On August 26, 2021, American and NATO troops were in the final stages of evacuating Afghanistan after twenty years of war. Thousands of Afghan civilians—many of them allies to the West—had packed together outside the last open gate to Kabul’s airport in hopes of fleeing the country as the Taliban took control. At 5:36 p.m., only minutes before U.S. Marines prepared to shut Abbey Gate, a suicide bomber stepped forward and detonated himself. In an instant, 13 American service members and more than 160 Afghans were killed—one of the highest death tolls since the war had begun in 2001.
It was a horrific end to a horrific war that had cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. In many ways, it symbolized all that had gone wrong—poor planning, haphazard intelligence and unmitigated violence. Many media organizations covered the disaster, some from the U.S., others from Afghanistan. But ProPublica wanted to go deeper. We wanted to hold accountable those who had planned the evacuation at Abbey Gate. We wanted to show how it affected both American troops and desperate Afghan civilians on both sides of the conflict. We wanted to trace the disaster from the highest levels of the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department to ordinary Afghan families seeking escape.
Alive in Afghanistan, a small media organization dedicated to covering the daily lives of Afghans, approached ProPublica to join forces. Reporters Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien from ProPublica; reporters Brian J. Conley, Mohammad J. Alizada, Samira Nuhzat, Mirzahussain Sadid and Abdul Ahad Poya from AiA; and Lynzy Billing, a freelancer, spent three months meticulously reporting. They interviewed U.S. Marines, many of whom spoke out for the first time about the chaos and confusion of the mission. They talked with Afghan families who had lost loved ones in the blast. And they obtained more than 2,000 pages of documents from Afghan and U.S. sources, scooping major media organizations in revealing the findings of the Pentagon’s own investigation.
The team produced a 10,000-word tour de force of investigative reporting. Photos and video displayed the power of the blast in both physical and emotional terms. Maps carefully detailed the improvised and dangerous route for evacuees as well as the likely path of the bomber. The narrative reconstruction offered startling conclusions. Marines described a complete lack of preparation for the mission, leaving them to act with life or death powers over which Afghans were allowed entry to the airport. By Aug. 26, military leaders were all but certain terrorists would attack that day, but critical intelligence never made it to the frontlines. Senior U.S. military officials left unguarded a back route to the gate—likely used by the suicide bomber. Several Afghan doctors insisted that at least some of the dead were killed by gunfire, possibly by NATO or US troops. The piece was written in a driving style that held readers’ attention to the end.