‘I Lost My Son’ – A Deeper Look at the Chaos at Kabul Airport When U.S. Forces Left Afghanistan

April 25, 2023

On the morning of Aug. 16, 2021, as chaos unfolded at nearby Kabul airport during the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Payanda Mohammad thought his son Fada was safe at work. Fada was 25 years old and a successful dentist at a clinic. But with the city of Kabul unstable after the Taliban seized control a day earlier, Payanda called his son to make sure he was okay.

Fada didn’t pick up. As other attempts by the family to reach him went unanswered, they grew concerned. Hours later, Payanda learned about the fate of his son when he received a call. Fada hadn’t gone to work that morning but had instead gone to the airport, about three miles from his dental office. Attempting to leave Afghanistan, Fada had held onto a U.S. military airplane as it sped down the tarmac. Unable to get inside, he fell after takeoff. Payanda was asked to come retrieve Fada’s body.

Payanda would learn, after seeing footage of that day, that his son was one of thousands of Afghans who crowded the runways at Kabul airport attempting to make their exit before the Taliban completed its takeover of the country. In the above excerpt from Part Three of America and the Taliban, Payanda told FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith he would never be certain why his son tried to leave.

“I believe that he made his decision suddenly. He might have been under some sort of a threat. Who makes a sudden decision like this?” Payanda said. In his interview with Smith, he said, “He was very dear to us and he also left us so suddenly.”

America’s departure in August 2021 marked the end of the country’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan, the subject of FRONTLINE’s three-part documentary series America and the Taliban. The series traces the progress of the U.S.-led war across four U.S. presidencies, from the first troops landing in the country shortly after the 9/11 attacks to the Taliban’s return to power two decades later. Incorporating interviews with Afghan civilians, U.S. servicemembers and high-level officials from the Taliban, the United States and the Western-backed Afghan government, award-winning directors Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith investigate how America’s longest war ended in a Taliban victory.

The story of Fada Mohammed unfolds in Part Three of the series, which examines how three years of negotiations and peace talks culminated in what some U.S. and Afghan officials called a rushed exit with far-reaching consequences.

The U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement during the Trump administration in February 2020. In September 2020, talks on how power would be shared between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in Doha, but they quickly stalled. Three months after he came into office, President Joe Biden announced in April 2021 that he’d stick to the previous administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces, but pushed the withdrawal date to September 11.

Experts in the documentary say the months leading up to the new withdrawal date brought panic for civilians across Afghanistan. Knowing that the U.S. was leaving, the Taliban rapidly seized territory, and by mid-August, they controlled 85% of the country. Residents of Kabul, the national capital that had resisted Taliban control until then, grew concerned. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani tried to calm the worry.

“I want to assure you that as your president, I’m focused on avoiding the further spread of instability, violence,” he said on Aug. 14, 2021.

The Taliban successfully seized control of Kabul the next day, and President Ghani fled the country in a helicopter. By that time, Kabul airport was the only area still controlled by U.S. forces, which were in the rushed process of airlifting civilians. In the chaos, thousands of Afghans — some with special visas, some without — pushed through the crowds attempting to board planes. The chaos continued through the next morning when Fada Mohammad lost his life trying to flee.

Now, Payanda said his family and his country are facing a humanitarian crisis, and they worry for the future.

He told Smith, “I lost my son, my shop, my money. Now we have no other choice except to beg.”

For the full story on how the U.S. lost the 20-year war in Afghanistan, watch America and the Taliban. Parts One and Two of the three-part series are available to stream now on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App:

Part Three airs Tuesday, April 25 at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings) and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, and will also be available to stream starting at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App. America and the Taliban is a FRONTLINE production with RAIN Media, Inc. The producers are Brian Funck, Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The writers and directors are Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The correspondent is Martin Smith. The co-producer is Scott Anger. The executive producer and editor-in-chief for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

James O'Donnell

James O'Donnell, Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Newmark Journalism School Fellowships, FRONTLINE

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