Reflections from Afghanistan: The Exit Interview with Hollie McKay

Returning to the US after four months in Afghanistan, McKay ponders the experience of witnessing the fall of the US occupation and the rise of the Taliban government


Welcome to another episode of Dispatches from Afghanistan with Hollie McKay. This is a special one. We are welcoming Hollie back to the United States after four months in Afghanistan. We’re going to find out today how that experience went. First, welcome back Hollie.

Thank you, thanks, thanks for your support.

You've been here about a week now?

Yeah, about that, yep.

So, you know first question is of course how are you finding it back here as opposed to over there?

It's always a little bit of an adjustment. It certainly takes a little bit of time, but it's nice to be back, although I do miss it a lot so I'm sure I'll sure I'll be gone again very soon.

I wanted to ask you some questions about different phases and aspects of your experience over there. We'll take it kind of a little bit in chronological order and then finish off with other aspects of the experiences you had over there because I'm pretty sure people will want to know a little bit more about that.

So, let's start off with your reflections on the experience in the first month that you were there when you started off in the country you went there to do a project, and then you wound up in Mazar-i-Sharif (in Northern Afghanistan). What was that month like?

So, the first bit obviously it was a tenuous situation across the country at that point, the Taliban were taking control of most of Afghanistan at a rapid pace. I think that came as a surprise, not only to the Afghans, but to the US and to the broader intelligence community. I think there was this sort of feeling that Kabul was certainly not going to fall, at least not anytime soon. But it just it all seemed to happen very quickly. So, the first little bit was trying to assess the situation, see what was falling, and what preparations the US was doing to leave the country at the end of August.

And then yeah, I was in the north in Mazar-i-Sharif, with the commandos and some of the resistance forces there who really swore, black and blue, that the country wasn't going to fall, or at least Mazar-i-Sharif wasn't going to fall anytime soon.

But I think the sort of the rapid pace that happened, just showed you how entrenched the Taliban were at that point in every level of every government, military, and intelligence.

And it just happened so quickly. I remember arriving there early on Thursday morning and things were very vibrant city clubs, markets, and lots of life people out at night; just really a lot happening. And, it was hard to imagine that the provinces around it had all fallen within those last couple of weeks before that. People were just sort of getting on with it and I was sort of flapping. Everybody was sort of warning me. Oh my goodness, it's so dangerous for you to be there. What is going to happen?

And in the middle of it, it was very hard to see any big shift happening, but there were certainly a few strange things that I did observe, such as, there was no police, no military presence at all in Mazar-i-Sharif. I remember thinking that was extremely strange. You know the Taliban had surrounded a lot of the provinces, and I thought it was just bizarre that there wasn't this heavy military presence if Mazar was next on the list.

Then the following day was Friday, which is the one weekend day in Afghanistan. Here in the West, we have Saturday and Sunday. In Afghanistan, just Friday. That's the prayer day. That's the only government day off. Things were naturally a little bit quieter that day, but you started to certainly feel a sense in the air of things being very different. And then, uhm, yeah.

Saturday, we woke up and I remember just feeling very strange that day. I remember I just woke up and was feeling really depressed, and sad, and I couldn't quite put my finger on, you know, what was happening. It was that night. We went about working and people were fleeing. You see people flee from outside villages. And then it was that evening, Saturday evening, that it really fell, and fell very quickly and suddenly.

I'm watching the Taliban roll around on motorcycles and trying to figure out how on Earth I was going to get out. The following day the Taliban surrounded the Kabul and then took the capital. That was just so unfathomable to a lot of people. It happened very quickly. The next few days were just a matter of trying to figure out how on earth to get out.

Eventually, that entailed really the only option at that point was to talk to the Taliban's. We didn't know how they were going to respond to a foreigner, to a journalist, to a woman.

Thankfully they were very welcoming and that was a risk worth taking. So we had to go to Uzbekistan temporarily because that was the closest way out. There was no way we could get back to Kabul (from Mazar-i-Sharif).

My photographer Jake and I then came back in fairly promptly. We were always determined that, you know, as much as everybody would have loved for me to go home, that definitely was never in my plan.

Let's break that down a little because I remember that moment when Mazar-i-Shariff fell. You were worried. How long were you worried? And when did you stop being worried? I think people would want to hear a little bit about that.

I think I had, you know, obviously, that initial sense of fear. Oh my goodness, “How am I going to get out of this situation?” It was certainly a jarring feeling. I remember that first Saturday night just feeling very overwhelmed in a really knowing that there wasn't really a way out. Uh, you know, that I was stuck in this hotel. I didn't have anybody that I could immediately go to talk to in the Taliban's and try to mitigate the situation in any way.

Unfortunately, the US government wasn't particularly helpful in being able to do a rescue at that point; which is understandable, because of what was happening in Kabul. The evacuation process was beginning and the chaos that unraveled quickly after that.

It was really up to Jake and I to make our determination. It was certainly a unique feeling.  I've spent many years as a war reporter and been in many challenging situations, if you will.

This was something unique to be inside a city as it falls. And falls, not into friendly hands, but into what we would consider to be unfriendly hands. It's a unique feeling and something that I hadn't experienced.

I remember that first night being quite terrified sleeping on my photographer’s floor because I was worried that the Taliban, you know, might try to get in; and we didn't know what their response would be.

But I think when you do this job you have to recognize that you need to be pragmatic about situations and just focus on the most important thing at that point was not to panic, but just to use my brain and find a way to get myself out of that situation. You just have to you have to channel it. You have to focus and certainly panicking doesn't do any good to anyone. I don't think I went through a panic phase.

It was more just a fear and then that subsided, I think. It was sort of exacerbated I guess a little bit when Kabul fell, but it subsided fairly quickly and then I just had to get to work to figure out how to resolve te situation.

I think that's what we as war reporters do, and that's an important characteristic of the job. I think if you go into these places, and you panic when things go very pear shaped, you're not going to last long doing it. That's something we must train our brains to do.

Right. So, the end the end of that phase of course, was you crossing into Uzbekistan, crossing over the bridge at the border? And then eventually coming back so what was it like setting up the exit? And then the follow up question to that of course is, what was it like setting up the return?

Uhm, the exit was a matter of talking to the Taliban. We had to get the Uzbek consulate to open the border for us because, at that point, the border was closed because so many Afghans had flooded that border the night previously. Many of the (Afghan government) soldiers who were running to escape the Taliban had flooded the border, so it was closed.

We had to jump through a few hoops. But I think Jake and I, neither of us really wanted to leave at all. But there just wasn't a way for us to get practically to Kabul at that point. Obviously, there were no flights running, and we'd (originally) taken a commercial airliner to get to Mazar-i-Sharif.

So, the most practical thing to do in that moment was to go north towards Uzbekistan. There was a “young” Taliban sort of escort, a couple of Taliban vehicles that escorted us. It was quite interesting. We got to, first of all experience, the Taliban elders, who were the ones who came to the hotel to collect us to take us to the Uzbek consulate. They were very welcoming. Then, those that took us to the border were the Taliban Children, if you will, the younger set of Taliban. We got this very quick baptism by fire on who they were. It was a very surreal experience, because at that point, Afghanistan was heavily in the news, and everybody was focused on what was happening with the Americans evacuation.

Uhm, yeah, it was sort of this bizarre experience to sort of be in the thick of it in that way, and also be able to present a different side to it than what was happening in Kabul, as we were sort of really the only foreigners that were in that area. I think really, the only foreigners that were in a city outside of Kabul as it fell.

As a journalist, you look for those unique stories and I thought the challenge is you never want to be the story, and so that's something I really grappled with is I didn't want to be the story, and suddenly I was the story, so that was is always an uncomfortable sort of situation to be in.

We reluctantly, in that moment, got out.

But that was with a lot of sadness, as strange as that is. But you know that's what is strange. Journalists are strange breeds, and when everybody is trying to get out of a place, we're usually trying to get into it.

So we decided we’d do a little bit of work in in Uzbekistan. And in neighboring Tajikistan. And just sort of let some of that chaos that was happening in Kabul at that point die down a little bit.

For me, it was really that curiosity would get back and see what was happening with the Taliban. How were they ruling the country? And what was going to happen in that next chapter. So, we made the decision to just go back to the border once it had it reopened and go in just after the Americans had left.

And so again, that was a very different experience. We had to tee up drivers to take us from that border area and make a long, heinous, terrible journey. It was about 12 hours across the country on terrible roads to get back to Kabul.

It was an experience of itself. It was the first opportunity that we had to travel the country by land I mean that just wasn't something that was not possible at all throughout the US occupation because the Taliban really had control of most of those key arteries and it would have been far too dangerous to have ever attempted that. Suddenly, it was this entire country that had been opened to me and I was able to go everywhere via roads, and that was just very surreal that first step back in into the country.

I bet it was. I saw a picture of you going back in the country and there you were walking across the border getting your passport stamped. with a carry-on bag rolling behind you. It was a surreal picture really.

So, you get back in the country and you spend the next three months interviewing an entire nation in a way that hasn't been accessible for almost 20 years. What was that like going from place to place? Places that only what the 45 days earlier, doing that would have been suicidal. And then then there you are going everywhere.

That really is the remarkable aspect of it. I think so much of the way that Americans, you know, see the Taliban even through this era is still viewing them as an insurgency. As this sort of entity to be extremely terrified of and, and certainly for some people, I'm sure that's the case.

But for me you know it's we have to remind ourselves, overnight they went from being an insurgency to a government. So therefore, their element and their approach to things changed. And I thought that it was really important to try to understand that, and to try to understand what they wanted. Where they were going? How they viewed the United States? What they wanted from the international community? How were they going to run this country of thirty-eight million people having been essentially in mountain militia for the past two decades?

So there's all these things that just were really just unfathomable. Just even seeing them take over the ministries. Who is going to work there? Do they have any skills in governing? It really was this sort of fascinating period of time of being able to get to know a lot of these Taliban; and to spend time with them in a in a very different way.

I think that's something that that we should do as journalists and not necessarily, you know, we don't go in there, or at least I don't go in there, to give them a voice, or to give them a platform, or to do any of these buzzwords that get thrown around. I go in there to try to be a vessel to the ”Other” and to try to communicate how they're thinking; because I really think that's the only way we move forward.  We learn from their mistakes. We understand sort of the quote/unquote enemy that we're dealing with to really understand who they are, where they're from.

I really tried with every of the many, many Taliban interviews that I did across the country. I would always ask them very personal questions like how old they were, where they were from, where they grew up, where they did their training, why they joined the Taliban, when they joined the Taliban, their role in joining the Taliban, and how that sort of metastasized over the period of time; because I think it's very important to understand how the group was able to attract really so many recruits.

The number of reports that you put out during that time was prolific. A little compare and contrast, or if you would rather, an assessment on reflection, what do you think militia turned government? What do you think about their chances to succeed versus? What the old government was in in terms of its quality and its service to people and its challenges. How would you compare the two at this point?

I mean, the Taliban is obviously very challenged financially to very severe economic and humanitarian crisis that is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban are obviously desperate for money and the money was frozen that moment they took the presidential palace, which I'm sure they weren't expecting that response to happen.

But you know, I really do blame the previous government. There were a couple of different presidents really for institutionalizing corruption on every possible level in Afghanistan to a disgusting point. It was something I brought up a lot in that, I take that personally. Those were my tax dollars that were being stolen by these corrupt individuals and they were not going to the Afghan people.

At $2 trillion. Kabul should have been Dubai. But it's not. And you have to really look at that, and really look at why the US chose not to fundamentally address these problems as they arose. Why there was never accountability to the corruption? I really think that just sort of created this thieves stain in many ways. And I think that it played a huge part in in how the Taliban were able to come back and able to mobilize much of the population. And they've come back with this firm stance that corruption is “haram” and that it won't fly under them. Then again, they don't have money to be all that corrupt with right now.

I don't know you know what will happen in the future, but I certainly hope that the US takes that message away. If we're ever going to enter a country again, you really have to have a very zero tolerance policy to corruption, because if you let it fester to the way that it did. Uh, you just look, you know you. You can't blame people often for wanting to join the Taliban's when they can't even get basic services done each day without paying a bribe. And that's not a way that anybody wants to live, and especially poor Afghans. And the United States really just kind of opened the floodgates to this and created an artificial economy that just that was just reeking with corruption. I think that it played it a critical role in in the government fall.

There you go. Well that is an interesting viewpoint. How these guys basically inherited a solution to problems that we created over 20 years. But let’s step back from Afghanistan. You're a journalist and in a world of journalism, there's truth and perception. They kind of fight with each other constantly. The perception of Afghanistan in in the US is clouded in the mysticism of the last 20 years. In particular, the truth that you are uncovering sometimes doesn't exactly jive with the with the perceptions that people have.

So as a as a journalist, what did you see the balance between what you were seeing on the ground and the perceptions that you were seeing going on in other parts of the world and how did you handle the role of being a vessel?

Yeah, I think. Well, the ones that have stayed there were other journalists that came in and out or for sort of stints. But they kind of stay several months for the long haul, and I think you know there was very few Americans that that did that.

I think that that if I was just to read whatever I saw on Twitter, I would think there'd be this absolute genocide that was going on and people being ripped from their homes and slaughtered.

Certainly there are cases of those terrible things happening, but that’s much the exception. Certainly not the norm. I think the US or the mainstream media was just sort of relying on second hand information or somebody’s tweet or a photo or things that just was somebody’s very skewed opinion, or someone who had already fled the country during the evacuation. And it just sort of created a very skewed picture that I don't think was accurate.

I think there's a lot of people out there who want to the Taliban to be committing all sorts of atrocities against the Afghan people. As they had done in his insurgency. But the reality was, they weren't an insurgency, or they aren't an insurgency anymore. They are sort of, for better or for worse, trying to become some kind of government. The attacks and things just weren't happening on the scale that much of the media wanted you to believe. I think it that's really important to acknowledge that. It was as dizzying to me to see a lot of the coverage that was happening. Certainly the Taliban need to be held to account, and anything that they do needs to be to be amplified.

But, I also think a lot of it was just the sort of blown extremely out of proportion and that we weren't taking the reality into account. I think it's certainly in this day and age, it's easier to have a clickbait headline. You know you're certainly going to get a lot of clicks on a story that is extremely salacious, or that really exaggerates what happened. And I just saw a lot of that. I saw a lot of foreign sort of influence, and meddling, and people driving the narratives who weren't actually in Afghanistan.

I just think it got incredibly skewed. And it was very hard for me to argue back against it. And when you do, just simply try to present the truth, you get all sorts of haters that come out and attack you and say, well, you, you're only saying these nice things because, you know, you're working for the Taliban's and doing all this sort of nuts. It's just you know, stuff that you don't even need to defend yourself.

I think all of us journalists who work in these places know how to do our jobs. And certainly the Taliban never made a single comment to me about any specific coverage. So I I think that's just sort of a cop out for a lot of people to try to make themselves sound more superior than they were, and to sort of justify their keyboard warriorship. But it was frustrating to me because you always believe in painting an accurate picture. I think just on an overall scale, the picture often wasn't accurate.

Yep yeah well. One can see that happening in pretty much any area of journalism now in terms of the spin that's put on it in order to make it more readable, or more popular, or increase viewership, or whatever. Do you think the work that you did there helped temper the picture and put better perspective in it as you begin to look back. Or is it too soon for you to know?

I don't know. All I can do as a journalist is do the story, put it out, hopefully generate some awareness. But beyond that, my job is not to present a solution to a problem. It's literally just to illuminate a problem and what happens beyond that would be hubris for me to pretend that I could do any more than that.

So yeah, that that's up to the viewer I think. I hope that it gave people a richer understanding. There's a lot of people who will take it on board and a lot of people who will dismiss it because it doesn't fit the narrative that they want. That's very much on them.

OK, very good alright, so let's turn a little bit subject to reflections on beyond the work. Just the community, and in particular I'm curious to hear your reflections on the press corps that you lived with for the three months. What were they like? What went on from that point of view?

Uh, I mean, we just lived. You're in your own little bubble. We lived in a house in Kabul. Different journalists would often come in for a week or two weeks, mostly from Europe. Some were TV. Some were print. Mostly freelancers working on their own thing. It's always nice to see other people from other countries.

What I found to be interesting was that the journalists coming through for the most part were journalists that haven't covered Afghanistan before. They were journalists there was their first time in coming up, so really, the only Afghanistan they know is the Afghanistan under the Taliban.

You know, which is interesting, because we really right in that very beginning after the fall we've seen so many of the really the old school journalists people that covered Afghanistan for years or even decades. Seeing these kinds of old school journalists, which was kind of neat, at the at the Mujahid press conferences. And then those people quickly kind of left and then you started to see this this younger subset of journalists coming in really for the first time.

That was interesting because I questioned, wondering, what their baseline is because they didn't know the Afghanistan before. You're sort of seeing this new crop of journalists that are coming in and a lot of the older journalists and ones that really even been living in Afghanistan for a long time, they were all kind of leaving and going home and looking to a new place, or whatever the next assignment was going to be so in many ways that was sort of a bit of a journalistic end of an era.

A lot of different people sort of came throughout the time there. I thought that was always really cool. The people had their own things that they were working on. Just going about and doing their thing.

So there's a little bit of insight into the day to day of the journalist cadre in the in the middle of a of a country that's undergoing change.

The last question and I, I think the most personal question of all. As an individual. How do you think you were affected by this? From the time you went in, to the time you came out, how did it did it change you from who you were when you got on the plane and left Los Angeles, because I dropped you off at LAX.

I mean I think you always change and you should always be growing and certainly spending four or five months in a country. But it just was really this incredible slice of history that had gone from one thing to another overnight.

It has to change you when you become very immersed in it, and it certainly did. And I I learned a lot. It's very hard for me sometimes to wrap my head around how much I've learned in that time.

Uhm, and I think you not only do you grow. You can understand things in a very deep level.

That is, it's hard to, you know, explain and for me, I always try to look at things from outside of a geopolitical framework. So much of what we see and read is a very dry kind of policy that, over the years sort of this idea that you can't be especially compassionate in your reporting. I really don't I take to it, because I'm a human first. So anything that I do is always going to come from that place of humanity.

And I think that you're going to reach a lot more people and your message is going to resonate a lot stronger when you can present stories of individuals and enable audiences and readers to really connect with that. And that's something that I really tried to do and so my work in Afghanistan. I hope it enabled me to find that deeper sense of compassion and to also come just understand a place. Understanding dynamics on a different level.

But yeah, those experiences always affect you. There's certainly a lot of guilt that comes with leaving. Certainly, you know there's so many people desperate to leave that I wish that I could help and I I just can't. Even now, I just get so many messages from people just desperate everyday all day; and it's hard because I I can't help them.

And frankly, that's not my job to help them in, you know, I don't facilitate rescues. I can point them in the right direction to people who do. But my job is to is to tell a story and to highlight their cases and that is what I can do.

And I think it's just important to remember that. Because we can't do everything. I'm not a surgeon. I'm not a rescuer. My job is a journalist and so that's always something that I have to keep reminding myself of when you have those moments.

Uhm, but yeah, absolutely, I feel incredibly appreciative of that experience, but I also feel very guilty in that you know my life isn't more valuable than theirs. I just I happen to be born in a different place and that was no doing of my own.

And yet that itself enabled me to come and go freely from Afghanistan; and that is a certainly a privilege that a lot of Afghans themselves don't have.

All right, well and on that note, it's quite a reflection of four months of time in a part of the world that the underwent a significant amount of upheaval.

Everybody is glad for the experiences and the insights that you brought, and glad, even with the guilt, that you're back in in in the United States and can carry on with being the journalist that you are. So, thank you very much, Hollie McKay, and for these reflections on your time in Afghanistan.

Thanks again for your support. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter for more updates

Photo courtesy of my brilliant photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos.

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