Four years after her first trip into a relatively stable Afghanistan, reporter Hollie McKay found herself being escorted north to the Uzbek border — by the Taliban.
The veteran Australian American journalist, who spent more than a decade covering foreign affairs for Fox News and has numerous stints reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq under her belt, had recently returned to the “graveyard of empires” with her Australian photographer, Jake Simkin. The two were there to document the transition between U.S. presence and U.S. absence after 20 years of involvement in the country.
McKay planned to spend three to four months there during the final stretch of the U.S. drawdown based in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city.
“We just wanted to first of all document that twilight period of the U.S. as it leaves Afghanistan, and then what happens after in the aftermath and sort of what we predicted to be the struggle for the Afghan government to stay on its own two feet,” McKay told the Washington Examiner. “We had no idea that it would be crumbled before the U.S. had even left.”
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Mazar, as McKay reported, hosted a significant presence of Afghan National and Special Security Forces before it fell into Taliban hands on Aug. 14 — the day before Kabul did the same. Much like the capital city, Mazar was taken by the Taliban without a significant firefight.
“The only gunfire I heard was pretty much celebratory gunfire,” McKay said.
The days and hours leading up to that moment were uncharacteristic or, at the very least, unexpected considering the circumstances, according to McKay.
“I heard no air support. There was nothing. There was no airplanes, there was no bombing, there was no helicopter in the sky,” she said. “It just happened so quickly.”
McKay and Simkin were out at dinner during the city’s final free moments when they noticed it was “ghostly quiet” in the streets and realized things weren’t right.
“Just as we were hurrying back, I saw the motorcycles come in, and that was the Taliban,” she said. “And so, before we knew it, you know, we were lucky that we were sheltered in the hotel. We were able to lock the bomb-proof of doors and things, but we’re looking down on it, and it was just swarming with the Taliban.”
Hollie McKay reporting from Afghanistan. (Jake Simkin)
“We just realized that we were pretty stuck,” she added.
McKay spent that afternoon speaking with Afghan security officials who, like top officials in the Biden administration, anticipated a much longer timeline.
“They all swore to me black and blue that it was not going to fall, and if it was going to fall, it was going to take several weeks,” she said.
Mazar’s fate, according to McKay, had a lot to do with a negotiated surrender, much like those reported across the country that helped deliver Afghan territory into Taliban control.
Reporter Hollie McKay being escorted by Taliban fighters to the Uzbek border. (Jake Simkin)
“Little did everybody know that [Mazar] had already been sold out by one of the commanders who had kind of deal with [the Taliban], I’m sure for a good amount of money, and then was able to flee the country before anyone knew,” she said.
McKay and Simkin made their way to the border of Uzbekistan, about 65 miles from Mazar, but not before meeting with Taliban elders to secure permission to leave the country. The Uzbek Consulate helped secure a Taliban escort to bring them through the group’s various checkpoints between Mazar and the border.
“The elders were trying to spin a bit of PR to me that they weren’t the same Taliban anymore, and they respected the human rights and all this kind of stuff,” said McKay, who interviewed Taliban members along the way. “But I think it was fairly clear, as I was probing him, that what they wanted was a very stringent version of Sharia, and that definitely meant a woman was relegated to the home and covered in a burqa if she ever stepped out.”
McKay said she was not particularly fearful of interacting with the Taliban, pointing to the various points of negotiation between them and the United States as indications the group faces significant stakes if it mistreats civilians.
“I wouldn’t say that I was fearing for my life at all. I think that I’d spoken to enough people and collected enough information that made me feel confident that the Taliban was not interested in harming a woman or a foreigner,” said McKay, continuing it was her impression the Taliban sought to avoid becoming an “international pariah” as they would by attacking foreigners.
“I think I was more curious than anything, curious in the sense that I wanted to understand how they act and how they behaved,” she said. “If I was that fearful, I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going down that route.”
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For now, McKay and Simkin remain in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. They plan to stay in the region to continue reporting on the Afghanistan fallout as evacuations of Americans and others continue ahead of President Joe Biden’s Tuesday withdrawal deadline.
“The Afghan people deserve their story to be told,” she said. “And I don’t think there should be a media blackout.”
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Tags: News, Afghanistan, Taliban, Middle East, Media, Journalism, Uzbekistan, National Security, Foreign Policy
Original Author: Jeremy Beaman
Original Location: Reporter reveals how she ended up being escorted by Taliban out of Afghanistan