NATO’s last man in Kabul helped facilitate the airlift and had a front-row seat to the Taliban takeover of the capital.
At 6:21 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, NATO’s Afghan adventure formally ended. At that moment, the Italian C-130 on which I was flying as the last representative of the Atlantic Alliance to leave the country crossed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the first time in 20 years, Afghanistan was without a NATO presence.
We had left behind just under 7,000 U.S. and British soldiers, under national command, who would soon withdraw after having destroyed all the sensitive material left at Kabul’s airport, following the chaotic evacuation of Afghan personnel. We left the country and left it badly—in the hands of the same Taliban we had thrown out of power in just a few weeks 20 years earlier. And we left a country that had believed in us, condemning Afghans once again to a very different future from the one we had given them a glimpse of.
The U.S. and NATO exit from Afghanistan may seem simply an episodic defeat. In a broader context, however, the Afghan withdrawal adds to a series of U.S. failures, from Lebanon to the Arab Spring, Iraq, Somalia, Syria—all these adventures ended badly, and the situation left behind was worse. We find ourselves today with the same security problems we had 20 years ago.
The collapse began well before the tragic events of July and August 2021. The Afghan state and its economic and social fabric were progressively disintegrating under the weight of endemic corruption, weak democratic institutions, and political mistakes the West had committed and allowed others to commit.
The constant calls for an early withdrawal from Afghanistan made by successive U.S. presidents and European leaders over the past 20 years convinced the Taliban and their supporters, but above all the Afghan people, that the West did not collectively have the determination necessary to carry out the task.
The signing, on Feb. 29, 2020, of the Doha Agreement between the United States and the Taliban, which sanctioned the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, was the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
The Doha Agreement, controversial since its negotiation, had the explosive effect for Afghanistan of formalizing a precise date for the end of the international military presence in the country, which was the only element capable of keeping the system in that condition of unstable equilibrium to which the authorities and the population had become accustomed and which had held in check the growing Taliban activity that the Afghan security forces were unable to defeat on their own.
The deal was presented as a peace agreement, but it was always clearly aimed at allowing the withdrawal of U.S. (and international) forces by securing them against Taliban attacks.
Contrary to the wise practice of negotiating from a position of strength, the United States entered the negotiations from a position of relative weakness, given the imperative to find a way to safely leave the country within a relatively short time frame.
The effect of the agreement was profoundly disruptive as it definitively broke the balance of power in Afghanistan in favor of the Taliban, from whom nothing was asked except the safety of U.S. and allied troops and anti-terrorism guarantees that were more cosmetic than real.
The agreement also signaled to the Taliban and to the Afghan population that the United States and the West did not have the determination and strategic patience to finish the work that had started with the 2001 invasion and carry out the plan for a peaceful Afghanistan.
In this environment, the announcement on April 14, 2021, that U.S. President Joe Biden had decided to go ahead with the U.S. withdrawal kneecapped the Doha talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which continued for a short time before being suspended altogether.
Between the initial announcement of the U.S. withdrawal in February 2020 and the confirmation of its date by the new U.S. administration in April 2021, there had been an evolution in the sentiment of the Afghan population toward the United States and NATO—and our Afghan colleagues were no exception. Rather than friends and benefactors, we were now portrayed as untrustworthy and, more and more openly, as traitors.
By July 2021, the Taliban were confident and on the offensive. The pace of the Taliban conquest of the country was impressive. On June 25, the Taliban controlled 99 of the 412 districts in the country; by July 14, they controlled 218. Taliban fighters stopped on the outskirts of Kabul for a couple of days, not only to wait for the finalization of the agreement that was emerging but also because of the instructions given by the Taliban’s senior leadership council, the Quetta Shura, which wanted the Taliban leaders of Kandahar and of the South to take possession of Kabul.
Still, Western officials did not expect the Afghan government to flee or for Kabul to fall so quickly. Indeed, a memorandum marked “For Official Use Only”—drawn up following a coordination meeting of the U.S. National Security Council on the afternoon of Aug. 14 and later leaked to the press—gives a snapshot of the dramatic lack of preparedness with which Washington faced the evacuation.
As Taliban forces entered Kabul and approached the presidential palace on Aug. 15, President Ashraf Ghani abruptly fled the capital in a helicopter bound for Uzbekistan. The news of the president’s flight, which spread like wildfire, immediately led to the few remaining Afghan guards abandoning their posts together with the staff of the civilian airport, which by the afternoon was completely unguarded. Eight Taliban arrived a few hours later, apparently out of curiosity—but then stayed and took possession of it—settling down to drink tea and Coca-Cola in the VIP room on the ground floor.
On the evening of Aug. 16, given the lack of a U.S. guarantee to secure the capital, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in agreement with Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, invited the Taliban to enter Kabul to “protect the population and prevent the country and the city falling into chaos.”
To say that the evacuation took place in a surreal atmosphere is an understatement. The planning that the various countries, starting with the United States, had belatedly put in place collided with a reality that no one had imagined, the disappearance of the Republic already in mid-August, putting us in a situation for which, consequently, no one was ready.
As often happens, there was a discrepancy between the realism of the intelligence services and the military and the picture that is painted at the political level. As late as July 8, 2021, Biden was publicly declaring that the Afghan government was unlikely to fall, whereas the coalition military did not hide that the Afghan state was shaky and the armed forces were not in a position to fight. These signals were clearly provided to the U.S. leadership and to the other members of the coalition, who reacted in opposite ways: Washington insisting on the withdrawal and the others calling for a revision of conditions and dates.
Meanwhile, the crowd had grown around the airport and became unmanageable in the absence of any control. The few government guards had vanished, and the Taliban had not yet ventured to the military part of the airport. When they arrived, we noticed it, not because the crowd became more orderly but because the only way the Taliban knew to keep people at bay was to shoot rounds upon rounds of bullets in the air.
The unease was increased by the fact that we had no knowledge of what was happening outside the walls and of the developments regarding the timing of operations, which largely depended on the decisions that would be made in Washington. In Kabul, the Americans were grappling with the sheer size of the problem they had on their hands and struggling to reorganize the evacuation and the consular functions at the airport that they could no longer perform in the city.
Planes of various nationalities, scattered in the region among the Gulf, Pakistan, and neighboring countries, waited for passengers who could not get through the airport gates. The troops did their best, but the planes, including the U.S. ones, took off empty or nearly empty.
The U.S. bases in the Gulf became refugee camps, set up quickly, in which those who were evacuated were herded for weeks in makeshift facilities with temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
I did the seemingly simpler thing. On the basis of the needs expressed, I organized a coordination meeting, inviting the ambassadors and the heads of the military contingents of all the countries involved, for 4 p.m. on Aug. 15. Everyone came, including the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and all delegations present in the airport.
From that point, it was a continuous negotiation among the Americans, British, and others. I spent my days and often nights in contact with colleagues and military representatives of the various contingents to smooth out any misunderstanding that could risk disturbing the cooperation I was trying to foster and without which we would have risked leaving most of our Afghan colleagues behind. The atmosphere improved as the hours passed, the numbers of people leaving began to rise, and we soon started to see results as planes filled and took off.
The images of the thousands of desperate Afghans crowding around the airport gates trying to get in to board a plane to a different life will remain etched in our collective memory for a long time.
Was it supposed to end like this? Not necessarily. The epilogue of the Afghan intervention constitutes the final stage of a series of other Western misadventures that ended in almost the same way, starting from Vietnam onward, in which the common threads are always the same.
Stefano Pontecorvo was NATO’s last senior civilian representative for Afghanistan. In his last days in Kabul, he helped coordinate the airlift through which more than 124,000 Afghans who worked with NATO allies and partner countries were evacuated. In his 40-year diplomatic career, he has served as Italian ambassador to Pakistan and as deputy head of mission at the Italian embassies in Moscow and London.