Stranded Outside Kabul During the Fall of Afghanistan

A resident shares what it’s like to hide from the Taliban while trying to find a way to flee.

Taliban militants patrol after taking control of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, on Sunday. Photo: Stringer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Taliban militants patrol after taking control of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, on Sunday. Photo: Stringer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The man — one of the countless Afghans now caught in the chaos of the country’s rapid fall to the Taliban — tried to get home to Kabul from the city of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province early this morning, but got caught in the crossfire between an elite Afghan special forces unit and Taliban fighters. Unlike so many other Afghan units over the past week, this one had refused to surrender and tried to fight the militants off in Jalalabad before eventually retreating to the capital. Not long after, like dozens of other provincial capitals in recent days, Jalalabad fell to the Taliban. Later Sunday, so did Kabul.

The man, who requested anonymity to share his experience with Intelligencer, worries that the Taliban will kill him if they find him because of his past work with the international community. After he was unable to make it to Kabul, he found his way to a home in the area, where he remained into the night, camped out with a few other people. “This morning, the Taliban were aggressively patrolling the streets,” he says. “They were ringing police sirens out on the road. Sometimes firing. Now, tonight, they are questioning local residents while they are patrolling — so most people have returned home, scared.”

He says he watched the governor of Nangarhar province flee the fight and escape to Kabul in his shiny white car. Taliban fighters quickly took up residence in the governor’s abandoned home. He also says it’s now clear to him that the Afghan military had no strategy for fending off the Taliban’s advance beyond cutting and running.

There are almost 5,000 Taliban fighters on the streets in Jalalabad, he says, but they have not come to homes yet. “I can manage here with my friends for now,” he explains. “If the roads stay closed, we will go on foot from Nangarhar to Kabul, maybe in a couple of days, [we can] reach Kabul on foot — but we will reach Kabul. Let’s just hope for a better solution first.”

“I had money, a job, and now I will find myself walking in the landscape like a poor nomad just trying to get home safely,” he adds, almost laughing at the gravity of his misfortune.

The frustration and enormity of the feat ahead of him — of finding a way out of Afghanistan for himself and his family, who are in another province — is starting to sink in. From finding the money to buy plane tickets for his whole family — if he can find any available plane tickets to buy — to obtaining documents for visas, even though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices have packed up and closed their doors. Then there are their passports to collect, in another district in Nangarhar.

“I have to find a country that will accept an Afghan passport, and do I still need a PCR test?” he asks. “Where can anyone even get a PCR test now?”

In the meantime, there is nothing he can do but wait. The Taliban still roam the streets outside and all roads out are closed. “Now, night is coming and we are worried. We have turned off the lights in our homes.”

Late last week, U.S. intelligence officials estimated it might take the Taliban 90 days to take over Kabul. Four days later, the militant group doesn’t just control Kabul, but more territory than they did before they were toppled by the U.S.-led invasion two decades ago.

Late tonight, security fell apart at Kabul’s airport, with hundreds of people running out to pack planes on the runway, desperate to get onto flights out of the country. Commercial air traffic has also been suspended, as NATO is only allowing military planes to use the runways. All day, helicopters had been flying back-and-forth between the U.S. Embassy and the airport, shuttling people out. Soon after the Taliban entered the city, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Many residents of Kabul now wait at home in quiet dread. Whatever their variety of circumstances, everyone is trying to find a way to safety and deciding what to do next.

Afghan families carrying belongings on their way to flee Kabul on August 15. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Since May, nearly 250,000 people have been forced from their homes by the Taliban offensive. And Kabul is bursting with thousands of newly displaced Afghans forced to the capital as provinces fell across the country. Over the years, the city has become home to a mishmash of ethnicities seeking better opportunities in the capital or fleeing violence. It is also home to a community of foreigners, from aid workers to a handful of journalists who have stayed with the country through upheavals.

A lucky few, with bags packed and tickets booked, are waiting for an opportunity to get through the gates at the airport. Some have turned their efforts toward assisting Afghan friends with referral letters for visa applications, or looking for recommended refugee programs and agencies for colleagues who have provided indispensable support over the years. There is no one who has gone to Afghanistan who wasn’t helped by an Afghan.

In Kabul, on top of fear about what the Taliban might do next, there have been reports of criminal gangs taking advantage of the chaos and confusion in the city. One driver in Kabul, who not only kept numerous journalists safe over the years but became a close friend to many as well, contacted them today, ready to ferry them to the airport — even though the company he worked for had shut down days before. He had always hoped he would have the opportunity to leave Afghanistan, too, “but it’s hard to keep that level of hope for so many years,” he told Intelligencer. Tonight, all he could do was go home to his family.

The man in Nangarhar province still laying low with friends says that even if he somehow gets a flight out, he will still be torn about leaving his country. “I will be flying out of the Afghanistan I love so much, knowing I will not return to the same Afghanistan, and not knowing if I can ever return at all.”

“Afghanistan is my home, Kabul is my home, but it is a home where I feel alone right now, stranded and alone.”

But there is also a common feeling of unity, he says: “America and our own government officials may have left us but we are all alone in this together.” Tonight he and his friends are playing music softly and sharing jokes with one another in the darkness, a small attempt to keep spirits raised. “It will be a long night but there is some comfort that we are in this together, whatever the outcome may be.”

Stranded Outside Kabul During the Fall of Afghanistan