Since the Taliban took control of Kabul earlier this month, a lot of the focus has been on the failures of the U.S.-trained Afghan military—why they seemed to put up little resistance to the Islamist extremists in some of the provinces, and then, finally, in the capital.
VICE News correspondent Ben C. Solomon was in Kandahar with Afghan special-forces units as the country’s second-largest city fell to the Taliban. He spoke with Commander Mohammad Iqbal about his unit laying down arms. “We are not a big force. We are a small unit,” said Iqbal. “I wish, instead of building all these other forces, army, and others, I wish the government had just invested in units like this, that we have few in all Afghanistan. And they are defending.”
On this episode of VICE News Reports, we hear from the soldiers who faced the realities on the ground and what the end of this 20-year war feels like for them.
CREDITS: Special thanks to Ben C. Solomon and Adam Desiderio for their reporting from Afghanistan, as well as to the entire VICE News organization for their tireless coverage.
VICE News Reports is hosted by Arielle Duhaime-Ross and produced by Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Sophie Kazis, Jen Kinney, Janice Llamoca, Julia Nutter, and Sayre Quevedo. Our senior producers are Ashley Cleek and Adizah Eghan. Our associate producers are Steph Brown, Sam Eagan, and Adreanna Rodriguez. Sound design and music composition by Steve Bone, Pran Bandi and Kyle Murdock. Our intern is Leily Rezvani.
Our executive producer and VP of Vice Audio is Kate Osborn. Janet Lee is Senior Production Manager for VICE Audio.
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Read the transcript here:
[AFGHANS SHOUTING, HORNS HONKING]
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: We begin in Afghanistan where the final stage of America’s longest war is playing out amidst a relentless advance by the Taliban. It now controls nearly all the major cities and is within fifty miles of Kabul.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: It's 3:00 AM. We are on the tarmac of the Kandahar airport. I'm sitting with around a couple hundred Afghan soldiers all sitting on the ground. And they are leaving on a jet plane, getting ready to leave on government planes that are coming to pick them up after making a deal with the Taliban that said the Taliban doesn't attack for the night. They'll have safe passage out. So far, these are big government carriers that are coming in and picking up as many soldiers as they can.
And we missed two so far. We're waiting for the third one. The first one was chaos as all these different soldiers were trying to push in and get on the plane. The second one was to a different province and the third one we're going to have to also probably withstand the chaos to push on. We're really lucky to get this flight. This is one of the only ways to get out for the soldiers here. It's, you know, it's kind of a bittersweet moment.
I think a lot of these guys. We're really ready to fight, but now everybody's going to get on this plane and go home with their heads held low. We're all kind of stuffed together, pushing around. They left the majority of their bigger equipment. So you can see their trucks, Humvees, all kinds of sitting in the distance and all kinds of being left for Taliban to just take, ‘cause they can't get it on these carriers. Here right now, we're all kind of sitting on this tarmac, looking at the Kandahar airport, realizing that we might not see it again for a long time.
[VICE NEWS REPORTS THEME]
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: The Taliban has made huge gains throughout Afghanistan.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: New video, showing the Taliban inside the Afghan presidential palace there in Kabul. Taliban fighters say they seized hundreds of weapons, vehicles, and ammunition. As you can see there, American supplied vehicles.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: The White House is sticking to its promise to end America's longest war.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] PRESIDENT BIDEN: The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometime without trying to fight.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This is VICE News Reports. And I'm your host, Arielle Duhaime-Ross.
BEN SOLOMON: And I'm Ben Solomon, international correspondent and producer for VICE News.
[VICE NEWS REPORTS THEME FADES]
DUHAIME-ROSS: With the Taliban now in complete control of Afghanistan, a lot of the focus had been on the failures of the American-trained Afghan military. We have watched in the past weeks as huge swaths of the country fell quickly and often without resistance. Ben Soloman, who was on-the-frontlines with the Afghan military as the country collapsed, explains the on the ground realities their soldiers faced. So Ben, I'm talking to you less than 24 hours after you got back from Afghanistan. Just tell me — what was that like?
BEN SOLOMON: Yeah, we just got out over the weekend and it was an intense time over the past 48 hours. It's really kind of went from bad to worse. It's pretty amazing how quickly this has kind of become just a huge place of desperation and sadness in such a small amount of time. I think everybody's feeling still a little shocked and still a little lost in what's going to happen now.
DUHAIME-ROSS: So you and producer Adam Desidero first arrived in Afghanistan last month.
BEN SOLOMON: So, at the end of July, we decided that, you know, now is really an important time to see the downturn in Afghanistan.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] PRESIDENT BIDEN: Good afternoon…
BEN SOLOMON: President Biden announced in April that the U.S. troops would begin to withdraw.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] PRESIDENT BIDEN: I’ve concluded that as time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home.
BEN SOLOMON: And by the end of the summer that they would fully be gone. And we kind of wanted to start tracking that. We knew that the Taliban was in the middle of trying to take over parts of Afghanistan, and we knew that this was a losing battle.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: The President has set August 31st as the date that nearly all U.S. troops will finally be out of Afghanistan, even as it appears that country is descending into civil war.
BEN SOLOMON: So the idea was to kind of, how could we kind of track this losing battle as the Taliban kind of takes over. What we didn't know is how fast it was going to happen.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: So, we made it here to Kabul, flew in on a dusty, hot day.
BEN SOLOMON: So we went to Kabul, without much of a plan.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: It's really quiet on the streets. You know, if you, if you drive around Kabul, you know, things are, things look kind of just like business as usual.
BEN SOLOMON: By the time we got there, the U.S. troops were almost entirely gone and the Taliban was fast encroaching on government controlled territory.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: People are just going about their lives and you don't really feel the fact that, you know, this city and so many others are more and more being surrounded by Taliban advances.
BEN SOLOMON: We decided to start meeting with sources, start figuring out where we'd go, get a sense of kind of where Afghanistan was at the moment, who we could talk to, which government officials could lead us where…
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: Hey, this is Ben. So we finally made it to the besieged city of Kandahar. This is Afghanistan’s second biggest city, and it is right now completely surrounded by Taliban.
BEN SOLOMON: Kandahar, it's really the spiritual capital of the Taliban. This is the place where Mullah Omar, the founder and chief operative of the Taliban in the late eighties decided to kind of make the movement. And since then, it's been the place that the Taliban has seen as its most important city. In 2001, when America pushed into the country, it was the last Taliban stronghold that fell. So it's really the most important kind of city for the Taliban to hold outside of the Capitol.
DUHAIME-ROSS: Important symbolically.
BEN SOLOMON: Not only symbolically
, tactically. It really, if you take Kandahar, you take the south. So Kandahar was not only an important to the Taliban, but also important to the Americans. It kind of is the center of so many of the fights where Americans held and fought for territory.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: So today we are in a military base, just on the outskirts of Kandahar yesterday. It's the desert, it's scorching hot out here and there's not much cover.
BEN SOLOMON: Kandahar is about 13 miles from the Kandahar airfield. It's about due southwest. And if you just keep going on this one road that is really slick and paid for by the Americans, you get to the air base in it and The air base is almost like a small city onto itself. The Americans spent so much time there. It's really famous for its, you know, sprawling centers that supported Americans, these huge buildings that housed, you know, hundreds or thousands of soldiers. At one point I think it even had a TGIF.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: There's remnants of old American forces all around.
BEN SOLOMON: It was just a really different part of the world and a different kind of American ecosystem living amongst Kandahar and amongst the south in Afghanistan.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: You know, all of these structures were designed and built by the Americans and before this was just a desert.
BEN SOLOMON: When President Biden announced that the US troops are going to be drawn down nearly a month later in May, they handed it over.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: Now there’s a huge base with containers that were converted into housing and huge bunkers for hundreds of the commando forces here.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: We just got back from a long day, visiting the front lines with the commandos here in Kandahar. Kandahar is surrounded and we went to two of the front lines on the west and the south ends of the city to inspect how these fights are happening and just get a sense of what these fighters lives are like.
BEN SOLOMON: So, when we got to Kandahar, we got to spend some time on the frontline with all the different soldiers and the different forces fighting there.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: These are the soldiers that are doing the harshest fighting. These are the soldiers that are doing the real kind of pushing against the Taliban here. They are trained by the Americans, brought up under the training and support from them for so many years. And really, these fighters are the silver lining of 20 years of American war here. And they are, in effect, the most important part of the fight here.
BEN SOLOMON: Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has spent between $83- and $85-billion training the Afghan military. This was meant to bulk up their ground forces. It was meant to book up their air force. It was meant to bulk up their communication. And really just to make them self-sufficient, to have an army that is built in the image of an American army, which is to say there's different areas, there's different support systems and there's different ways that they can fight all similar to the U.S. ways of fighting.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: What we found is that the fighters all over are exhausted.
BEN SOLOMON: We met the soldiers that had been out at the front lines for months.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: Most of them haven't had a break since the fighting began and right after Biden announced the American withdrawal and all of them are low on ammo. Low on food. Low on supplies. They were asking us to appeal to the Americans, to help support with bomb runs and any kind of fighting support.
BEN SOLOMON: It was really shocking to see just how unprepared they were. It wasn't just a matter of not being ready for the fight or not being prepared. We would go to outposts where, you know, some of the soldiers were thin and said that the only thing that they had for weeks was potatoes. They felt that the government didn't only forget about them, but didn't really care about them.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: It's a really wretched day here. Kandahar has finally fallen into the hands of the Taliban. After two days of fighting. With the army, the police, the commandos, and many other Afghan forces. A lot of the fighting quickly devolved.
BEN SOLOMON: So for months before we got there, the common thing that was happening was that the military forces, the ANA, and the police were giving up without any fighting. They were just handing their weapons over.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: A lot of the special forces soldiers that we're spending time with, they're saying that a lot of the national army, a lot of the police just gave up their arms right away when they saw the advance. They didn't want to fight it at all. After years of corruption…
BEN SOLOMON: And the Taliban was basically going up to these men and saying, “Listen. You guys don't have it. You don't have the guns. You don't have the support. You're going to get beat. We're going to kill you. So instead of that, give us your guns. Now give up, we'll give you amnesty. We'll give you a hu.”. We saw lots of videos of, “Brothers. And you can walk away. Don't fight for a government that doesn't believe that you don't fight for a government that doesn't support you. Give up now. No harm, no foul. We'll let it be. And we'll just take this territory.” And it worked. It worked really well.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: And that's what happened. we were totally caught off guard.
BEN SOLOMON: So on Friday, we were watching this, kind of, city fall.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: So right now, we're in the control room of some of the drone operations over Kandahar, where they're watching the city right now and trying to see everything we're above…
BEN SOLOMON: At one point they watched drone footage of the governor, fleeing his home and coming to the airfield to try to get away from the fighting. That was at the end of the fight when things were really getting bad.
[MUSIC FADES, AFGHANS SPEAKING IN THE BACKGROUND]
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: We're watching a live feed of the governor leaving his compound, abandoning the city. Wow. There must be 50 or 60 SUV's and trucks and Humvees all trying to rush out of the city. They're all, “Oh, that's us! They’re all coming in here.” They're just, they're giving up the city.
[BACKGROUND VOICES FADE]
[VICE NEWS REPORTS THEME]
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: The Taliban have pushed towards the airport, taken the road towards there and have made great progress towards it. So we're stranded in even more of a complex position because the Taliban is now possibly inside KAF.
BEN SOLOMON: So the Taliban had completely surrounded us. They controlled the roads, they controlled the city and they were on the move right towards us at the KAF air base. And so we were told now you're going to go with the zero three unit.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: These guys have kind of just stashed us away and tried to protect us. This moment, you know, it's the most precarious I've ever been in.
BEN SOLOMON: The last remaining fighters that were going to really, really put up the fight against the Taliban.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: We're seeing hundreds of soldiers prepare and scurry together. This is the entirety of the force. They're all running around, jumping into cars, checking their gear, checking their weapons. It's a mixture of excitement and anticipation. There's also fear when we talk a little deeper under the surface, we hear that, you know, they don't know what's coming. They don't know what's going to happen. There’s not really a big plan. The only thing we can do is kind of fortify ourselves here, hold back the enemy.
BEN SOLOMON: And these were the most elite U.S. trained commandos in the country.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: A lot of them speak English, like they're in a Marine.
COMMANDER MOHAMMAD IQBAL [VOICE MEMO]: Can you hear me, brother? Yeah, I'm sorry, man. The network is bad.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: They must have learned it from American soldiers speaking like, “Hey bro. What's up, dude?”
DUHAIME-ROSS: Ben, so can you tell us more about these soldiers -- the people you spent time with in the past month? We’ve mostly heard about these surrenders, but not from their perspective.
BEN SOLOMON: Yeah, so we spent time with a couple different units….
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: What's your name?
LIEUTENANT NASIR [VOICE MEMO]: Lieutenant Mohammed Nasir.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: How old are you?
LIEUTENANT NASIR [VOICE MEMO]: Thirty-one years old.
BEN SOLOMON: I talked to one young Lieutenant in the days leading up to the Taliban advance on the city.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: So you're surrounded on all sides. You don't have the air support fast enough and you don't have the thermal vision to match theirs. So what can you do?
LIEUTENANT NASIR [VOICE MEMO]: So we are fighting with them. We hope. We are keeping our fingers crossed.
BEN SOLOMON: So what I was hearing from Nasir and other soldiers around there was, was not that they were sick of fighting. It was resolve. It was that they wanted to keep going. They wanted to fight. They wanted to take advantage of this moment and push the Taliban back. The desire was there to stay in the fight, but they just didn't have the support that they need.
LIEUTENANT NASIR [VOICE MEMO]: I am about two months here and they other also. So the fighting is still continuing.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: Are you worried for your life? Are you worried that they will kill you?
LIEUTENANT NASIR [VOICE MEMO]: No. Allah will kill you so you will be killed. If he doesn't want, so you will, you will be alive.
DUHAIME-ROSS: Huh. I feel like the focus has been on how so many soldiers in Afghanistan just fled or stood down immediately.
BEN SOLOMON: Yes exactly it seems with the american government, that's been the line we’re hearing, which is that these soldiers weren’t ready or they didn’t want to fight. The reality with the soldiers we talked to was different and the issue was not this week or this month.
COMMANDER IQBAL [VOICE MEMO]: Twenty years, we’re fighting this enemy. They never dare to come in front of us face to face-to-face fight. They never win. I have never lost a soldier that they got shot from the back. Every time I lost a soldier…
BEN SOLOMON: Commander Mohammad Iqbal is this short, fiery, experienced commander and he had spent years in Kandahar as a leader of these men and now he was being pulled out and not getting the fight that he had expected.
COMMANDER IQBAL [VOICE MEMO]: But unfortunately we are not a big force. We are a small unit. I wish, instead of building all these other forces, army, and others, I wish the government had just invested in units like this, that we have few in all Afghanistan. And they are defending. You guys are seeing it.
BEN SOLOMON: When I spoke to Commander Iqbal, this was last week as Kandahar was falling. The 03 unit that we had been with inside the Kandahar Airforce Base learned that the Afghan National Army had struck a deal to be able to leave without a fight and this was not ideal for them. For the 03 guys they wanted to fight. They were looking forward to testing their strength. Testing their abilities against the Taliban. But — to do it alone and to do it without the support of everyone else, the thousands of other soldiers, the different kinds of units to support them — they knew that this was going to be a losing fight. So they, too, had to stand down.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: What does it feel like after 20 years of fighting to be leaving now to be giving up the city here?
COMMANDER IQBAL [VOICE MEMO]: It’s the weak leadership. It’s the strategic plans that we had were not good. And the security forces that we sacrificed in last 20 years, there was no feelings for them, for their families. All of our politicians, our leaders, whoever they had other citizens, they didn't care. And they were the ones who were in charge in these last twenty years. They were controlling everything. They don't care. All of their kids were in safe haven. their families were in safe haven. Whatever happening now, they can get out any time. It's only fight for men like me and my men.
[OMINOUS MUSIC FADES]
BEN SOLOMON: What I heard and what I took away from these conversations was that the soldiers had felt abandoned by their own government. Certainly they felt abandoned by us, by the American forces who left so quickly. But there was deep frustration with 20 years of bad leadership and 20 years of just corruption that just ate away slowly at all the money and all the morale.
DUHAIME-ROSS: President Biden, on Monday, said that it was the Afghanistan government who appeared to lack the will to fight and the soldiers who appeared to lack the will to fight.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] PRESIDENT BIDEN: We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them, was the will to fight for that future.
DUHAIME-ROSS: From what you've seen, did that register as true?
BEN SOLOMON: I think that was, was insulting and unfair to a lot of the soldiers there. I think, you know, there's so many different kinds of soldiers and so many different forces that wanted to fight. And the reality is that, you know, it wasn't fair to kind of expect what these soldiers would be exactly like the way that the Americans wanted them to be. You know, the biggest problem in the U.S. war in Afghanistan was that they spent $80-billion dollars building an army and their own image in the American system of fighting wars, which is a big, bulky, expensive cumbersome movement of fighting and what they did in building this army and building this military that was set in this way is that they didn't consider what the enemy was, which is an agile, small, smart, knowledgeable enemy that can easily blend in and out. They can easily fight a guerrilla warfare for years to come.
You know, the old, famous saying in Afghanistan that the Taliban would always say for the past 20 years of fighting was, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” And now, as this fight kind of progresses, that is registering more and more true. And the fact that Biden is now saying, “Well, you know, they just didn't have the will to fight,” it's total bullshit. And I think if you asked the soldiers there and if you asked the Afghans who knew how to fight the Taliban, they could tell you that for 20 years, they've been saying the same thing, which was, you gotta be faster. You gotta be smarter. You gotta play on their level. And the Americans just didn't listen.
[SOUNDS FROM KANDAHAR]
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: Afghanistan's second biggest city, Kandahar, has fallen to the Taliban in a significant blow for the government forces there.
[SOUNDS FROM KANDAHAR FADE]
DUHAIME-ROSS: So my understanding is this past weekend you and your producer Adam were witnessing the last area of the region get taken over by the Taliban and at this point, you and a number of afghan forces were trapped at the military airfield near Kandahar, right? You were essentially pinned down.
BEN SOLOMON: Yeah, we were kind of in it with them. We knew that if we stayed there for the night, it could potentially be the night that the fighting breaks through and the Taliban pushes towards us.
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: The reality is that Kandahar is now fully lost. And, although they didn't get to fight for it, they'll still be able to get back to Kabul and continue on there.
BEN SOLOMON: And in the 11th hour, as the sun was going down, we got a call from one of the high level officials in the government of Afghanistan and he said, “A flight’s gonna come.”
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: The reality for us is that we get to leave.
BEN SOLOMON: What happened was through back channels, through chatting with, you know, high-level officials talking to, you know, shadow governors of the Taliban, they basically cut a deal. And they said, “Okay, we're gonna stop fighting for the day. You guys are gonna have, you know, this much time, maybe 24 hours, maybe 48 hours to leave.”
BEN SOLOMON [VOICE MEMO]: We get to have American passports, which give us the privilege to be able to leave the country and get out of this situation. We have the privilege to be amongst these military. Soldiers are all desperately pushing their way to the front. They even fired shots in the air just to scare people off. It's really a desperate scene ‘cause so many people here are just without sleep. Without rest. Without food.
BEN SOLOMON: What's important to recognize at this moment when we're seeing so many images come out of Afghanistan, of people, you know, just desperate for some sort of hope, is the amount of just disparity of the privilege that comes into the situation. There's so many people there and so many people in need and so many people hoping to get out.
DUHAIME-ROSS: So, this elite group of Afghan commandos who helped you get out of Afghanistan, do you know where they are?
BEN SOLOMON: So, I do. I'm talking with them a lot. I'm chatting with them as we go. And a lot of them have changed from this tough guy, you know? Really swaggered soldiers to really desperate civilians. My phone is constantly on ringing with these guys and they're all kind of asking me for help. Asking me for support, asking me if I have any contacts with the government.
You know, all of these people are at risk. If you have served water to an American. At some point in the 20 years of the American occupation there, you can be worried that you can be sought out as a collaborator with the Americans and the Taliban could see you as a potential person to kill.
We're all trying to support the people that have supported us for so long. Our local producers, our drivers, our support staff, not only for us at VICE, but, you know, so many industries. So many news networks that have been there for so long covering the war, they're all looking for ways out.
So, for us that have worked there and for us that have friends there and people that, you know, we've been through crazy times with, there's not much hope we can offer at the moment. And that's what's really been the hardest part for so many journalists like me, that really have found people that we love there.
[VICE NEWS REPORTS THEME]
DUHAIME-ROSS: This week and in the coming weeks, VICE will continue to cover the situation in Afghanistan closely, with help from our colleagues and from Afghans on the ground as the situation develops for them. So check out our twitter, our instagram, and vice news tonight on TV. There's going to be a lot of coverage there.
Special thanks to Ben C. Solomon and Adam Desiderio for their reporting from Afghanistan, as well as to the entire VICE News Organization for their tireless coverage.
VICE News Reports is produced by Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Sophie Kazis, Jen Kinney, Janice Llamoca, Julia Nutter, and Sayre Quevedo. Our senior producers are Ashley Cleek and Adizah Eghan. Our associate producers are Sam Eagan, and Adreanna Rodriguez. Sound Design and music composition by Steve Bone, Pran Bandi and Kyle Murdock.
Our executive producer and VP of Vice Audio is Kate Osborn. Janet Lee is Senior Production Manager for VICE Audio. Production coordination by Steph Brown.
Our theme music is by Steve Bone.
From iHeart executive producers Nikki Eee-TOR and Lindsay Hoffman.
I’m Arielle Duhaime Ross. I know podcast hosts say this constantly but for real, please rate and review the pod. It really helps people find the show. VICE News Reports drops every Thursday, so be sure to check back in next week.