Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 left a vacuum that was instantly filled by the Taliban – intimidating militia who had been forcibly ousted from government two decades before. In the preceding days and weeks, many of the 5 million residents of Kabul lived with unremitting chaos and fear.
The scenes of confusion and violence at Kabul airport – as foreigners and locals desperately tried to flee – were broadcast around the world. These marked the last days of democracy for a country that succumbed at a pace that no-one was prepared for. The advance of the Taliban following President Trump’s “peace agreement” overwhelmed a collapsing defence force. Bland reassurances from the Central government misled the residents, who had no idea what was happening on the ground. The world watched in horror as any plans for an orderly withdrawal of vulnerable citizens were quickly abandoned.
So how to tell the story of those events? Photographer and journalist, Andrew Quilty, had lived in Kabul for 10 years and had forged connections with people across the country. He chose to tell the story largely through their eyes. In doing so, the book raises fundamental questions for all of us about being overrun by an unstoppable force – at what point do you drop everything and get out? When do you stop fighting because you don’t know what you are fighting for? How do you protect your family when they are at serious risk?
We arrive inside the homes, palaces and defence posts in and around Kabul. We feel the oppressive presence of armed militias who want to change lives forever. The apprehension is palpable. The situation changes not by the day or even hour, but by the minute. For the Afghan military and government, communication and protocol are in tatters. Very soon, everyone must fend for themselves.
The airport was a lottery. Just getting there through traffic, gunfire and Taliban checkpoints was hard enough, but actually boarding a plane was only for the lucky few: “… families would have to wade through knee deep sewage, which the soldiers on the opposite bank were using as a buffer to contain the crowds……” [p228];” …. more people surged into the service road until, by mid-afternoon, there was no room to sit. Like a volcano that creates its own weather patterns, the crowd started producing forces of its own and the two families jostled and swayed just to keep their feet” [p229]. Added to this was the ever present danger of Taliban firing directly at the people or, as we now know, other terrorists detonating bombs.
Through a careful choice of eye witnesses and factual analysis, Andrew explains the seemingly incomprehensible. Within days of a 20 year military presence, including delivery of weaponry and training, the Afghan defences would cede with barely a fight. It explains the acute embarrassment of the western forces and the apparent unwillingness of the Afghan military to defend their country. Eye witnesses include government security staff, Afghan, US and Taliban military, families and young men and women caught in the chaos.
Our present is the history of the future. The tragic images of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban just one year ago are still front of mind for many, but the events and people are already part of history. Books like this help to reconstruct some truths out of mayhem, but more importantly they preserve forever the otherwise untold narratives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
We learn in the epilogue that at least some of the stories described in the earlier chapters are contested. In relation to the bombing at Kabul airport, military investigators in the US stated that the bomb killed citizens and US servicemen. But eyewitnesses “claimed that the foreign forces had opened fire on civilians in the aftermath of the blast, but their accounts didn’t corroborate one another….” [p271].
Much of the detail in the book is anecdotal and there is not always a counterpoint available to the assertions of some of the central figures. The reconstruction is very much of Andrew’s making but is based on many interviews, including chance encounters with people on the street – all of whom tell remarkable and very different versions. This is not to challenge the objectivity of the author, but it is salutary to remember that the story of the fall of Kabul is actually millions of stories.
August in Kabul is the coupling of a photographer’s eye for human stories and a journalist’s determination to convey truth, resulting in a compelling narrative of clarity and consequence.
by Andrew Quilty
ISBN: 978 052287 876 9