'I'm a Veteran. A Year After We Left Afghanistan, I Can't Forget'

August 2021, Kabul, Afghanistan. My phone beeped with a message on an intel WhatsApp group: "H, that's the U.S. embassy all out and gone."

I was team leader of the Japanese Embassy's security unit and we were now the last non-military group of foreigners in Kabul. Twelve guys surrounded by a city full of Taliban fighters.

"How's it looking at the airport?" I typed.

"It's carnage down here at the moment. You guys good?"

I gave him a thumbs-up emoji, but I was consumed by anxiety. "Carnage" was not a word I'd wanted to hear. What would happen to all the people relying on me?

The airport was our last hope; it simply could not fall. A fellow operative held up his phone. "Just heard that the airport's military side has been breached," he said.

We huddled around his phone, watching people fighting their way through the North Gate and flooding onto the runway. We watched in shocked fascination as a U.S. military plane taxied down the runway, pursued by running men, women and children, and took off with people clinging desperately to the undercarriage. We saw two people fall from a great height to the ground as the plane climbed into the sky. None of us could speak.

Those awful scenes would soon be screened around the clock on TV news and I felt sick knowing that my wife Nicky would see them. I could no longer play down the actual horror we were facing. I dreaded having to update her later. The last thing I wanted was to put her through more pain and worry.

Harley Collins in Afghanistan
Harley Collins in Afghanistan in August 2021, during the extraction from the embassy. Collins left Afghanistan on August 20, 2021, just 10 days before the final withdrawal of the U.S. troops on August 30.

During harrowing nights spent on the rooftop of our security headquarters in Kabul, watching and waiting as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, I had written a farewell note to my wife. At first it was a quickly punched-out text—a rather terse, "I love you, tell the kids I love them, move on," sort of thing.

After a week of not knowing if I would make it, the death letter morphed into a fairly heavily-worded email, so I could fit everything in. I had saved it as a draft. If the Taliban attacked us, I could simply open my phone, hit "send" and it would get to Nicky, hopefully before I was gone. Thankfully, I never had to send that message.

An escalating conflict

I have been to many countries and operated in many war zones in my career as a Royal Marine Commando, and then as a leader of security operatives. But this was the first time I had witnessed the fall of an entire country.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of August, 2021, was fast-paced, chaotic and surreal to witness. Being amongst that chaos tests you in unimaginable ways. You are making life-or-death decisions. The pressure was incredibly intense.

Twenty years before, on our base in England, we had been stunned into silence, hanging on the newsreader's every word as we watched a live feed of flames and smoke billowing from the Twin Towers in New York. It was clear that the attack had been deliberate, but who had done it, and why? All I knew was that whoever had done it would be hunted down by the Americans—and we would be going along for the ride.

H Collins in England
Harley Collins lives in England. He first went to Afghanistan as a Royal Marine Commando in 2002.

In 2002, we were sent to Afghanistan as part of a "spearhead" to drive the Taliban from the country. In my initial role as a Royal Marine Commando, our task was to locate and close in on the remaining Taliban fighters still on the Afghan/Pakistan border.

People in Afghanistan were very suspicious of Western troops. Women would literally run back into their houses when they saw us. The country still bore the scars of the Soviet-era invasion, and pieces of Russian hardware—from tanks to burnt-out fighter jets—littered the sides of the roads and airfields.

My first contact with the Taliban would come within days, but I don't remember feeling nervous. It was more of a giddy excitement. We had the kit, the men, the firepower and the motivation.

Within four-and-a-half months, it was mission accomplished: most of the Taliban had bolted across the border, into Pakistan. We felt we had helped to stabilize Afghanistan. For the moment, anyway.

While I was in Iraq from 2003-2010, the Taliban crept back in and became ingrained in places like Helmand and Jalalabad, and there was heavy fighting.

I returned to Kabul in 2014. The country had changed in the decade I had been away. There were operating universities and a fairly modern capital city. But attacks in the capital had increased, including on hotels and guesthouses that had been considered safe havens. The Taliban also attacked military bases and embassies, in a campaign against the security forces.

Within seven years, history would repeat itself. Only this time, I would be the one running.

Escaping Afghanistan

We finally made it to the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021. Just days previously, it had been a bustling international airport, where we had brought the Japanese diplomats to safety. Now, personal possessions were strewn everywhere and abandoned military equipment was piled in heaps—body armor, operational kit and ballistic helmets there for the taking by victorious Taliban fighters.

I had just finished six days of extractions, aborted extractions, and being surrounded by the Taliban. I had felt every single emotion you can imagine at the highest possible level. Now, I was exhausted.

As the plane controller took my details, I saw a young girl behind him, drawing with crayons. "She was wandering around the airfield," he said, "and we can't find her parents. So she may well have been thrown over the wall."

I could not imagine being so desperate that I would throw my own little girl, Lexi, over an airport wall into the unknown. That abandoned girl shook me to the core, magnifying my sense of failure.

The elation of getting out was once again marred by a sense of shame. I felt we had abandoned the Afghans. Thousands of people had died or been grotesquely maimed in the course of a 20-year war; a country had been ripped apart. Now, we were tucking our tails between our legs and making a run for it. In my heart, I felt this was wrong.

Airbus A400M
The Airbus400M aircraft, which transported Harley Collins and his associates out of Kabul on August 20, 2021.

For our involvement in Afghanistan to come to an abrupt chaotic end like that will always stay with me. I know my brothers and sisters of the armed services and private sector have been deeply affected—not to mention the millions of Afghans who have lost loved ones and their way of life.

I know we could not have stayed forever, but I am certain we could have withdrawn in a more effective manner.

It has now been a year since our withdrawal. I hope that the situation in Afghanistan will improve, but I very much doubt that it will. I cannot see myself, nor Western representatives and forces, returning to the country any time soon.

The above is an adapted extract from Harley Collins' new memoir, Last Team Out of Kabul, which is available to order now.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.