An ex-Marine details the chaotic exit from Afghanistan — and how we should mark it

by | Aug 6, 2022 | Top Stories

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This handout image shows a Marine passing out water to evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22.

U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

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U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

It’s been almost a year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan again and the U.S. military pulled out of the country. As the withdrawal unfolded, Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman was watching the chaos from a distance. He was on a family vacation in Italy but couldn’t tear himself away from what was happening. Ackerman had deployed to Afghanistan multiple times. He felt bound to America’s Afghan allies, so when the U.S. announced it was leaving and those same Afghans were desperate to get out, he lay awake at night, glued to his phone. “My entire network was lighting up and it had become quickly a crowdsourced evacuation, with each person playing their part,” Ackerman told Morning Edition. ”Some people were trying to raise money for charter flights, other people were arranging the buses that would transport evacuees from various pickup points in Kabul into the airport.” Ackerman was key because he knew Marines who were inside the airport, manning those gates and deciding who could come in and who could not. He writes about this experience in his new book, The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Elliot Ackerman, 41, deployed as a Marine to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011 and trained Afghan Commando soldiers.

Alyssa Schukar/Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC

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Alyssa Schukar/Alyssa Schukar Photography LLC

Interview highlights On mobilizing to help Afghans evacuate Everyone was very much focused on the task at hand, because the stakes are obviously very high. You know, you’ve got the photographs of the people who are trying to get out and their families, [because] these aren’t people any of us knew — the only family that I got out who I had a direct personal connection to was my interpreter. He has since moved to the U.S. but his family was still there and we were able to get his family out. But everyone else, these were strangers and they were strangers for most of us. So in that moment, you can’t really step away. But there were certainly little interludes. And my wife, in the book, she almost comes off like a Greek chorus conscience of the book, saying, you know, “Why are you all having to do this? Why are the people who left the wars 10 years ago now being sucked in to try to finish them?”

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This image made available to AFP on August 20, 2021 by Human Rights Activist Omar Haidari, shows a U.S. Marine grabbing an infant over a fence of barbed wire during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 19, 2021.

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Omar Haidari/AFP

On how he views America’s exit from Afghanistan I think it was a collapse of American morals that we made these promises and we fell short. It was a collapse of American competence. I mean, listen, despite the heroic efforts of those who were at the airport — and our efforts were truly heroic, so I’m not questioning their competence — but I would question the competence of decision-making that put us into this position where our back was up against a wall with this Aug …

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