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What It Was Like Entering The Kabul Airport Alongside The Taliban


Less than an hour after the last U.S. plane took off from Afghanistan, Twitter users worldwide saw a site that just a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable.


NABIH BULOS: We're here right now with the Taliban as they enter into the - what was - only minutes ago, it was an American-controlled portion of the military airport. Now they're taking over.

CORNISH: That's Los Angeles Times reporter Nabih Bulos as he accompanied Taliban special forces into the former U.S.-controlled hangar in the Kabul airport. Nabih Bulos joins us now from Kabul to talk more about what he saw.

And, Nabih, first, let's just start with how the Taliban sort of approached this takeover. What did it look like?

BULOS: Well, so it started off with them being hesitant in the beginning. And then, at some point in time, you know, you just heard gunfire, right? There was just an eruption of shooting everywhere. And this was happening as we were walking through the gate and approaching what had been, moments before, the American-controlled section of that military airbase. And then we finally get to the gate, and they walk through and - you know, I mean, look. I mean, it was almost like sporting at some level, I guess is one way to describe it, just looking at what now was theirs. You know, they're - at what was left behind, I guess.

CORNISH: When I go to your Twitter feed, people are making a big deal out of the fact that the Taliban are, like, uniformed, you know? Someone's sort of saying, oh, they look like U.S. special forces. Are people reading too much into...

BULOS: Yeah, they do.

CORNISH: ...Those images?

BULOS: I mean, look. There is some irony in the fact that the Taliban have become what the U.S. had hoped the Afghan National Army would be, which is to stay a well-cramped and cohesive and disciplined strike force and was equipped with American equipment and material. And is it a big deal? I mean, it's worth noting that really the higher-end stuff - right? - the things that are - again, helicopters, planes, these things - these are inoperable and will never fly again. But, of course, with that being said, they do have M4s and M16s. And then, they also have night vision goggles, so that will improve their abilities as a ground fighting force. These are facts. But in terms of them becoming, let's say, you know, a modern army in the sense that they have, you know, air support and these things, no, that's fantasy.

CORNISH: Right. What can you tell us about the Taliban soldiers that you've spent time with in terms of their sense of their mission? Are they of age where they remember a time when the U.S. was not in Afghanistan?

BULOS: Many of these people are young. I mean, the one that I spoke to, the commander I was actually with yesterday - and he's the commander of this elite Taliban squad called the (unintelligible) - he was 23. You know, but then also, more importantly, you know, for them, this is a massive victory. I mean, this morning, we were - we had the chance to talk to an Afghani who was one of the leaders of the group. He was part of their negotiating team. And he said it was a massive victory. I mean, you know, over the last 20 years, they have been facing, you know, a 40-nation coalition is what he said. And still, even with that, they were able to be victorious. And so, for him, he said this was a, you know, really important moment, and the victory, you know, had come from God. You know, these leaders now believe that this is really a moment of divine intervention in many ways, I guess. You know, they feel that they have full control of the country. And, so far, they do.

CORNISH: Does it feel different, I mean with the first full day absent of the U.S. military?

BULOS: Of course. I mean, there are some differences. The first and most important one is that the airport is no longer this giant draw. I mean, the last two weeks, you had a sense that there were two Kabuls, really - and I've heard others say this, and it's true - one that is, you know, by the airports that was just sucking in tens of thousands of people and had, you know, all these dramatic scenes, and then you had the Kabul at large, which was, you know, calmer, you know, meaning it was more normal. Granted, it was readjusting to its new rulers, but it was still, you know, recognizably a city that we'd know in the sense that there was traffic, doors were open, et cetera. Now, of course, things are changing as well. I mean, the airports and environs are now, you know, very quiet. It was mostly abandoned because, you know, obviously, there are no planes, no nothing. People are trying to find alternative ways to escape. But the city itself is kind of holding its collective breath at the moment. I mean, there is a real tension in the sense that people are trying to figure out what the Taliban will do.

CORNISH: Nabih Bulos, Middle East correspondent for The LA Times.

Thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

BULOS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.