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CBS News producer on the “nightmares” of reporting his country's chaotic 2nd fall into Taliban hands

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

In early May, I stood on the rooftop of Kabul’s Serena hotel discussing with colleagues how soon the Taliban might arrive in the Afghan capital. I was optimistic that ongoing peace talks in Qatar would produce a result. In the worst-case scenario of a complete American withdrawal, most people, including myself, believed it would still take the Taliban a few years to overrun Kabul.  

By early August,  I was less optimistic. I told a colleague that the collapse of one provincial capital would likely lead to a takeover of Kabul. But I didn’t expect it to happen so fast. The Taliban seized control of 33 of Afghanistan‘s 34 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 Taliban’s arrival in Kabul city. It was my second time witnessing the Islamic extremists’ takeover of Kabul. 

I was in the 3rd grade in 1996 when the group seized Kabul the first time. I remember my parents decided to move us all to my uncle’s house, in a different part of the city. My first interaction with a Talib was when one confiscated a bunch of flowers I was carrying to school for teacher’s day. 

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

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On the morning of August 15, a senior aide in the Afghan national security advisor’s office assured me that an agreement had been reached between the Taliban and the government, and the Taliban would not enter Kabul. An hour later, gunfire was heard in the city, and a group of people carrying white Taliban flags were spotted outside the presidential palace. The situation was changing fast. 

Thousands of Afghans rush to the airport in Kabul
Taliban members are seen just outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan as thousands of Afghans rush to flee the capital city, August 16, 2021. Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty

A group of westerners, including journalists, decided to head for the airport or to 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 get U.S. special visas poured in. 

Journalists arriving just half an hour after us said they’d encountered Taliban fighters on the streets. By that night, the Taliban had seized the presidential palace. The capital was back in Taliban hands after more than 20 years. 

During our few days at the Baron hotel, the sound of gunfire and the buzz of helicopters and planes coming in and out of the airport were constant. Images of Afghan civilians desperately clinging to a U.S. C17 military plane, and falling off it after it took off, haunted my mind. 

WorldView: Afghan teen dies in fall from plan… 03:09

Those images will remain a shameful stain in both U.S. and Afghan history books. 

I spent the next two days at the Baron in shock. I couldn’t sleep, but I kept busy gathering whatever information I could as we waited for an evacuation flight. Late on the afternoon of August 17, we left the Baron hotel and headed for the military side of Kabul airport.  

Our CBS News crew boarded a C17 in the early hours of August 18, along with about 300 others including women, children and elderly Afghans. The three-hour flight to Doha was freezing cold — the cavernous planes are nothing like passenger jets — but everyone slept after days of exhaustion. 

CBS News’ Ahmad Mukhtar looks at his phone as other members of the CBS News team rest on the floor of a building at the U.S. al-Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar, after arriving on an evacuation flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, August 18, 2021. CBS/Agnes Reau

Most of the people on the plane had packed decades of life and memories into a backpack or suitcase to make the last-minute escape. They were traumatized, but grateful to be among the lucky ones reaching safety.  

I was shocked by how quickly the Afghan government and its 300,000-plus security forces had collapsed, but mostly I was exhausted. I hadn’t yet felt the pain of losing my country. I felt numb.

After a night of sleep, however, I started to feel the pain, and the nightmares began. 

The images of people flocking to Kabul’s airport became depressing, and then unbearable. They showed constant gunfire; children and infants crying, even screaming in panic; young women and men crying and begging American troops to let them inside; and then the video of a tiny newborn baby, just 16 days old, being passed over razor wire to U.S. soldiers

An Afghan baby’s harrowing escape to the U.S…. 01:43

I asked myself how a parent could do that. As a father, I couldn’t imagine it. But only the infant’s parents really 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 U.S. withdrawal was completed, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a gate to Kabul airport, where thousands had gathered to escape the Taliban. 

Covering the disaster from Doha, at first, I didn’t want to look at the images. But it was my job to look. I had to help figure out what happened. Were all the videos and pictures flooding social media really from the airport attack? How big was the blast? How many people might have been killed or injured? Were they all civilians? Were there kids and women among the casualties? 

Marine speaks about deadly Kabul attack 04:50

The blast killed 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghan civilians, including many women and children. The scene looked like a butcher’s yard. Watching all the images made me physically sick. A colleague called me to 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 broke down in tears. She hugged me, and I cried, and then she suggested I go for a walk around the hotel. That day I had the worst headache I’ve ever experienced, and that night I cried until I fell asleep. The nightmares continued.

On August 29, an American 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 picture, my own daughter, who had just turned two, would come to my mind. I wondered if this was how the Biden administration’s war “over the horizon,” targeting terror groups in Afghanistan from afar, would continue.  

Botched drone strike shows limits of U.S. rea… 04:34

I decided to move my immediate family out of Afghanistan months before the country fell apart, and I have since joined them. But I’ve been inundated by 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 inside the airport and get out of Afghanistan.” 

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

For most of the world, the collapse of Afghanistan was fleeting news. Next year, many journalists are likely to receive awards for their reporting on it. But for myself and countless other Afghan journalists, the collapse of the democratic republic of Afghanistan was a deeply personal story, and it has taken a toll.  

CBS News producer Ahmad Mukhtar, center, assists correspondent Roxana Saberi as they interview a young Afghan girl who lost a leg in one of the many bombings to plague 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 tearing through your own home. You relay the details to the world as flames consume each part of your house, while your family is stuck inside, and you can’t help them.

While we were in Doha watching my country crumble, the mental anguish pushed me many times to consider quitting news altogether. But I can’t. This story must be told, and I may have to leave my family behind again soon to return to Afghanistan, to keep telling it.

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