Transcript

Taliban Takeover

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PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN:

I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home.

NEWSREADER:

Afghanistan’s government has fallen to Islamist militants who make up the Taliban.

NEWSREADER:

Afghans are thronging to Kabul’s airport, desperate to get on planes and leave the country.

NEWSREADER:

The situation is growing increasingly dire for thousands of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban.

NEWSREADER:

The Pentagon just announcing that the last U.S. troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, marking the end of America’s longest war.

NARRATOR:

Kabul, Aug. 31, 2021. The last American flight had left the night before, after weeks of chaos.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI, Correspondent:

The U.S. troops left last night, and today at 8 o’clock Zabihullah Mujahid called us to come for a press conference here inside the airport.

NARRATOR:

With the Americans gone, FRONTLINE correspondent Najibullah Quraishi is on his way to hear from the spokesman for the new Taliban regime.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Look at the mess they left here.

People were desperately trying to go inside the airport. They preferred to die inside the airport rather than being outside and seeing the Taliban. These poor people, they couldn’t take anything with them. They just left everything behind. It broke my heart. It made me really, really emotional.

NARRATOR:

Surrounded by Taliban special forces, the new government spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, ushered in a new era.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID:

[Speaking Pashto] We congratulate the entire nation. The entire nation shares with us the fight, jihad, sacrifices, perseverance and the hardships. Afghans have taken control of Afghanistan. And here they will establish a powerful and Islamic government to serve Afghans, God willing.

[Speaking Dari] Our nation made numerous sacrifices. Afghans faced various challenges. They persevered and stood in the face of American bombing, in the face of terrors. They were able to regain the country’s independence today with their strength, their ability and trust in God. May his majesty be glorified! They expelled American forces from Afghanistan.

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] Say Takbir!

CROWD:

[Speaking Arabic] God is great!

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] Say Takbir!

CROWD:

[Speaking Arabic] God is great!

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan!

CROWD:

[Speaking Arabic] Long live!

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan!

CROWD:

[Speaking Arabic] Long live!

NARRATOR:

In the days just after the American withdrawal, the Taliban were trying to impose order and quell violence that had been skyrocketing for months. In the streets of Kabul, some expressed a sense of relief.

MALE VENDOR:

[Speaking Dari] What good is money? There needs to be security and peace with no killing, no fighting, no robberies. We are pleased with this government because there is peace and security.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI, Correspondent:

[Speaking Dari] Since the Taliban came, has anyone stolen your wares?

MALE VENDOR:

[Speaking Dari] No, there is no stealing at all.

MAN ON STREET:

[Speaking Dari] The former government turned all our youths into drug addicts, made our lives miserable. Fighting has been going on in Afghanistan for 40 years.

MALE VENDOR 2:

[Speaking Dari] We were not pleased with the U.S. infidel government at all. May God destroy them.

CROWD:

[Speaking Dari] Well done!

MALE VENDOR 2:

[Speaking Dari] Long live the Islamic Emirate.

CROWD:

[Speaking Dari] Down with America.

MALE VENDOR 2:

[Speaking Dari] Down with America. Down with Russia. Down with Pakistan. Down with Iran. Long live Afghanistan. Long live our nation. Long live our blood. Long live our honor.

NARRATOR:

The Taliban were eager to project a new, more moderate image to the world. But on the ground, there were signs of the extremism that characterized their rule 20 years ago.

WOMEN PROTESTERS [chanting]:

[Speaking Dari] We are with you, the people of Herat! The Taliban have no legitimacy without—

NARRATOR:

Women were among the first to rise up on the streets of Kabul. After one protest, Najibullah met up with one of the women.

WAHEZA:

[Speaking Dari] They whipped women when we were demonstrating. They fired their guns into the air to scare us. They said, "Why are you making so much noise?"

NARRATOR:

Young Afghans like Waheza make up more than 60% of the country’s population.

WAHEZA:

[Speaking Dari] We want our rights. We should be given what is our right. We need to be able to study and work. You can see government offices have resumed working and women aren’t there anymore because they’re so scared.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Do you think the Taliban would give you your rights?

WAHEZA:

[Speaking Dari] I don’t think so. Women have had a lot of achievements. The international community must demand this of the Taliban. They must not recognize the Taliban if the Islamic Emirate doesn't give women their rights.

NARRATOR:

With most of the journalists leaving the country, it wasn’t long before Najibullah himself was confronted by the Taliban.

TALIBAN ON STREET:

[Speaking Dari] Don’t come. Don’t come, brother. Don’t come, don’t come. I swear to God, you’ll get yourself into trouble. Just leave.

NARRATOR:

He was shut down when he tried to film at one of the protests.

TALIBAN ON STREET:

[Speaking Dari] This is a demonstration, and we are controlling it. If you come forward, I will take you in. Don’t tell me I didn't warn you.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Can't we film this?

TALIBAN ON STREET:

[Speaking Dari] No, no.

NARRATOR:

He was shut down again soon after he sat down to interview a young woman at a restaurant.

TALIBAN OFFICIAL:

[Speaking Dari] Cut your camera. Hey! Are you aware that under the Emirate it is forbidden?

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Is it banned? They were eating food.

TALIBAN OFFICIAL:

[Speaking Dari] We have been told that if you see any women in a restaurant, arrest all the staff and bring them in.

NARRATOR:

The men appeared to be working undercover for the Taliban to enforce their new rules.

UNDERCOVER TALIBAN OFFICIAL:

[Speaking Dari] Most of us will wear plain clothes. We don’t carry weapons. We observe and see what the people are doing. We then report to our superiors, like you saw and spoke with our superiors. And they told us to check your papers, etc. Now that the police know about you, there shouldn't be any problem.

NARRATOR:

The next day, the woman, whose name is Nargis, agreed to meet Najibullah in a less public place outside the city so she could speak freely.

NARGIS:

[Speaking Dari] Now the Taliban say, "There is no problem. We are not the Taliban of the past. We allow women to work and study." But all of it is a lie.

NARRATOR:

As well as being a student, Nargis is also a model.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Do you think you will be allowed to film and model now that the Taliban are here?

NARGIS:

[Speaking Dari] Well, at the moment, everything has stopped. We can’t work. We are not even allowed to university. Every day the situation is getting worse. For example, a few days ago, Taliban soldiers arrived in Kabul. Then their intelligence and vice and virtue branches arrived, which is really scary for us. Wherever we go, even if one strand of our hair is visible they say it is against Islam. "Why does she do that? Is she is trying to promote Western culture?" It's hard. Because we want to go to work, to our jobs. I know if we go to work, the Taliban will whip us and send us back home. It's hard.

NARRATOR:

With fears rising, Najibullah sought out one of the most prominent advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Mahbouba Seraj, who had recently passed up the chance to leave the country.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ, Exec. Dir., Afghan Women's Network:

Once, I was forced to leave this country. And I couldn't really help it in those days. And that was 1978. And I was young. And I couldn't because they were going to kill me, the communists were going to kill me. Today I want to give it to the Afghan people, whatever I have. My time, my love, my belief, my knowledge. Everything.

NARRATOR:

She said despite the Taliban’s quick moves to clamp down on women’s rights, she wants the new government to engage with her on the issue.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

I cannot tell you how much I want to really talk to them. I am here in Afghanistan, I want to tell them, and I'm not going anywhere. I'm sitting right here. Because the women, the 18 million women of Afghanistan are not dead, and the 18 million women of Afghanistan, they really need a voice. And I will be that for as long as I can. And I would love to sit down with them and talk to them. I would really love to.

NARRATOR:

While Najibullah was at her office, a visitor came in seeking help. She was concerned her granddaughter had been abducted by the Taliban.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Excuse me, sister, I'm a journalist. Can you explain what happened?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Dari] She received a call from the health department two days ago to come, then she said, "Mom, I don’t know where they've taken me. The Taliban are around me. I don’t know what's happening. They're asking me if I'm engaged. If not, they can marry me to someone."

She said she was not allowed to talk more. The switched off the mobile phone. Since then, we haven’t heard from her again. Nothing so far. She's a 22-year-old woman.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Do you think the Taliban married her to their men?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Dari] God knows. I don’t know at all. There’s nothing and no word from her.

NARRATOR:

She told Najibullah that her granddaughter had been hoping to leave the country before the Taliban took over.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

[Speaking Dari] God knows whether it's the Taliban or not.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Dari] Whether it's the Taliban or ISIS.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Can you do anything for her?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

[Speaking Dari] Nothing.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

You can't do anything?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

No, nothing. What am I supposed to do?

NARRATOR:

She was worried the woman would be out after dark, and encouraged her to stay home.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

[Speaking Dari] Go, sister. Go back home. Go, my dear. Don’t stay here. It's getting dark. Night is going to fall and you shouldn’t be around here, my dear. Go in peace to your home. I'm dying of worry. Go safely to your home.

[Speaking English] I cannot protect her, Najib Jan! I cannot protect any woman.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

In the previous regime, you had power? You could do something? Before the Taliban—

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

Yeah!

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

—if somebody had such problem?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

Yeah, of course! I could have called. I could have got them in touch. I could have called [the minister of the interior], I could have called [the chief of police], I could have called everybody and said, "What is going on?" Now there’s nothing I can do.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

If you see such type of cases every day. They’re coming to you. They think there’s only one hope—it’s you. And you’re hopeless.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

I’m hopeless.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Does it make you feel sad?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

It makes me feel angry, not sad. This is not the time to be sad, this is a time to be angry. If I can do something, I want to do something! There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can do.

NARRATOR:

The fear and desperation were spreading beyond women. Najibullah had also started hearing that the police were becoming increasingly violent. He met a student activist who told him he had been stopped by the police on his way home from university.

MALE STUDENT ACTIVIST:

[Speaking Dari] They asked me where I was going. I told them I was a student and was on my way home. They started frisking me. They found my university card and an identity card of the organization I was working for. It was the card of the organization that I was working for as a civil rights activist.

After they found the card, their commander, who was still in the vehicle, got out and started beating me with a whip. The whip was rubber, and it left behind these marks. After beating me a lot, they put me in the vehicle and took me to the police station, where I spent about two hours.

There were many people there, regardless of whether they committed a crime or not and without any proof of their crime. They were calling their names in order and were taking them out to be whipped, and to make them confess to a crime regardless of whether they did it or not.

NARRATOR:

FRONTLINE could not verify Asadullah’s story, and no one in the government would talk to Najibullah about the specific allegations he had been hearing. But in an interview before the Americans left, the Taliban’s chief spokesman insisted they were not going to govern like the Taliban of the 1990s.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID:

[Speaking Dari] We want the same Islamic rules in our society. But instead of whips, force and pressure, it's better we leave this to mosques. We have scholars in mosques. That way, we think reforms might take longer, but they will happen more smoothly and without causing any harm or resistance.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Are you saying you are not going to force anyone to grow a beard or not to wear jeans?

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID:

[Speaking Dari] We want to implement these through preachers and advice, not through force.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah wanted to see how the Taliban were ruling in other parts of the country. The Taliban invited him to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where in August they’d scored a key victory on their way to taking over.

NEWSREADER:

News in Afghanistan. Sources saying the Taliban have taken the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

NEWSREADER:

It is a major blow to the government, which had promised to defend Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

The key of the north is Mazar-i-Sharif. If you take over Mazar-i-Sharif, it means you can take Kabul without anything, peacefully. This is what has happened with the Taliban. They took over the north, because they knew once they took the north, it meant they took the entire country.

NARRATOR:

The Taliban’s new head of media for the north escorted Najibullah through the region. He was quick to convey optimism.

MAWLAWI:

[Speaking Dari] Life is better than in the past. There is no problem for people. People should not try to go to other countries. Those who have fled to other countries should come back. They should try to build Afghanistan. They should work together with the mujahedeen, so that Afghanistan is rebuilt. And they should take part in it together with us.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Mawlawi Sahib, are schools and universities open?

MAWLAWI:

[Speaking Dari] Yes, all educational institutions are open. All schools and high schools are open.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Are they open for girls, too?

MAWLAWI:

[Speaking Dari] Yes, classes are open for all. There is no problem for them. They are safe and they attend their classes every day. There is no problem.

NARRATOR:

This region holds special significance for the Taliban: They fought fierce battles against the U.S. here 20 years ago. Najibullah was taken to a fortress outside the city, where they were eager to show him something.

TALIBAN GUIDE:

[Speaking Dari] Didn’t he bring it?

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] What is this?

TALIBAN GUIDE:

[Speaking Dari] It’s a jerry can.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Jerry can for what?

TALIBAN GUIDE:

[Speaking Dari] Mines.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] So this is a jerry can for making mines. Why?

TALIBAN GUIDE:

[Speaking Dari] Now, flowers have grown out of it. This is a jerry can, and the mujahedeen made mines in these. They would plant these on roads and bridges that were used by the Americans and their slaves and would detonate them using remote control. We defeated America and its allies with the support of God, the support of our people and the support of these jerry cans.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Why the flowers?

TALIBAN GUIDE:

[Speaking Dari] We are honoring it with these flowers. It's the hero of the 20-year war.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] You don't want to use it for fighting anymore?

TALIBAN GUIDE:

[Speaking Dari] That has ended. That has ended. From now on, it should be put to use for good things.

NARRATOR:

It was a trip back in time for Najibullah, who was here filming in 2001 when the U.S. controlled the fort and Taliban prisoners staged a bloody uprising. It lasted three days and ended in the deaths of hundreds of Taliban.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

This area, all the Taliban were lying everywhere. Handcuffed and killed. I was filming from there. The U.S. forces came there and they were literally shooting the Taliban who were here, where I’m standing. So I was just on the top of that hill.

NARRATOR:

The bloodshed that took place here 20 years ago marked the beginning of the end for the Taliban regime.

NEWSREADER:

The Pentagon says the leadership of Taliban forces in Afghanistan has been effectively broken by the military action there.

NEWSREADER:

The defeated Taliban militia can no longer play host to the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan.

NEWSREADER:

Large numbers of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are still on the run.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

I never believed one day, 20 years later, I could come back to the same area with the Taliban with me. I never believed that. I never imagined that one day this could happen.

NARRATOR:

In the years after the Taliban’s defeat, Najibullah returned time and time again to Afghanistan. He would chart the group’s resurgence as they fought to regain control and restore hard-line Islamist rule.

TALIBAN SPOKESMAN:

[Speaking Dari] America should go back to where it came from.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

I have filmed with the Taliban so many times over the last 20 years. I’ve tried to document how they think, how they operate, how they rule over areas they control. And I think to make sense of the Taliban now, you have to look back.

2008

FEMALE REPORTER:

This past year in Afghanistan was the deadliest yet for American troops.

MALE REPORTER:

For American soldiers, this war will get worse before it gets better.

2009

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

To succeed, we and our friends and allies must reverse the Taliban’s gains. I’ve already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops. These soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east.

NARRATOR:

By 2009, the U.S. had spent nearly a decade trying to support the Afghan government and keep the Taliban at bay, deploying tens of thousands of troops. But on the ground, Najibullah was seeing the determination of the group and the depths of the insurgents’ sway with the population.

On a trip through villages in the north, he visited a hospital and a school built and paid for by the United Nations but under the control of fighters aligned with the Taliban. And throughout the region, the villagers were paying their taxes directly to the insurgents, not the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Do you live here?

VILLAGER:

[Speaking Dari] Yes, I do.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] How is it? Don't they harass you?

VILLAGER:

[Speaking Dari] No, thanks be to God, it's very good.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Are they better than the government?

VILLAGER:

[Speaking Dari] They're good. The government mistreats us.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Why are they good?

VILLAGER:

[Speaking Dari] Because they don't abuse and oppress people.

NARRATOR:

At the time, Najibullah also got a rare view into how the Taliban continued to maintain its ties to Al Qaeda and other extremist factions.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Al Qaeda was inside and they were monitoring. It was very clear to me they were giving order to them and they were following whatever they were saying, especially on the bigger decisions.

NARRATOR:

The fighters were from a faction called Hezb-e-Islami, led by this man, Commander Mirwais. He claimed to have 4,000 fighters under his control.

COMMANDER MIRWAIS:

[Speaking Dari] Jihad has become a duty for all the Afghan nation because the foreign and nonbeliever countries have attacked us. They're destroying our religious and cultural values. They've increased obscenity and want to force Western democracy on our country.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah was with them as they prepared for a mission—and possible martyrdom.

COMMANDER MIRWAIS:

[Speaking Dari] Take more from this side.

NARRATOR:

Over his time embedded with the group, Najibullah watched as fighters built the homemade bombs known as IEDs.

AL QAEDA BOMB MAKER:

[Speaking Dari] These ball bearings will pop out the eyes of the Americans. This is specially made for the American tanks.

NARRATOR:

It would become a signature of their insurgency against American forces.

AL QAEDA FIGHTER:

[Speaking Dari] There’s an American tank on the road. It’s being transported on a truck.

NARRATOR:

And the fighters took him to the front lines, where they targeted Afghan government forces, as well.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Most of the characters we had on the film have been killed, simply because they didn't have much experience. In another hand, they were ready to die.

NARRATOR:

Last month, Najibullah found one of the fighters who did manage to survive: Commander Mirwais.

COMMANDER MIRWAIS:

[Speaking Dari] For us, martyrdom was an honor. I told you at the time when you asked me that the cost to destroy one of their tanks worth $100 million was only $100 for us. This goes for their people as well. We were sure we'd succeed one day and establish an Islamic government in this country. If the U.S. had decided to remain for 20 more years, we would have been ready to fight them for another 20 years.

2009

NEWSREADER:

July was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. Forty-three American service members were killed.

NARRATOR:

During the years of the Obama administration, the U.S. would continue to try to combat the Taliban and bolster the Afghan army.

BARACK OBAMA:

As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

NARRATOR:

But the Taliban continued to grow—

2012

NEWSREADER:

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks across Afghanistan.

NARRATOR:

—as would the other extremist forces that have continued to destabilize Afghanistan.

2015

NEWSREADER:

For the first time, Islamic State has moved into Afghanistan.

NARRATOR:

In 2015, Najibullah was among the first to document ISIS’s challenge to the Taliban and Al Qaeda for territory and influence.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Once ISIS took footholds in Afghanistan, they captured more areas, and they were offering the Taliban as well to join them. Afghanistan is a really poor country. If you have money, if you have wealth, then you can have everything. So that group was very, very wealthy, and they were receiving money from different parts of the world.

NARRATOR:

An ISIS cell had granted Najibullah access to their territory in the district of Shaigal, which they had seized from Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

I was waiting for over eight months to get access to ISIS. I was very excited as a journalist that I was going to meet this group, but I was remembering my wife, my sons. Then I was thinking, “Maybe you won’t come back again. They might kill you. They might kidnap you. They might do something wrong.”

NARRATOR:

The local commander told Najibullah that he’d been in the Taliban but defected after ISIS declared a caliphate.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Pashto] Were you in the Taliban before?

ABU RASHID:

[Speaking Pashto] Yes, we were fighting the holy war as Taliban. Our holy war was just because there was no caliphate. But God says when there is a caliphate, you must join the caliphate. There is a caliphate now, so we have left the Taliban. We are fighting a holy war under the caliph's leadership.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Pashto] What is your aim?

ABU RASHID:

[Speaking Pashto] We aim to fight until there is Islamic rule all over the world.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah saw how ISIS fighters lived among the locals and seemed to control every aspect of village life. They had local wives, collected taxes and even ran the village school. The fighters claimed that all local children were educated by the Islamic State from the age of 3.

ISIS FIGHTER:

[Speaking Pashto] Girls, you come and sit at the back. Sit behind the boys, quickly.

You know that this is the school of the Islamic State.

What is this word? Jihad.

PUPILS:

Jihad!

ISIS FIGHTER:

[Speaking Pashto] What is jihad? We must implement God’s religion over all people.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

It was a really, really shocking moment for me to see the children of Afghan learning jihad, learning AK-47.

ISIS FIGHTER:

[Speaking Pashto] And whose heads will we hit with this?

BOY:

[Speaking Pashto] Infidels.

ISIS FIGHTER:

[Speaking Pashto] Infidels.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Learning how to shoot with pistol. They were trying to make them ready for the future of Afghanistan. So now these children could be 15, 16 years old. I'm sure now they have weapons, they are ready to fight.

ISIS FIGHTER:

[Speaking Pashto] We teach the children the essentials of Sharia law. We also give them military training to prepare them ideologically so they're set on the right path. And each generation will carry this forward.

NARRATOR:

After leaving the ISIS village, Najibullah traveled to Nangarhar province, just a few miles from the Pakistan border.

DRIVER:

[Speaking Dari] No government official can come near this place. It’s a no-go area.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] So it’s risky from here on?

DRIVER:

[Speaking Dari] Yes, this entire district. Of all districts in Nangarhar this is the least secure.

NARRATOR:

He saw how even back then in 2015, Afghan forces were struggling against ISIS and the Taliban. He went to the front lines with a local police unit.

MALI MOHAMMAD ALAM, Local police chief:

[Speaking Dari] This area is called Khir-abaad. We are here to search and set up an ambush. The enemy have gone that way.

NARRATOR:

The police chief said resources and equipment were scarce. Enemy lines were just a few hundred yards away.

MALI MOHAMMAD ALAM:

[Speaking Dari] The government pays our salary, but they do not supply us. We bought rocket launchers ourselves, in cash. We buy the bullets and everything. We aren’t given a budget for it. We buy them from the boys’ wages. Rockets, bullets, everything.

NARRATOR:

He said he was willing to use brutal tactics against the Taliban and ISIS.

MALI MOHAMMAD ALAM:

[Speaking Dari] We caught two people yesterday. They were spying on us. We tortured them a bit. The human rights people tell us not to. But if we don’t torture or beat them, how can we get anything out of them? The human rights people should let us torture them or finish them off. Otherwise, our job is impossible.

NARRATOR:

The Afghan government would eventually claim it had done the job and driven ISIS out of the country. But on his repeated trips here, Najibullah documented the group’s continued presence.

2019

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] The Afghan government says that ISIS has been defeated in Afghanistan and that you don’t exist anymore.

ISIS COMMANDER:

[Speaking Pashto] The government says it and the infidel media repeats it. They don’t show their apostate soldiers who've been killed.

NARRATOR:

While ISIS would remain a threat—

NEWSREADER:

In the past few months the military has lost control of more than 20 areas to Taliban fighters who seem able to strike anywhere.

NARRATOR:

—by 2019, the Taliban claimed to control more of Afghanistan than at any point since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Two years before their takeover, Najibullah saw the extent of the Taliban’s reemergence on a trip to the city of Ghazni.

MAWLAWI NASRAT:

[Speaking Pashto] My name is Mawlawi Nasrat. I'm the military head of Nawur district. There are 200 mujahedeen with us. The district I'm in charge of is very populous and big.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] What percentage of Afghanistan is under control of the Taliban?

MAWLAWI NASRAT:

[Speaking Pashto] About 80% of the land is solely under Taliban control.

NARRATOR:

They let Najibullah and his team fly a drone over the valley as the fighters performed military drills out in the open.

TALIBAN FIGHTER:

[Speaking Pashto] There is no presence of the puppet government forces now. This district has been fully conquered. We have groups to conduct jihad in central Ghazni.

NARRATOR:

Another commander led them to one of the villages under Taliban control. There were few people on the streets. But after the Taliban escort left, one resident approached him.

MALE RESIDENT:

[Speaking Dari] I'm headmaster at a school, and my job is inside the center of Ghazni.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Generally speaking, how is life in the areas controlled by the Taliban?

MALE RESIDENT:

[Speaking Dari] If an area is controlled by the Taliban, the people are happy. If an area is controlled by government, they are happy, too. At the moment, people are happy because there’s no fighting and their lives are not at risk.

NARRATOR:

For Najibullah, what he saw on the trip in 2019 was a turning point in the Taliban’s insurgency.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

This specific group I met, they were completely different than previous groups I have met before. Normally when I was embedding with a group of the Taliban, they were preparing for fighting, to block the road. But this group was completely different. They didn’t have anything to make them worry because the entire area belonged to them.

NARRATOR:

The trip was also a vivid confirmation of what U.S. military leaders had privately been conceding for years: that they’d lost the war.

NEWSREADER:

Tonight, newly released documents raise serious questions about whether the American people were lied to about the progress of the war in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR:

An assessment that would finally go public in late 2019.

NEWSREADER:

For the last 18 years senior U.S. officials have been misleading the American public about the war in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR:

The Trump administration was now facing the harsh reality of defeat and directly negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban.

NEWSREADER:

It’s a war Washington is struggling to finish, and Donald Trump says peace lies in the hands of the Taliban.

Doha, Qatar

NEWSREADER:

U.S. and Taliban negotiators met in Qatar for peace talks aimed at ending America’s longest war.

NARRATOR:

As the peace talks were going on, Najibullah got an exclusive interview with the Taliban's top negotiator, Mullah Baradar, who was widely seen as a future leader in a Taliban government.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Mullah Baradar is a very, very big person within the Taliban rank. He was the co-founder of the Taliban, the person who has been very, very close to Mullah Omar, the main leader of the Taliban who died some years ago. He has been in prison for eight years in Pakistan and he has been released in 2018.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah pressed the mullah about whether the Taliban would moderate its hard-line practices, especially against women.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Have the Taliban changed since 2001? Will you allow women to study and work in offices?

NARRATOR:

His answer was ambiguous but foreshadowed what was soon to come. Women would have rights, he said, but only according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

MULLAH BARADAR:

[Speaking Pashto] There has been no change in the Taliban regarding this. We accept all the rights that God has granted to women. Absolutely, under Islamic law, if they want to live and work, of course we will allow it.

NARRATOR:

Mullah Baradar also promised that the Taliban would uphold the key component of a peace deal with the U.S.—that they’d prevent ISIS and Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a haven.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Can the Taliban do that? Can you say with full confidence that you have the power to do so?

MULLAH BARADAR:

[Speaking Pashto] Of course, of course, the Taliban are currently so powerful that we have almost destroyed ISIS. They will be eliminated and they will not exist in Afghanistan anymore.

NARRATOR:

Mullah Baradar’s promise evaporated a few days before the last U.S troops left on Aug. 31.

NEWSREADER:

The Pentagon confirming there has been an explosion outside Kabul Airport.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

The explosion has happened just by the airport.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah was nearby when an ISIS suicide bomber struck a gate outside the Kabul airport.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Everybody is running. I got myself away. Like I’m literally a kilometer away now.

NEWSREADER:

We can confirm that a number of U.S. service members were killed at the Kabul airport. A number of others are being treated for wounds. A number of Afghans fell victim to this heinous attack.

NEWSREADER:

ISIS-K, or the Islamic State in the Khorasan, has claimed responsibility for the Kabul attacks.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

ISIS in Khorasan always wanted to show their power. Even in the last moment they managed to kill 13 American forces. This is a big succeed for them. This is a big threat again for the Taliban. They're showing how brutal are they, how prepared are they.

NARRATOR:

The bombing fueled clashes between Taliban forces and ISIS and heightened U.S. concerns about the country once again becoming a staging ground for terrorists.

In the wake of the airport attack, Najibullah sought out an expert on ISIS, or ISIL, and other terror groups.

EDMUND FITTON-BROWN, Counterterrorism expert, United Nations:

Hi, Najibullah.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Hey, hello, sir, how are you doing?

EDMUND FITTON-BROWN:

I'm very well, thanks. How are you?

NARRATOR:

Edmund Fitton-Brown coordinates a United Nations monitoring team that assesses the global threat from the Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda.

EDMUND FITTON-BROWN:

ISIL has been a strategic rival of the Taliban. It's obviously much smaller than the Taliban. But I think what I saw is intending to do is to present itself as the party that wants to continue the fight, that makes no compromises. And they want to accuse the Taliban of having in some way sold out. And ISIL is clearly making an effort to embarrass and attack and harass the Taliban. And that will be obviously a challenge to the Taliban. It will be—I'm not certain how easily the Taliban will be able to suppress that challenge.

NARRATOR:

Fitton-Brown also told Najibullah that Al Qaeda, despite being weakened over the years, remains a threat, too.

EDMUND FITTON-BROWN:

Al Qaeda has a very close historic and trusting relationship with the Taliban, and Al Qaeda is present in Afghanistan. I think the Taliban have signaled very clearly that they are not going to do anything to break with or suppress Al Qaeda.

What's been difficult for Al Qaeda has been to have a stable, uninterrupted place where they could regroup, recruit, train, raise money. And it may be that this change in Afghanistan presents them with a new and better opportunity than they have elsewhere.

NARRATOR:

A recently surfaced video has only added to the concerns about Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's former security chief, Amin al Haq, was seen returning to eastern Afghanistan.

Publicly, the Taliban have continued to insist they will not harbor terrorists. But when the new government was formed in early September, key posts went to some of the most extreme figures closely associated with Al Qaeda.

Like Sirajuddin Haqqani, now the interior minister, whose infamous Haqqani network was behind suicide bombings and attacks on coalition forces. He is still on the State Department's most wanted list, with a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. His uncle, Khalil Haqqani—also part of the new cabinet—has been linked to Al Qaeda terror operations.

KHALIL HAQQANI:

[Speaking Pashto] We have shown the world our strength on the battlefield through our sacrifice. And we also defeated them in negotiations.

NARRATOR:

Even Mullah Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban, appears to have been sidelined by the Haqqanis.

Neither side would talk to Najibullah about the power struggle, but the rift has heightened concerns that Afghanistan could erupt in factional violence.

Those fears are especially high among the millions of Shia Muslims, known as the Hazara, who’ve long been the target of Taliban attacks and have been forming their own armed militias, some supported by neighboring Iran.

Shortly before the takeover, Najibullah went to central Afghanistan, where most of the Hazara live. At a Hazara cemetery, Najibullah met a woman who said the Taliban had been launching deadly attacks on their community. Her grandson was killed in the fighting.

HAMIDA:

[Speaking Dari] His name was Ali Akbar and he was martyred in Dai Mir Daad.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] Why did he go to Dai Mir Daad?

HAMIDA:

[Speaking Dari] He was in a battle. He was defending against the Taliban and they killed him.

NARRATOR:

Nooria’s husband was killed by the Taliban just weeks earlier, leaving five children behind.

NOORIA:

[Speaking Dari] We have lost the head of the family. God has brought such a day on these children. The oldest is 10 years old. The next one is 8 years old. After that, the next one is 6.

HAMIDA:

[Speaking Dari] We are poor and have nowhere to go. The Taliban are after us and the government does not support us.

NARRATOR:

The Hazaras' desperation has only increased in recent weeks. In Kabul, Najibullah met a Hazara journalist and human rights activist, Eshaq Akrami, who had fled the countryside.

ESHAQ AKRAMI:

[Speaking Dari] The situation isn’t good. On the first day, when they came, many government offices and homes were looted. People’s cars were taken away from them. People got beaten. Some were killed.

NARRATOR:

He described an event just days earlier where 13 Hazaras, most of them Afghan security forces, were killed.

ESHAQ AKRAMI:

[Speaking Dari] After the Taliban declared national amnesty and indicated that they would not harm politicians, security forces, journalists, etc., they told these people to surrender their weapons and that they wouldn't be harmed. They came back from the mountains and surrendered their weapons to the Taliban. The Taliban then started shooting them.

NARRATOR:

Amnesty International investigated and verified this footage, which they shared with FRONTLINE. This is the first time it’s been aired.

ESHAQ AKRAMI:

[Speaking Dari] Because of their terror and not keeping their word, thousands have fled to the mountains and other districts. Many of the reporters and civil rights activists are not in Bamyan right now and are on the run. I've come here trying to find a way to get out of Afghanistan because there have been threats from the Taliban and some armed groups in the past. And now our concern is greater because there is no accountability.

NARRATOR:

Shortly after the interview, Eshaq was able to get out of the country.

NEWSREADER:

In the wake of the Taliban takeover, the country is struggling through severe food shortages and the collapse of basic public services.

NEWSREADER:

The Afghan people are in desperate need of support.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah has been among the few journalists continuing to report on the deteriorating situation inside Afghanistan.

NEWSREADER:

Washington now closing off its support pipeline to the Taliban. Other major Western governments also plan to stop sending aid.

NEWSREADER:

The consequences are on track to devastate the population, especially its most vulnerable residents.

NARRATOR:

Amidst economic free fall and a growing humanitarian crisis, the Taliban have continued to tighten restrictions on women.

NEWSREADER:

Day by day, women in Afghanistan have been learning they are less free.

NEWSREADER:

—and in many ways have been completely erased from public life.

NEWSREADER:

Schools reopened for boys. Middle school and high school girls are still at home.

NARRATOR:

Girls are effectively banned from attending school past sixth grade for now.

Outside a school in Kabul, Najibullah attended a protest of the ban by a small group of women.

Carrying guns and whips, the Taliban threatened the protesters. They fired their guns in the air and ordered journalists to leave.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Even for me it has been changed. Now they got really strict. You cannot film certain areas. They are not agree for the interviews. Whatever you do they just show you their weapons, their AK-47. They just point it on you.

NARRATOR:

Shortly after, Najibullah visited an elementary school. A class of fourth grade girls were facing the prospect of being near the end of their education.

GIRLS' TEACHER:

[Speaking Dari] That is how it is now. They have said that the girls will study till the sixth grade.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

[Speaking Dari] What happens after sixth grade?

GIRLS' TEACHER:

[Speaking Dari] After sixth grade, we'll wait and see what they say. It will depend on the orders. We'll wait and see what they say.

It's very difficult for a girl to be deprived of education. For now, these are the circumstances in Afghanistan that we have to live with.

NARRATOR:

With the conditions worsening, Najibullah wanted to check back in with the women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj. She told him not to come to her office; she wanted to talk by phone instead. Despite the situation, she remains unbowed but diplomatic.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

So let's see what happens. Right now what the Taliban wants is that they want to get—they need time, which I told one of them that time is not something that they have, because we are almost like a runaway train going towards a human disaster. I am hoping that they also understand that with the way they are going, treating the women, that's not going to last long, and that's not going to be accepted by the world. And I want the world to know that. Because Afghanistan is really a changed country now. So we'll see if we can do it, see how much we can take, how much we can live with. There are some compromises we can make. There are some compromises we cannot.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

Are you worried about the civil war in Afghanistan?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

Yes. As always, yeah.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

I’ll be leaving Afghanistan very soon. Why don’t you just leave the country?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

Well, you know, I’m sure by leaving Afghanistan, you know you can do a whole lot, a lot of work from outside, much better than inside, the same way I believe that I can do a whole lot of work much better from inside than outside. So I think we are both doing something for the love of this land. You’re doing it in one way and I’m doing it in another way.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI:

So you are committed to stay in Afghanistan.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ:

I am committed to staying in Afghanistan, absolutely. The reason is the love of—my love for this land. I’m not going to leave it again. I’m going to have a say and I’m going to have a do as far as making it a beautiful place for the people of Afghanistan.

NARRATOR:

Najibullah left the country, while Seraj stayed—one of millions of Afghans waiting to see what life will be like now that the Taliban have taken over.

1h 24m
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