♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ >> War is, full of mistakes, full of incredible loss, tragedy, heartbreak, hardship and casualties.
>> NARRATOR: Drawing on years of reporting, from both sides of the war... >> You set off a car bomb, it's going to kill women and children and innocent civilians.
>> This was fighting.
>> You reject the idea that you handed a good deal to the Taliban?
>> Not at all.
I got a good deal for the United States.
We wanted out, we got out safely.
>> NARRATOR: Correspondent Martin Smith investigates the missteps... >> No one really knew how this would unfold.
>> NARRATOR: And miscalculations... >> People ask, "What was the Americans' strategy?"
The Americans did not have a strategy for Afghanistan.
>> Why do you think we lost?
>> I think it's a matter of willpower.
>> We didn't have the will.
>> We had a good amount of it, but they had more.
>> NARRATOR: Now on "Frontline," the conclusion of an epic three-part series.
>> Why did we fail on our mission?
And who was responsible?
>> NARRATOR: "America and the Taliban."
♪ ♪ (children speaking Pashto) ♪ ♪ >> (speaking Pashto): >> MARTIN SMITH: For 20 years after America toppled the Taliban, girls in Afghanistan were able to attend school.
They could dream of careers as doctors and lawyers, seek office in government, become engineers or journalists.
For a while, the American project brought real progress.
>> (reading aloud) >> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Initially, after taking power, the Taliban said they also supported girls' education.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: But then, in short order, they banned girls from attending school above the sixth grade.
They said it was temporary.
And in March 2022, as a new semester was about to begin, the Taliban announced that schools were going to open.
After waiting nearly seven months, teachers and students headed off to school on a Wednesday morning.
Upon arrival, they learned that the Taliban had reversed their decision.
Everyone was ordered to go home.
Is this the minister here?
>> SMITH: Okay.
A month later, I met with Kandahar's director of education.
There was the expectation that girls would go back to school.
And then, suddenly, there was a reversal.
I wanted to know why the Taliban had reneged on their promises.
>> (speaking Pashto): (cellphone chimes) (people talking in background, car horns honking) >> SMITH: Why are all these decisions made by men?
>> (speaking Pashto): ♪ ♪ >> SMITH: Restrictions have only gotten worse.
Women are now banned from most workplaces, should be chaperoned when traveling far from home, and are ordered to fully cover from head to toe.
>> (chanting in Dari): >> SMITH: Defiant women, risking arrest, have taken to the streets.
>> (speaking Dari): >> (yelling in Dari): >> SMITH: Munisa Mubariz, who used to work as a policy director at the Ministry of Finance, is one of them.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: She says the risks are necessary.
>> (speaking Dari): >> (speaking Pashto): (protesters chanting in Dari) >> These women, these heroes, I would say, who are demonstrating on the street of Kabul, they literally put their lives on the line.
>> Hey, hey, hey, hey!
(car horn honking) >> But not just themselves.
Their families, their loved ones.
(guns firing, people screaming) (gunfire continues, people screaming) This is the most heroic act.
>> SMITH: In December 2022, the Taliban would go even further.
Women would be prohibited from attending university.
Zahra, a name we are using to protect her identity, hoped to one day become a doctor.
She spoke out just months after the Taliban took over.
>> (speaking Dari): (people yelling, protesters chanting in Dari) >> SMITH: Opposing the Taliban, protesters wave the flag of the old U.S.-backed government.
(protesters chanting in Dari) >> The achievements in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, they were not something that the world did for Afghanistan alone.
It was something that Afghans themselves returned from exile to construct.
This had been a very proud nation for most of the 20th century before it was wrecked by outside invasions.
(chanting in Dari) >> This is the most painful aspect of this war.
Nobody believed that the entire thing will fall apart overnight, that all of our gains would be lost away.
(crowd chanting) (people shouting) (shouts, car alarm fading) (crowd chanting "U.S.A.!")
>> SMITH: By 2016, a growing number of Americans had lost patience with the war in Afghanistan.
>> The latest poll said 42% of Americans said the war was a mistake to begin with.
>> SMITH: It was too expensive and no longer in America's best interest.
(crowd cheering, band playing) This was a sentiment that candidate Donald Trump drew upon.
"No more nation-building," he said.
>> Afghanistan is a total and complete disaster.
What are we doing?
We can't even run our own country.
We don't build our schools, we don't build our highways.
Money should be spent in our country.
>> SMITH: Trump was determined to cut a deal, and bring home all remaining U.S. troops.
♪ ♪ He tapped a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to reach out to the Taliban.
>> My overall goal is not to seek a withdrawal agreement, but a peace agreement.
>> SMITH: Now, you were given an, a big assignment here.
>> Because a peace agreement can allow withdrawal.
>> SMITH: All the talks have failed for the last eight years.
>> SMITH: Now the mood of the president, Trump, is that we got to get out.
President Trump, uh, would like to withdraw the forces from Afghanistan.
He thought that it was time to get out.
>> SMITH: To achieve this, Khalilzad began secret negotiations in Doha, Qatar, with Taliban representatives.
The Afghan government wasn't informed until the news leaked.
Is it fair to say that President Ghani was furious?
>> He was furious, absolutely.
>> SMITH: Hamdullah Mohib was President Ashraf Ghani's closest aide and head of the National Security Council.
>> We didn't just feel like we were being cut out.
We felt that our government was being de-legitimized.
The signal was, the Taliban are the key player now, and that is who is coming.
>> The Afghan people have been speaking about peace for a long time.
>> SMITH: In Washington, a newly appointed Afghan ambassador to the U.S. met with President Trump, imploring him to maintain the U.S. commitment to the people of Afghanistan.
>> It was, I believe, January 11, 2019, when I was presenting my credentials to President Trump.
I was obviously nervous, because I had very little time.
The talks had already started in Doha.
The government was excluded.
Taliban were gaining more territory.
So there was an opportunity.
>> SMITH: But you knew that he wanted to see an end to the war.
>> SMITH: That he was anxious... >> Yes.
>> SMITH: ...and eager and impatient for an end to the war.
>> Yes, yes, so what were the options?
To just say, "No, everything is going bad, let's pull out," or try to work on it?
I was a proponent of the negotiations.
I encouraged President Trump to find a way to resolve this.
To resolve this in a way that we do not lose all that we had worked so hard for.
>> SMITH: Rahmani had tried, but Trump was unmoved.
>> Trump was quite indifferent to peace in Afghanistan.
Even more indifferent than the previous presidents.
He didn't care what happened in Afghanistan.
>> We're like policemen-- we're not fighting a war.
If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week.
I just don't want to kill ten million people.
Does that make sense to you?
I don't want to kill... >> What, what he wanted was to get the troops out of there, say he got the troops out of Afghanistan.
>> It would be over in, literally in ten days.
>> And if he could get a photo-op making peace and get the Nobel Prize, just like Obama did, so much the better.
>> SMITH: In a matter of months, with the Afghan government still on the sidelines, U.S. and Taliban representatives agreed on an outline for an eventual peace deal.
Included were proposals for a ceasefire and troop withdrawals, and eventual intra-Afghan talks to hammer out some kind of power-sharing arrangement.
But soon after agreeing, the Taliban introduced new conditions.
>> Not only are the Taliban stubborn, but they start introducing new and outrageous demands.
At a certain point, they say, "Oh, and by the way, "before we'll consider "talking to those illegitimate puppets "that you've installed in Kabul, you got to release 5,000 of our prisoners."
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: President Ghani rejected any massive prisoner release out of hand.
>> President Ghani's reaction was that the prisoners is not something the Americans can give.
These are prisoners in Afghan prisons, not in American prisons.
And the Afghan government should be using this as its own leverage in negotiations with the Taliban, and so the Americans did not have the right to negotiate this on our behalf.
>> SMITH: Despite Ghani's objections, the U.S. pushed ahead.
>> We are back now with an historic agreement between the United States and the Taliban that could bring peace to the region and end America's longest-fought war.
>> SMITH: On February 29, 2020, at a grand ceremony in Doha, the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal.
(crowd cheers and applauds) >> This was one of the strangest scenes you could imagine.
American diplomats in business suits and badges sitting down with the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, which hosted Osama bin Laden before 9/11.
But that is what diplomacy looks like.
>> SMITH: The U.S. agreed to a full withdrawal by May of 2021.
And the Taliban pledged to no longer harbor any foreign terrorist groups, but they would not agree to denounce Al-Qaeda.
The Taliban refused to repudiate Al-Qaeda, to condemn Osama bin Laden.
>> As it is mentioned in the Doha agreement, we will not allow any party, any individual, to use the soil of Afghanistan against other country.
That is our criteria.
So anyone, any party, kills civilians, we are condemning.
>> SMITH: The U.S. also agreed that Ghani would release 5,000 prisoners within two weeks.
>> The terms of the agreement was way more favorable to Taliban.
There is no question.
>> SMITH: So, who's accountable for, for that agreement handing so much power to the Taliban?
>> I, I raised that with Ambassador Khalilzad directly myself.
But he kept insisting all along that the negotiations had four elements, and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
And this was the mantra that was being sang all along.
But then, at the end, that did not materialize.
>> SMITH: The agreement was supposed to lead to a ceasefire that was described as "comprehensive."
But while the U.S. and Taliban agreed not to attack each other, the Taliban did not agree to a ceasefire with Afghan forces.
They're getting a pretty good deal here.
They're not having to put down their weapons.
>> SMITH: The United States is agreeing not to go to war against them.
>> SMITH: We're agreeing to release their prisoners.
>> SMITH: Ghani remained adamantly opposed to the terms of the deal.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: Negotiations for a prisoner release continued.
And so did the war, largely on Taliban terms.
(explosions roaring, person wailing) >> New violence in Afghanistan just days after that landmark truce.
>> During this time when we were negotiating prisoner release, the Taliban were targeting Afghan government officials and killing them, and at the same time, not claiming responsibility.
>> SMITH: At this time, the Taliban were carrying out an average of 55 attacks a day, a spike that had doubled the casualties among Afghan security forces.
>> They are asking us to release prisoners who had been imprisoned because they had killed Afghan civilians or, or government officials.
>> SMITH: In other words, to release them, you would be strengthening the hand of your enemy.
>> The hand of our enemy.
>> SMITH: So you objected.
>> Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has finally relented.
>> SMITH: But under major diplomatic pressure from the U.S., Ghani acquiesced.
>> The president has issued a decree for the conditional release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
>> SMITH: With the release of the prisoners, the Taliban were finally willing to talk to Ghani's representatives.
>> The Afghan government and Taliban met today in Doha, Qatar, for the historic negotiations aimed to form a power-sharing government.
Mike Pompeo was on hand... >> SMITH: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Doha to kick off the intra-Afghan talks.
>> Seize this opportunity.
Protect this process.
Respect each other, be patient.
Remain focused on the mission.
We're prepared to support your negotiations should you ask, but this time is yours.
This time is yours.
I pray that you will seize the moment.
♪ ♪ >> The Afghan government was there, as well as the Taliban.
It was a big ceremony, many ministers were present there.
So it was a significant achievement that for the first time in 40 years, Afghans on the two sides fighting each other met and started negotiations.
>> SMITH: The talks were supposed to get Afghans on both sides to come together and in good faith jointly decide on the future of Afghanistan.
But the talks went nowhere.
>> After a month and a half negotiating, I reached to this conclusion that the Taliban are not believing in a shared future.
They will not accept a political settlement.
They're only looking for a military takeover.
>> SMITH: Nader Nadery was one of President Ghani's top negotiators in those talks.
He says issues like freedom of the press, inclusivity in the government, and women's rights were foremost on his team's agenda.
>> The Taliban played so smartly.
They presented the soft view of the Taliban.
They had said that "we respect women rights 'according to Islam.'"
And then everybody was excited.
"Oh, Taliban have changed, Taliban have changed."
When we were negotiating, we were pressing on them.
"Would a woman be part of the government?"
Never a clear answer, mostly no.
>> SMITH: The Taliban had no real reason to make concessions.
The Americans were leaving in a matter of months and their prisoners were freed.
They already had everything they wanted.
The criticism that's directed at you is that you leaned towards the Taliban, that you... >> No.
>> SMITH: That you were soft on the Taliban.
>> Not at all.
>> SMITH: But that's the criticism.
>> Well, the, I mean, people can say a, a lot of interests have been affected by what we have done.
>> SMITH: You reject the idea that you handed a good deal to the Taliban?
>> Not at all, not at all.
I got a good deal for the United States.
We, we wanted out.
We wanted out, out safely, we got out safely.
>> SMITH: What about the Afghan people that are now living back under the Taliban?
>> Well, I mean, it's, it's clearly a very mixed picture.
On the positive side, 20 years of war has ended.
But I regret that the Afghans didn't reach an agreement.
I regret that very much.
♪ ♪ >> You know what we did was, we got the Taliban to agree to let us do what we wanted to do, which was leave.
We didn't allow our allies at the table to discuss the future of their country.
We signed it without their assent.
We forced them to do something they didn't want to do, which was to release 5,000 detainees from their detention facilities who went right back to fighting.
It's an instrument of surrender, not a peace agreement.
And certainly, it didn't achieve peace in Afghanistan.
>> When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban.
Under his agreement... >> SMITH: When President Joe Biden arrived at the White House, the question loomed-- would he scrap the treaty signed by the Taliban and the Trump administration?
>> After consulting closely with our allies and partners... >> SMITH: Three months into his presidency, Biden announced he would stick to the deal.
>> I've concluded that it's time to end America's longest war.
It's time for American troops to come home.
We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.
We'll do it responsibly.
>> SMITH: To accommodate an orderly withdrawal, Biden moved the date of the pullout from May 1 to September 11.
>> ...20th anniversary of that heinous attack on the United States.
>> There was no legal or even, really, political reason why Joe Biden had to hold to Trump's deal.
The question for him was, if he didn't hold to it, what would the Taliban do, and then what price in blood and expenditure would the United States have to pay in order to go back to war, as it were, with the Taliban?
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: With Biden's withdrawal, the fuse was lit on what would within four months lead to a complete Taliban takeover by August 15.
Any hope of a coalition government was doomed to fail.
It began with rural areas and taking control of highways.
The Taliban quickly seized territory throughout April and May, and by late June, they had captured more than 150 of Afghanistan's 407 districts.
>> As U.S. troops leave, some Afghan security units are collapsing.
The Taliban's propaganda channels show Afghan police and soldiers giving up their bases and their weapons.
>> SMITH: The Taliban seized thousands of weapons and loads of ammunition, and they began closing in on provincial capitals.
>> The Taliban are positioning themselves to try to take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn.
I cannot overstate my concern regarding the present situation.
>> SMITH: Deborah Lyons was head of the U.N.'s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
>> Districts were falling.
Taliban saying they were not gonna take provincial capitals, having made that commitment to the Americans, but it was clear that they were, in fact, moving to take the provincial capitals.
>> SMITH: Meanwhile, in Doha, intra-Afghan talks were continuing.
The Taliban had signaled they would not attack Kabul or even provincial capitals.
But on the ground, they were not complying.
On this and other issues, the talks proved futile.
>> I had a hope that we will at least preserve certain parts of the past and the constitution so we can build upon it for the future.
But I knew that provinces would be lost and we are very disadvantaged.
We didn't have the leverage to negotiate... >> SMITH: Taliban were occupying all sorts of cities.
>> All sorts of cities, and they, they were close to Kabul.
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: Alarmed by the Taliban's rapid advances, President Ghani and National Security Adviser Mohib flew to Washington to ask Biden for reassurance of continued U.S. support.
>> The Afghan nation is an 1861 moment, like President Lincoln, rallying to the defense of the republic.
>> When the meeting took place, President Biden asked what we needed, and the first thing President Ghani asked was, "We need a friend in the White House."
And President Biden said, "You have a friend in the, in the White House."
>> But we're gonna stick with you and we're gonna do our best to see to it you have the tools you need.
>> SMITH: For months, the Pentagon had been reassuring the Afghan army that withdrawal did not mean the end of U.S. engagement and support.
Lieutenant General Sami Sadat commanded Afghanistan's Special Forces.
>> The American forces promised that even without the U.S. combat presence, "We will continue to fund, equip, and logistically support the Afghan army."
This is what we were told.
>> SMITH: But on July 2, 2021, in the dead of night, the U.S. pulled out of Bagram, its largest air base in Afghanistan.
>> The U.S. military, citing security concerns, is not saying when or how U.S. troops are leaving.
Bases are shutting down with hardly a peep.
>> SMITH: Were you informed?
>> We weren't in the discussion.
We knew they were going to evacuate Bagram, but from my understanding, Bagram would be the last place they evacuate, not one of the first places... >> SMITH: So you never received a phone call saying, "We're gonna leave Bagram today"?
>> No, no.
>> At its peak, 100,000 U.S. troops were stationed there.
Bagram was the epicenter of the U.S. and NATO's war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
>> SMITH: Over four presidencies, America and its allies had occupied over 700 bases.
All of them, one by one, were packed up and closed down.
>> A formidable fortress for two decades, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, now looks like a junkyard.
>> U.S. forces say they have destroyed nearly 15,000 pieces of equipment to avoid hardware falling to the Taliban.
>> The Americans pulled out all the support elements, all the contractors.
We were low on ammunition.
We didn't have the laser-guided bombs and missiles, and what does it mean?
Of course, it meant that the Taliban are coming to take over.
(car horn honking) >> SMITH: No one in the Biden administration agreed to an interview about the final days before Afghanistan's collapse.
>> Are you worried that the Afghan government might fall?
I mean, we are hearing about how the Taliban is taking more and more districts.
>> Look, we were in that war for 20 years.
>> SMITH: The same weekend that Bagram air base shut down, President Biden was asked about the stability of the Afghan government in the face of a Taliban surge.
>> I think they have the capacity to be able to sustain the government... >> SMITH: After repeated questions on Afghanistan... (reporters clamoring) >> I want to talk about happy things, man.
>> SMITH: ...Biden was pressed about whether the U.S. should step in and support Afghan forces.
He seemed to suggest that the advancing Taliban was now the Afghan government's problem.
>> But the Afghans are gonna have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have, and which we're helping to maintain.
>> Sir, about Afghanistan... >> I'm going to answer any more, uh, uh, questions on Afghanistan.
Look, it's Fourth of July.
(gun cocks) (people talking in background) >> SMITH: In July, in the Western city of Herat, the government was arming local militias to help Afghan forces fight off the Taliban, who were now closing in on the city center.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: Ismail Khan, a former governor of Herat, is one of Afghanistan's most famous warlords.
He's known as the Lion of Herat.
Khan had helped the Americans defeat the Taliban back in 2001.
>> (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: Now, 20 years later, he recruited thousands of his supporters to defend his country again.
>> MAN (speaking Dari): >> KHAN: (phone chiming) (guns firing in distance) >> MAN: >> KHAN: >> No, never they will control the city.
>> SMITH: Throughout the country, reinforcements and supplies were not showing up.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: And, as the Afghan army and police realized they were on their own, they began abandoning their checkpoints and bases en masse.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> (speaking Dari): >> MAN and MAN: >> The Taliban, they would basically come to the Afghan soldier or policeman who's out in some godforsaken outpost and say, "Hey, look it, we already cut a deal "with the Americans.
Why do you want to fight?"
>> The Taliban have even been handing out pocket money to pay for their transport home.
>> "Here, take 5,000 Afghanis"-- which is enough for a bus ticket-- "go home, and just give up."
The average Afghan soldier knew it was over, so why die for Ghani and the Ghani administration?
>> SMITH: By the end of July, the Taliban had taken 223 districts-- over half the country.
>> Afghanistan is unraveling.
But President Biden remains defiant... >> SMITH: In Washington that month, alarms were going off.
>> A reckless rush for the exit is becoming a global embarrassment.
>> In Afghanistan, the Taliban has made big gains this week.
They're surrounding a number of cities... >> SMITH: But into August, the White House was still hoping that a power-sharing agreement would be hammered out in Doha, and the administration was still insisting that Afghan forces should step up.
>> ...that the Afghan government and the Afghan national defense forces have the training, equipment, and numbers to prevail, and now is the moment for the leadership and the will in the face of the Taliban's aggression and violence.
(people shouting) >> SMITH: On August 8, the first major capital fell-- Kunduz, the same provincial capital the Taliban had seized in 2015.
>> Hundreds of Afghan soldiers under siege at the Kunduz airport reportedly surrendered.
Taliban video purports to show vehicles, weapons, even an attack helicopter now in their hands.
>> Clearly, the security situation is deteriorating.
And just over the last... What, 72 hours, um, uh, roughly five provincial capitals fell to the Taliban.
That's deeply concerning.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: By August 12, 17 out of 34 provincial capitals had fallen, including Afghanistan's second-largest city, Kandahar.
>> The Taliban claimed hundreds of prisoners in Kandahar are free after they overwhelmed the jail holding the insurgents and flung open the gate.
>> SMITH: As Kandahar fell in the south, Afghanistan's third-largest city fell in the west: Herat.
>> Meanwhile, in a massive blow, the Taliban have captured warlord Ismail Khan.
>> SMITH: The Lion of Herat had surrendered.
By mid-August, the Taliban were controlling or contesting over 85% of the country.
(people shouting) Kabul was now in their sights.
The Pentagon was attempting damage control.
>> Kabul is not, right now, in an imminent threat environment.
♪ ♪ But you can see that they are trying to isolate Kabul.
So, it still is a, a moment for the Afghans to, to unite, the, the leadership and in the military.
No outcome has to be inevitable here.
>> Capitals were falling, but there was still this perception the Taliban do not want to take Kabul by force.
Ambassador Khalilzad and other Americans had told us this directly, saying the Taliban had assured them that they don't want to take Kabul by force.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: President Ghani, who had been relatively quiet over the last two turbulent weeks, was also reassuring the residents of Kabul.
>> (speaking Pashto): (speaking Dari): >> SMITH: But across the capital, worry was turning to panic.
(car horns blaring) (people yelling, horns honking) >> It's fascinating to be in a moment of collective panic.
When everyone around you is panicking, not outwardly, but you can feel people's uncertainty, and rising fear, and not knowing what's to come, because no one really knew how this would unfold, how the Taliban would react once they took over Kabul and so forth.
What was in everyone's mind and heart was, "What does this mean to Afghanistan?
What does it mean to the people?"
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: At the presidential palace, Ghani contemplated his fate.
The last president to face a Taliban takeover, in 1996, was castrated, dragged through the streets, and his body hung outside the palace.
>> Interior Ministry says the Taliban has started entering the capital, Kabul, from all sides.
>> We've just been out onto the streets, and I can tell you it's the Taliban driving around town, heavily armed, in pickup trucks and Humvees.
>> SMITH: The Taliban entered Kabul on the morning of August 15, 2021.
>> The Afghan president is currently holding emergency talks with U.S. diplomats.
>> We knew from intelligence that the two factions of the Taliban are competing to take the presidential palace and execute the president.
And our ally, our belief, was not going to protect and defend him.
♪ ♪ >> SMITH: Those who worked for Ghani's government also felt particularly vulnerable.
Munisa Mubariz was on her way to the Ministry of Finance.
>> (speaking Dari): >> Repeatedly, President Biden has urged the Afghan army to fight, but it hasn't... >> We don't actually have a police force at the moment.
I mean, as soldiers withdrew, police officers we know actually got rid of their uniforms and put on civilian clothes.
>> The collapse started.
There is no protective force in Kabul anymore.
The police have abandoned their checkpoints.
When I hear this, that's when I reach the conclusion that this is the time.
The president either leaves alive now or never.
We go to his residence, and I told him that it was time.
And he understood... >> SMITH: What did he say?
>> He asked to go upstairs to collect some of his belongings, and I told him, "No."
I said, "Forget it."
He wanted to go and put on his shoes, and I said, "We will grab your shoes.
You get in the car."
>> SMITH: Ghani and Mohib boarded a helicopter minutes later.
>> President Ashraf Ghani has gone, fleeing to neighboring Uzbekistan.
In a Facebook post, he said he left to avoid bloodshed.
>> The situation is moving so fast, all U.N. staff confined to their compound... >> The Taliban are pulling the, the noose tighter, if you like, around the city.
>> SMITH: Within hours of Ghani's departure, the Taliban had breached the presidential compound.
>> The Taliban were filmed inside the presidential palace.
>> Taliban fighters walking the hallways, declaring the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
>> These are amazing scenes.
>> SMITH: When they reached Ghani's desk, they praised Allah for their victory, reciting from the Quran.
>> (chanting) >> SMITH: Senior Taliban leader Anas Haqqani remembers the day.
>> (speaking Pashto): (men speaking softly) >> SMITH: Across the country, young Taliban foot soldiers would now be in charge.
Surreal scenes of Taliban taking over ornate homes, lounging on gold-plated furniture, were posted online.
>> Afghanistan has new masters.
20 years after their first experiment in power came to a shattering end, the Taliban are back.
>> SMITH: What happened over the next few days would surprise everyone.
>> It's been a bewildering few weeks, but I don't think even the Taliban could've anticipated the pace of events over the last 24 hours.
>> We imagined that this was just a house of cards and it collapsed, and there was little warning.
I actually think the fuse here was lighted about 15 years earlier.
And it, this is the fuse that led to the implosion of the Afghan state.
>> We want to avoid bloodshed and destruction of properties of the people.
>> SMITH: The Taliban initially promised the takeover would be peaceful.
But with confusion and chaos mounting, the Taliban quickly resorted to force.
(guns firing, crowd panicking) (people shouting, firing continues) (car horns honking) >> Right now, the Taliban are bringing hundreds of extra fighters in from neighboring provinces to try to bring security to the streets.
The airport, now overrun, as massive crowds surge onto the tarmac, desperate to get out of the country.
>> SMITH: The Kabul airport was the only area still controlled by U.S. forces, who had begun the messy process of airlifting over 120,000 coalition and Afghan civilians to safety.
(crowd clamoring) >> Young men and women in uniform end up being the hand of God, because they've picked somebody out of the crowd and send them through, they're going to a much better life.
And all the others that are left know that they're condemned to life under the Taliban.
We left many tens of thousands of special immigrant visa applicants and holders, plus their family members.
You know, this is-- we have a moral obligation to individuals who fought on the ground with our soldiers as translators, who shared hardship and, and risk with them-- and we left them.
>> What looks like a disaster movie was all too real.
It's fact, not fiction that these Afghans were so frightened, they were willing to take their chances clinging to a departing American transport plane rather than staying here.
But as a bid for survival, it was doomed.
Several men plunged to their deaths as the jets climbed and U.S. personnel left this fiasco behind them.
♪ ♪ >> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: On the outskirts of Kabul, I met the father of Fada Mohammad, a young dentist who fell to his death on August 16.
How old was he when he died?
>> (speaking Pashto) >> SMITH: 25.
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: Why do you believe he was so desperate to get out that he would try to hang on to the outside of a plane?
>> (speaking Pashto): >> SMITH: I'm very sorry for your loss, but thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk to us.
>> When I saw those kids grabbing onto a, a airplane leaving, I mean, that brought back memories of Vietnam.
I'm old enough to remember.
I was embarrassed.
I was embarrassed.
How we handled the withdrawal, um...
It's an embarrassment to say you're an American.
>> I stand squarely behind my decision.
>> SMITH: As the news coming out of Kabul was getting worse, President Biden, in a defiant speech, placed the blame on Afghanistan.
>> Truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
So what's happened?
Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country.
The Afghan military collapsed, sometime without trying to fight.
If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.
>> That was very disappointing, to hear Joe Biden blame the Afghans.
These guys believed in us, and we let them down.
We failed them.
(people shouting) >> Get off!
(bleep) off, man!
Get the, get the (bleep) off!
Get off now!
>> SMITH: Ten days after Biden's speech, a suicide bomber slipped into the huge crowd gathered outside the airport.
(explosion pounds) >> Details still emerging on this, but there was at least one explosion close to the Abbey Gate entrance to the airport.
Some video being shared online shows piles and piles of dead bodies, so expect those casualty figures to rise, unfortunately.
>> SMITH: Around 170 Afghans and 13 American service members died in the bombing.
>> After the blast, a U.S. drone records the catastrophic aftermath.
>> SMITH: A Taliban rival calling itself ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
>> ...20 pounds of explosives on the bomber.
>> SMITH: The U.S. responded by striking a parked car in Kabul with a drone.
It turned out that ten innocent Afghan civilians were killed.
(sirens blaring, people shouting) >> At least of those people that were killed was a ISIS facilitator.
So, were there others killed?
Yes, there are others killed.
Who they are, we don't know, we'll try to sort through all that.
I don't want to influence the outcome of an investigation, but at this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.
>> The target, a white sedan that had been under U.S. military surveillance for the past eight hours.
It had just driven into the residential compound with father of seven and NGO worker Zemari Ahmadi behind the wheel.
>> SMITH: The strike didn't just kill the father.
Seven children were also dead.
The Pentagon's investigation revealed that no ISIS militants were at the scene.
>> Not only did we kill the wrong person and a bunch of innocent kids, but in the aftermath, in the days that followed, we insisted it was a righteous kill.
And only because we had a free and open media that was in there digging was the military ever even forced to confront the fact that maybe we were wrong.
(people cheering, car horns honking) >> The Taliban has officially declared victory in Afghanistan after all U.S. troops left the country.
>> SMITH: The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, officially ending America's longest war.
Nearly 2,400 American service members died in Afghanistan.
More than 3,900 U.S. contractors also died.
Over 115,000 Afghan fighters from both sides were killed, as were nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians.
♪ ♪ For all the lives and money spent-- over $2 trillion-- Afghanistan has regressed to what it was before America came here in the wake of 9/11.
♪ ♪ It's a pariah state.
The only country in the world where women are denied an education.
A country where most women cannot go to work.
Where there are strict dress codes for both women and men.
Where most music is banned.
Where scores upon scores of independent news outlets have been shuttered.
It's a country where homosexuality can be punishable by death.
(car horns honking) Where a man can be executed and left to hang in the public square.
♪ ♪ Also, the Taliban's ties to Al-Qaeda appear intact.
When a U.S. drone strike took out bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, last July, Zawahiri was living in a house owned by a close aide to the Taliban's powerful minister of the interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani-- a clear violation of the Doha peace agreement they signed.
(motors revving) Virtually no promises made by the Taliban have been kept.
But their leaders insist things are better.
>> (speaking Pashto): (people calling, traffic humming) >> SMITH: By the latest count, over one million Afghans have fled the country.
(traffic humming) Thousands more are trying to escape every day.
(car horns honking, car alarm blaring) The Taliban, a small minority, hold the great majority of Afghans in their grip.
♪ ♪ >> The Afghans failed.
And we failed because of wrong policies of our international partners, because of shortsightedness of our leaders, uh, because we could not build institutions to withstand the times like that.
And we owe it to people to accept that this was, on our part, a catastrophic failure.
And I think it's a catastrophic failure for the U.S., also.
♪ ♪ >> We have a responsibility to understand our role in leading to this tragedy.
And I reject the simple idea-- I think overly simplistic conclusion-- that we could've just stayed indefinitely and avoided this.
♪ ♪ >> War and conflict, death and loss, they're a part of America's story.
All those we honor today gave their lives for their country, but they live forever in our hearts.
Forever proud, forever honorable... >> I was a believer in the mission.
I was, I was a full believer.
There was this idea that we were gonna make something happen.
I thought it was possible.
And I'd met enough Afghans that I really respected, that I saw their dedication to their country and I thought, "Wow.
"We owe it to these guys to give them something better."
>> SMITH: But what do you say to those young American Marines and soldiers who were willing to give their lives, who were fighting... >> Mm-hmm.
>> SMITH: ...in Afghanistan, at great risk... >> Ultimately, what you have to say to the young soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, is, "Thank you for stepping up and believing in America, "but we failed you.
"Your leaders failed you.
"Your military leaders failed you, your political leaders failed you."
And let's not say, "Oh, well, at the end of the day, it was worth it."
It wasn't-- it was not worth it.
We wasted billions upon billions of dollars, thousands of lives, both ours and the Afghans', and we did not achieve what we wanted to achieve.
And let's not pretend otherwise.
>> SMITH: But we did do some good things, did we not?
>> We did.
We did-- we kicked out the Taliban originally, we...
Ran Al-Qaeda out.
But then, in wanting everything, we ultimately got close to nothing.
♪ ♪ >> This is a English book from school.
I should know English, because it's an international language and it can help me become a doctor in the future.
>> SMITH: Secondary schools for girls have remained closed for over a year and a half.
15-year-old Arifa began studying in her living room after the Taliban takeover.
>> (speaking Dari): ♪ ♪ >> Go to pbs.org/frontline >> Hey, hey, hey, hey!
>> For more on the impact of the Taliban's restrictions on women.
>> Nobody believed that the entire thing will fall apart overnight.
>> And the state of the Afghan press under the Taliban.
See all of our reporting on Afghanistan over the years.
Connect with "Frontline" on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and stream anytime on the PBS app, YouTube, or pbs.org/frontline.
♪ ♪ >> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs, visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ "Frontline's" "American and the Taliban" series is available on Amazon Prime Video.