CBS News producer on ‘nightmares’ of reporting his country’s chaotic second fall to the Taliban

Ahmad Mukhtar has been a producer and reporter for CBS News in Afghanistan since 2009. He is currently based outside the country.

In early May, I stood on the roof of Kabul’s Serena Hotel to discuss with colleagues when the Taliban might arrive in the Afghan capital. I was optimistic that the ongoing peace talks in Qatar would produce a result. In the worst-case scenario of a full US withdrawal, most people, myself included, thought it would take the Taliban another few years to overrun Kabul.

At the beginning of August, I was less optimistic. I told a colleague that the collapse of a provincial capital would probably lead to a takeover of Kabul. But I didn’t expect it arrive so fast. The Taliban took control of 33 Afghanistan34 provinces in just one week — in some cases, without a fight.

CBS News producer Agnes Reau takes a selfie with fellow producer Ahmad Mukhtar in Kabul.

CBS/Agnes Reau

On the night of August 14, I couldn’t sleep as we waited for news of the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul city. It was the second time I witnessed the takeover of Kabul by Islamic extremists.

I was in 3rd grade in 1996 when the group first took over Kabul. I remember that my parents decided to move us all to my uncle’s house, in another part of town. My first interaction with a Talib was when one of them confiscated a bouquet of flowers I was bringing to school for teachers’ day.

25 years later, I found myself reporting on the Taliban’s sudden return to power after two decades of war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, maimed many and displaced millions. I struggled to answer a simple question: was it worth it?

On the morning of August 15, a senior official from the office of the Afghan National Security Advisor assured me that an agreement had been reached between the Taliban and the government and that the Taliban would not enter Kabul. An hour later, gunshots were heard in the city and a group of people carrying white Taliban flags were spotted outside the presidential palace. The situation was changing rapidly.

Thousands of Afghans rush to Kabul airport
Taliban members are seen just outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as thousands of Afghans rush to flee the capital, August 16, 2021.

Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty

A group of Westerners, including journalists, decided to head for the airport or the nearby Baron Hotel.

Our team left the Serena Hotel in the late afternoon and found the streets largely empty. At the Baron, it was chaos as journalists, officials and Afghans hoping to obtain special American visas poured in.

Journalists who arrived barely half an hour later told us that they had met Taliban fighters in the streets. That night, the Taliban had taken over the presidential palace. The capital returned to the hands of the Taliban after more than 20 years.

During our few days at the Hotel Baron, the sound of gunfire and the hum of helicopters and planes coming in and out of the airport were constant. Pictures of Afghan civilians clinging desperately to an American C17 military plane, and falling out of it after takeoff, haunted my mind.

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These images will remain a shameful stain in American and Afghan history books.

I spent the next two days at the Baron in shock. I couldn’t sleep, but I was busy gathering all the information I could while we waited for an evacuation flight. Late in the afternoon of August 17, we leave the Baron hotel and head to the military side of Kabul airport.

Our CBS News team boarded a C17 in the early hours of August 18, along with approximately 300 other people, including women, children and elderly Afghans. The three-hour flight to Doha was freezing – cavernous planes are nothing like jetliners – but everyone slept through days of exhaustion.

CBS News’ Ahmad Mukhtar looks at his phone as other CBS News crew members lie on the floor of a building at the US al-Udeid airbase in Doha, Qatar, after arriving on a evacuation flight from Kabul, Afghanistan on August 18, 2021.

CBS/Agnes Reau

Most of the plane’s passengers had packed decades of life and memories into a backpack or suitcase for last-minute escape. They were traumatized, but grateful to be among the lucky ones who reached safety.

I was shocked at how quickly the Afghan government and its more than 300,000 security forces crumbled, but I was mostly exhausted. I had not yet felt the pain of losing my country. I felt numb.

After a night’s sleep, however, I started feeling the pain and the nightmares started.

Images of people flocking to Kabul airport became depressing, then unbearable. They showed constant gunfire; children and infants cry, even scream in panic; young women and men crying and begging American troops to let them in; then the video of a tiny newborn baby, only 16 days old, being transmitted by barbed wire to American soldiers.

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I wondered how a parent could do that. As a father, I couldn’t imagine it. But only the infant’s parents truly understand the pain. I’m not an emotional person, but I locked myself in a bathroom and screamed and cried until I couldn’t anymore. But the worst was yet to come.

On August 27, four days before the end of the American withdrawal, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a gate of Kabul airport, where thousands of people had gathered to escape the Taliban.

Covering the disaster from Doha, I initially didn’t want to look at the footage. But it was my job to watch. I had to help figure out what had happened. Were all the videos and photos flooding social media of the airport attack really? How big was the explosion? How many people could have been killed or injured? Were they all civilians? Were there children and women among the victims?

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The explosion killed 13 American soldiers and 170 Afghan civilians, including many women and children. The scene looked like a butcher’s shop. Watching all the pictures made me physically sick. A colleague called me in her hotel room, where our correspondent was also present for an editorial discussion. She must have noticed something was wrong and she asked me if I was okay.

I burst into tears. She hugged me and I cried, then she suggested I go for a walk around the hotel. That day I had the worst headache I have ever had and that night I cried until I fell asleep. The nightmares continued.

On August 29, a US drone strike near Kabul airport killed an entire family. Seven children, including a 2-year-old girl, were among the victims. Every time I looked at her photo, my own daughter, who had just turned two, came to mind. I wondered if this was how the Biden administration’s war was”above the horizon“, targeting terrorist groups in Afghanistan from afar, would continue.

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I decided to get my immediate family out of Afghanistan months before the country collapsed, and have since joined them. But I was overwhelmed with dozens of phone calls and messages from friends and extended family members still in Afghanistan. They all say the same thing: “You worked with Americans, help us get into the airport and out of Afghanistan.

Again and again I had to explain that I’m just a journalist, and I can’t help it. Many got angry. Some have stopped answering their phones, which could mean anything. I want to apologize to everyone I couldn’t help, or whose calls I couldn’t even answer. I apologize.

For most of the world, the collapse of Afghanistan was short-lived news. Next year, many journalists are likely to receive awards for their reporting on this subject. But for myself and countless other Afghan journalists, the collapse of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was a deeply personal story, and it took its toll.

CBS News producer Ahmad Mukhtar, center, assists correspondent Roxana Saberi as they interview a young Afghan girl who lost her leg in one of the many bombings to hit her country.

CBS/Agnes Reau

A friend and fellow journalist once said that being an Afghan journalist is like telling the story of a fire in your own home. You relay the details to the world as flames consume every part of your home, while your family is stuck inside and you can’t help them.

While we were in Doha watching my country crumble, mental anguish repeatedly caused me to consider shutting down the news altogether. But I can not. This story needs to be told, and I may soon have to leave my family to return to Afghanistan, to continue telling it.