New film ‘Retrograde’ chronicles chaotic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan

It has been 16 months since the United States left Afghanistan in what a top U.S. military officer called a “strategic defeat.” The new film "Retrograde" documents the withdrawal, the Afghan forces left to fight on their own, and the chaotic conclusion to 20 years of war. Nick Schifrin sat down with filmmaker Matthew Heineman and one of his central characters.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been 16 months since the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, what the U.S.' top military officer called a strategic defeat.

    This month, a new film documents the U.S. withdrawal, the Afghan forces left to fight on their own, and the chaotic conclusion to 20 years of war.

    Nick Schifrin sat down with a filmmaker and one of his central characters.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. called it a retrograde, the military leaving Afghanistan after two decades of war.

    We covered the final days of the U.S. presence, as well as the deadly and disorderly evacuation. But the new national Geographic Documentary film "Retrograde" takes us inside the rooms of disappointed U.S. soldiers, frustrated Afghan soldiers, many of whom struggled for their country until the last moment, and the heartbreaking evacuation from Kabul.

    The filmmaker is Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning Matthew Heineman. And one of the main subjects of the film is former Afghan General Sami Sadat.

    And both join me now.

    Thank you very much. Welcome, both of you, to the "NewsHour."

    Matt, let me start with you.

    I know that you started this film expecting it to be one thing, about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. It became something a little bit more complex than that. In the end, what story do you think you told about the end of the U.S.' longest war?

    Matthew Heineman, Director, "Retrograde": You know, I think we had a front-row seat to the final eight months of the war, first through the eyes of the Green Beret team that we were with and then ultimately through General Sadat and his men, up until the final days at the airport.

    It's really a portrait of these final eight months in an attempt to try to humanize an issue that has been so relegated to stats and the headlines.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so, Sami, do you feel like the film allowed you and your men to be humanized and the efforts that you guys made up until the last moments?

  • Fmr. Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat, Afghan National Army:

    Yes, Nick.

    I think two things are very clear in the film. One is the bond between the United States and Afghan militaries. For 20 years, we have been working together, trying to bond, work together, train together and fight together.

    The second one is, it really shows the struggle of the Afghan soldiers up to the last bullet. And this defies the very statement. Often, politicians say the Afghan army didn't fight. We fought, and we fought very hard. We paid a lot of sacrifices.

    But there is so much an army can do when the political masters go on the other side.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let me show a clip the moment when U.S. soldiers were told that they had to leave Afghanistan, starting with the Green Berets blowing up their own ammunition.

  • Speaker:

    Fire.

  • Speaker:

    Destroy, retrograde all computers, in accordance with JTPO (ph) list of instructions.

  • Speaker:

    Expend all loose and non-factory packed ammunition. No ammunition handover to partner forces is authorized.

  • Speaker:

    (EXPLETIVE DELETED)

  • Speaker:

    Sorry.

  • Speaker:

    You're good.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You hear some of the frustration there.

    Matt Heineman, how frustrated were the U.S. soldiers that they had to leave?

  • Matt Heineman:

    I mean, I think deeply.

    Obviously, they're not allowed to verbalize that. And, in some ways their faces speak more than any interview could ever speak. You know, they develop this bond with their Afghan counterparts, in some cases over decades, in some cases, over a single deployment. But there's definitely a sense of abandonment, that they were leaving their Afghan brothers to fight alone.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Sami Sadat, how abandoned did you, did your men feel?

  • Fmr. Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat:

    I think it begs the question, Nick, what happened to our non-major NATO allianceship?

    We are responsible for some of the mistakes that happened on the ground, but there's other international partners, especially on the American side, who are also responsible. And we're asking for some accountability and transparency to come forward.

    We have handed over Afghanistan to the enemies. Taliban are the enemies, Nick. They're not only the enemies of Afghanistan. They are the number one enemy of America. They are giving refuge to al-Qaida. They have expanded the presence of ISIS, because they can't control it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sami Sadat, I'm going to stay with you, because the responsibility does not only fall on the United States, of course.

    I want to show a scene in which you are on your cell phone with the minister of defense, and you describe how you put in orders for weapons in the morning, and those orders are canceled by the evening. Those of your men listening to you on the phone, talking to the minister there.

    And you tell the minister: "I can't be fighting the administration and the Taliban at the same time."

    Were you fighting your own government and the Taliban at the same time?

  • Fmr. Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat:

    I was, Nick.

    And there is this constant political fight with our capital, Kabul, for more assets and logistics, as other corps were also competing for it. The three things that constantly were held back were the combat logistics, which was handled by the United States. And, because of COVID, so many things didn't arrive on time.

    The second thing was more non-combat logistics, which were authorized by our palace. And they were constantly held back because of bureaucracy, because of corruption, because of other matters. And, at times, it was really, really frustrating for us to fight on the ground and come back to the headquarter, and only to get on the phone and fight again with some bureaucrat in Kabul, especially like our top political leaders. They do have a responsibility. They have failed us too.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And after the U.S. withdrawal, after the Afghan army was not able to withstand the Taliban, and after President Ghani left the palace, we saw the evacuation, the chaos at the airport.

    Matt Heineman, you were back to document some of those scenes. Let me just show one of them.

  • Speaker (through translator):

    I said back up!

    (GUNFIRE)

  • Speaker (through translator):

    Go back, brothers. For God's sake, get back.

  • Speaker (through translator):

    I swear to God, I have a green card.

    (GUNFIRE)

  • Matthew Heineman:

    People were terrified. People were scared. It was absolutely chaotic.

    No matter what side of the aisle you're on, no matter your belief on the war, it was a really chaotic to the longest war in U.S. history. And I have never actually cried while filming. And I constantly found myself just wiping tears down my face as we were filming the scenes of just sheer desperation.

    And I hope that, amongst many, many things, that we seem to have forgotten this war. I hope that the film re-initiates the conversation around the war in Afghanistan and the people we left behind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Including the last image you show, Matt, of a young woman. What do you see in her face?

  • Matthew Heineman:

    Trepidation, fear, strength, pleading with the U.S. military.

    You know, it's so easy, as human beings, as Westerners, to disengage with these topics, to keep them at arm's length. And I feel like it's my job to get you to care a little bit more, feel a little bit more, and create a rational dialogue around these extremely complicated subjects that are often relegated to stats and headlines.

    And I hope that this film, again, creates a conversation around this final chapter of the longest war in U.S. history.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former Afghan General Sami Sadat, filmmaker Matthew Heineman.

    The film is "Retrograde." Thank you very much to you both.

  • Matthew Heineman:

    Thanks for having us.

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