‘Hey guys,” said a chirpy young woman looking out at the World Trade Center. “No more airplanes. New York’s a no fly zone.” The camera zoomed in on the burning towers. When it cut back to her she emitted an ear-splitting scream to rival Fay Wray. No sound so encapsulates the psychic shock that triggered America’s presence in Afghanistan for the next 20 years.
Afghanistan: Getting Out (BBC Two/iPlayer), covering that horrific history in two richly condensed hours, has bagged an impressive cast of gnarled generals, secretaries of state and consiglieri who were in the room when the decisions were taken and now have reputations to burnish and perhaps, in the case of David Cameron, salvage.
All had the impotent look of men swallowed up in history’s most ravenous maw. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban negotiator, recalled warning the Americans that “your fate will be like the fate of those who have invaded Afghanistan before you”. Drone shots of the parched interior, in all its pitiless beauty, silently mocked the hubristic folly of would-be conquerors.
An advantage of hurtling up to 2014 in the first hour was to highlight in searing primary colours the Swiftian absurdities of what one general dubbed a “war for the people not with the people”. Take president Obama’s announcement of a massive but strictly time-limited military surge in 2011. Matin Bek, who would become chief of staff to President Ghani, got it in a nutshell. “So you are telling the enemy, ‘I am coming anyway but I am coming for a short time.’ From that moment a sense of victory started emerging among the Taliban.”
John Kelly, the Marine Corps general who became President Trump’s chief of staff, lost a son in Afghanistan. “Don’t let them forget what we did here,” a soldier from the same unit said when he visited. “And don’t let them ever forget the people we are leaving behind.” This admirable primer is trying its best.
It may take something as lapidary as the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick superb 10-parter on Vietnam to tease out the deeper complexities.