It’s been just over a year since the world watched the lightning fast collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from the country after 20 years and the harrowing evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Those events, told through never-before-seen, on-the-ground footage and interviews with those who witnessed the chaos firsthand — Marines, Afghan civilians and Taliban fighters — comprise a chilling HBO documentary that debuted this week.
Directed by Jamie Roberts (”Four Hours at the Capitol”), “Escape from Kabul” is a 78-minute chronicle of chaotic events spread across 18 desperate days in August 2021, a period that culminated with an Aug. 26 suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. military personnel and more than 170 Afghans.
The aftermath of the Taliban’s sweeping takeover plunged its populace into disarray, with families fearing impending restrictions, imprisonment and outright execution desperate to flee the country.
Afghan men, women and children spent days on end in the blistering heat — most without food or water — trying to gain access to aircraft that would carry them to safety. U.S. planes taking off were quickly swarmed and filled to the brim with civilians, sometimes more than double the expected capacity.
In one shocking sequence, which was captured on video on Aug. 16, a C-17 cargo plane began its ascent as frenzied civilians climbed into the aircraft’s wheel well and clung to its wings. A number of Afghans plunged to their deaths as the hulking plane took to the sky. Others were crushed when the pilots, unaware of the individuals inside the wheel well, attempted to retract the C-17′s landing gear. Body parts were later discovered mangled in the equipment.
Accounts by those who lived such events, as well as all-new video — footage captured by Taliban members was also used in the documentary — reveal the depth of hysteria throughout the evacuation process and provide new perspective in what has become one of the more widely criticized military operations in recent memory.
“You never want to tell your men you don’t know what to do,” Lt. Col. Chris Richardella, one of the officers who led evacuation efforts, ominously recalls in the film.
“I had no idea what to do.”
The exhausting conclusion of the Kabul airlift marked the largest such operation in modern U.S. history, one that was honored recently on the one-year anniversary of the suicide bombing at the airport’s Abbey Gate.
“The heroes we lost that day gave their lives to defend their teammates and to help save the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Afghan people who sought freedom and the opportunity for a better life,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said.
The documentary is available now on HBO Max. Watch the trailer below.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.