters trying to clear the crowds.

But now the Taliban were helping our group navigate the chaos of desperate crowds at the airport. After days of deal-making and rushed coordination, it had all come down to this: forging an unsettling collaboration between Marines and the insurgent fighters, and bridging the yards between a former American Marine and an Afghan native who had become friends and colleagues, to usher the Times group to an evacuation flight and new lives in another country.

First, T.M. and Mujib had to make sure that no potentially fatal misunderstandings happened in this impromptu meeting that during the decades of bitter war would surely have led to blood.

Mujib coaxed his Taliban escorts — led by a senior field commander who had directed insurgent units and suicide bombers — toward the Marines.

“There are three of us walking over, OK? Straight down the road, we are walking straight down the road,” Mujib said in a voice message to T.M. “Three of us, OK, to the domestic terminal — three of us and one guy behind us.”

“Three Taliban, one you?” T.M. said.

“Yes. One Talib is behind me, three of us on the same length,” Mujib said.

“Keep walking straight to the domestic terminal,” T.M. advised.

The groups came together in a surreal scene: men wearing the uniform T.M. once wore, waiting to greet disheveled insurgents they had battled for years. One of the fighters was clutching an American M4 carbine.

Suddenly, the war between them was over. And in the strange light of our cooperation, it almost felt for a minute as if it had never happened.

“This is my friend, my colleague,” Mujib said in Pashto, introducing T.M. to the Taliban, and then greeting the Marines in English. Marines and Taliban reached across the gate, and shook hands.

“My commander, General Sullivan, has authorized you to come through this gate,” the Marine unit’s leader said to Mujib, who interpreted for the Taliban.

“We will move them then,” one of the Taliban guards said. He went back to get the rest of the Times group.

With the sunrise approaching, we were finally moving ahead.

THOMAS ‘T.M.’ GIBBONS-NEFF I was 13 when the United States went to war in Afghanistan — I remember hearing it on the AM news station 1010 WINS while my friends and I were bouncing home in the back of a minivan from a friend’s birthday party. Those were the emotional days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when American flags were flying from highway overpasses and people from my neighborhood in suburban Connecticut were still talking about how they had watched the towers burn from the town beach.

I was already steeped in war, and what I thought it meant. My father had served in Vietnam, and I grew up reading war histories and playing paintball whenever I could. I enlisted in the Marines five years later, at the end of my senior year of high school. My mom was distraught and my dad was quiet, in a way I would only recognize later.

I was small for my age, and it’s hard to separate any sense of patriotism from my desire to prove myself. I guess that’s the case for many 18-year-olds who signed up in the middle years of the 20-year war.

I deployed to southern Afghanistan in 2008 and again in 2009. I was taught little about the country’s culture or its people. Most of our training was focused on defeating or at least surviving roadside bombs, and killing the Taliban on our terms. Anything else was reserved for the laminated pamphlets our bosses gave us, buried in the bottom of our bags.

They were tough deployments. We killed and we died — almost always it seemed like the wrong people were suffering — and passed chunks of our lives in Afghanistan’s extreme climate. I remember the cold, the heat and the anguish of moral and practical confusion.

Even when we were told that we were part of a broader strategy to turn the tide or win the war, it felt nothing like that. We knew even then that we were losing, because no matter what we did, the Taliban kept shadowing us, and now and then managed to kill another of my friends. When my four years were up, I turned in my uniform and returned to civilian life.

When I came back to Afghanistan as a journalist in 2015, after the war had changed yet again and the Afghan military was supposedly leading combat operations, evidence of failure was everywhere.

More than 100,000 American troops at the war’s height had briefly subdued some places, those little shaded areas around outposts on the map. But as the United States pulled out, each remote patch reverted to Taliban control, sometimes within hours.

As the last U.S. military support dwindled this past year, Afghanistan’s government dissolved under a Taliban offensive: district after district, provincial capital after provincial capital, until Kabul itself was the Taliban’s prize, and I was standing next to Marines from the very unit that I had first deployed with in 2008.

They were helming the final American defensive position of the war: Kabul’s international airport, the best hope for thousands of Afghans and foreigners scrambling to escape the Taliban’s victorious grip.

MUJIB MASHAL The hopes of much of my generation of urban Afghans took shape between two sudden and bewildering collapses.

I grew up in Kabul, living through the Taliban’s first turn in power, and that first collapse when I was 13 was the moment their grip was broken. After nights of heavy American bombing that lit up the sky, we woke up on Nov. 13, 2001, to find that the Taliban had abandoned Kabul, the capital city they had ruled as part of an oppressive police state for six years.

Mullahs had run everything, from civil aviation to athletic federations. Some of our teachers — I was in middle school then — used to come to class with their guns strapped into side holsters.

The vice principal, a mullah who wore his striped brown turban with swagger, threw me to the classroom floor one afternoon and lashed the soles of my feet with tree branches until his arms got tired. I was made an example of for a tiny act of dissent: I had gone to him, on behalf of our class, complaining that the geography teacher he had assigned us couldn’t even read the numbers on the map.

And then the Taliban were suddenly gone — for good, we thought.

On the streets, there was the chaos and uncertainty of collapse. But there was also music and color, making a sudden return to lives that had seemed to crawl along in black and white. Barbershops began trimming beards that had been uncuttable under Taliban law. Cassette sellers brought their collections out into the open — music cannot be silenced entirely, really, but the Taliban had relegated it to an underground crime.

The next 20 years, shaped by the American troop presence, was an era of opportunity for many. Millions of girls returned to school, including my sister, who had been forced to stay home for five years. Roads and new commercial air routes connected the country. Independent media blossomed.

There were opportunities abroad, too — scholarships to the United States, or India, or Japan. With only broken English, I got a scholarship to go to Deerfield Academy, a high school in Massachusetts, and then to Columbia University. In the summers, I returned to my family in Kabul to see new buildings going up everywhere. Universities were a favorite, and sprawling wedding halls, too.

Like a lot of Afghans educated abroad in those years, I chose to come home to make my living after getting my degree. It was a violent and complicated place, but it still allowed me the space to live the way I wanted, building a life as a writer, or as any other thing I chose. Belonging felt effortless — we could have roots in our own home, and yet be part of the world.

That is what we just lost, why we feel adrift now.

That the loss would come seemed increasingly inevitable as I traveled the country as a journalist in recent years. I saw firsthand the extent of the inequality and corruption in a Western-manufactured democracy that kept falling so short.

For everyone like me, whose world opened up to bigger possibilities, there were more young Afghans in large stretches of the country for whom there was little improvement, only the disruption and indignity of constant war.

My job required reporting on the daily carnage, on the promising lives cut down en masse, many of them belonging to people like me. Putting the final touches on a story late at night would allow me to let the tears come, to finally weep and unburden my chest a little before falling asleep. The next day required strength to do it all over again.

I became increasingly sure that I was documenting the disintegration of a system built on corruption and false promises. The Taliban certainly believed it — even as they began talking peace, every Talib leader, negotiator or fighter I spoke to seemed increasingly sure that the American-backed government was fragile and unsustainable, and would soon crumble.

The government, impotent and run by leaders who had kept their families abroad all these years, collapsed before the Americans were even gone. The Taliban were at Kabul’s doorstep as suddenly as they had left in 2001.

I was there, visiting my family, when the Taliban walked in on Aug. 15 this year — the second collapse that will forever mark my generation, and my country….

Note: The story continues—to appreciate the full story and the many good pictures click on this link.

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