The look on the faces of the US soldiers was one I hadn’t seen before… seething humiliation, writes ITV correspondent JOHN IRVINE
In the beginning, the American military campaign in Afghanistan was officially known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Lofty ideals and ambitions are inherent in such a title, but 20 years later they look hopelessly misplaced. As names go, it now reads like a tragically bad joke.
Afghanistan is today a graveyard of Western ideals that many Afghans had come to hold dear. I said sorry to a lot of those people during the 11 days since the Taliban takeover that we stayed in Kabul, a city we have now left.
One of the reasons we stayed at the Serena Hotel, in the centre of the capital, is that it’s also home to the Qatari Embassy. The Gulf country has played an enormous role in all of this. The Qataris were the intermediaries as the Americans and the Taliban negotiated the end. We felt that as long as we were close to the Qataris, we would be relatively safe.
It was the Qataris who got us out of there. Myself, cameraman Sean Swan and producer Lutfi Abu-Aun are also indebted to the NBC news correspondent Richard Engel, who used his contacts to make sure we were on a flight from Kabul to the Qatari capital Doha. Driving from the hotel to the airport, we almost certainly passed people who would be killed later in the day in the suicide bomb attack close to one of the entrances.
In the beginning, the American military campaign in Afghanistan was officially known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Pictured: Troops in Kabul on August 25
The dividing line between Taliban-held Kabul and the American-held part of the airport was a roll of concertina wire.
At that divide stood a line of armed Taliban now wearing Western army combat fatigues. Just feet from them were soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the US Army’s most storied units. The look on the Americans’ faces was one I hadn’t seen before. It was seething humiliation.
A long drive over the tarmac brought us to the apron being used by the giant C-17 Globemaster transport planes that have been the workhorses of this evacuation. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Fat Albert’ by the Brits, the Hercules C-130 has been a reliable sidekick. Orderly, quiet columns of Afghans were being led to the aircraft in single file.
The world has answered the call and I lost count of the nationalities of the various planes we watched as we waited for ours. To witness the evacuation has been depressingly impressive. Nations united doing a decent thing. It’s great to see, but then you remember the shame of it all.
When our time came, we shared the vast cargo bay in the Qatari C-17 with about 200 Afghans who were bound for Italy. We would get off in Doha. Because the Qataris fly over Iran, our journey was only two and a bit hours. Our hosts were brilliant.
They gave the Afghans and us food and water. Patient Qatari soldiers were kind as bored, inquisitive Afghan children pestered them throughout the flight. The landing in Doha was as gentle as that of a butterfly with sore legs.
Afghanistan is today a graveyard of Western ideals that many Afghans had come to hold dear. Pictured: Troops in Kabul on August 26
We’re safe and well, but my head is still in Kabul.
Sunday, August 15 is a day that should live in infamy. The culmination of American surrender and failure saw the Taliban amble into Kabul unopposed. It was a walkover that has seen our principles trampled into the dust.
Millions of hearts sank as dread filled the air. The possibilities that are hopes and dreams vanished as helicopters dropped flares and their rotor blades beat the retreat to the capital’s airport.
President Biden had persuaded himself that at some stage over the span of 20 years a just cause became a lost cause.
There was no bumper sticker to encapsulate a befuddled US endeavour that had stagnated and was seemingly goalless. Sorry Joe, but an own goal wasn’t the answer.
The day after they rolled into town, some of the Taliban strolled into the restaurant at our hotel.
Unable to avoid one another, we exchanged awkward pleasantries through our translators. It dawned on me that the last time Taliban gunmen had entered this restaurant was in 2014. Then they sprayed the place with machine-gun fire and killed nine diners.
The dividing line between Taliban-held Kabul and the American-held part of the airport was a roll of concertina wire. Pictured: A US soldier at the airport on August 27
Now they were trying to work out what napkins are for.
They took over hotel security, performing all the duties and using all the detectors and X-ray machines that had originally been installed to keep them out.
As one of them held a mirror to inspect the underside of our car one day, I thought to myself: ‘If you don’t know where car bombs may have been hidden then no one does.’
Thursday’s bombs made it the deadliest day for the Americans in a decade. No doubt the Biden administration will use the attack to justify his original decision to order the pull-out. I disagree. I think he has instigated the biggest self-inflicted humiliation ever suffered by the Western world.
He may have brought to an end one of America’s ‘forever wars’, but in doing so he has forever put a bloody, indelible stain on his presidency. Poor Afghanistan.
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