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A U.S. Marine's view at the Kabul airport when the Taliban took over

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At this time a year ago, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Richardella was in Kuwait. He is a Marine, the commanding officer for a battalion landing team, a kind of on-call crisis response force for the region. And at this time a year ago, the crisis that was looking more and more imminent was the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.

CHRIS RICHARDELLA: We'd been preparing for about a month at this point in Kuwait. We'd been talking about it, analyzing it every single day, rehearsing what we thought might happen and what we were going to do in training.

KELLY: Then, as Richardella puts it, the bell rang. Orders came. He and his battalion got on a military transport plane, flew to Kabul and got to work.

RICHARDELLA: What we really need to figure out was if we were directed to start evacuating people, what gates we were going to choose, what entry points on to the base and really kind of setting up the logistics that would make the most sense for the flow of a large amount of people.

KELLY: That was August 13, 2021. Two days later, Kabul fell. Richardella was one of the officers in charge of security for Kabul Airport. We're going to spend these next few minutes hearing what that was like. Richardella told me about the precise moment when it became very clear things were not going to plan.

RICHARDELLA: I'll never forget this moment for as long as I live. And that was the night of the 15. During the day, at different gates, more and more people started coming up. We were not formally ready for evacuation operations. I was in command of a thousand Marines, and all thousand were supposed to be there to set conditions, to establish security and be prepared. I only had 150 at that point. And things started to become pretty tough. People were coming to the gate. They were panicked. And we started to receive plenty of sniper fire at some of these gates. People were getting injured. We dealt with that as we're trained to do.

KELLY: What does dealing with that mean? Does that mean firing back? Does that mean getting people to safety? What does it mean?

RICHARDELLA: Yes, it means firing back and providing enough safety to protect the people that we're there to help and support the allies that we were providing security with. That evening, I walk into the Joint Operations Center. And right away, I see people talking about how the ambassador or the chief of mission has closed down the mission there.

KELLY: At the embassy, yeah.

RICHARDELLA: Yes. Yes, ma'am. That the government has fallen. The president has left. I was unaware, as I was out on the line the entire day. And at that moment, I look up at the myriad of screens, and one camera was picking up on the southern portion of the base. What we didn't know is that all the Afghan security forces left. So there was a huge hole in security for the southern portion of the base where the civilian terminal was.

And all you saw were thousands of people running through the gates and onto the base. Our job was going to be to keep the airfield open. If there were people on that airfield, we would have to close. And we would not have support, nor would we have an exit. So in that moment, I looked at a few of my people. And we just locked and loaded, put our kits on and just ran out.

Of course, it was at night. It was pitch black, and we had no idea what we were going to face. And as we ran onto that airfield, there they were, about 3,000 to 5,000 panicked civilians right there on our doorstep, surrounding the one to two C-17s that were actually there, what they saw as their beacon of freedom.

KELLY: So let me just pause you for a second. You're describing a situation. You have 150 people under your command. You should have more. But you have to keep the airport open so they can arrive. And with those 150 people, you're trying to figure out, what do we do with these thousands of people who are frantically pouring into the airport? And we don't know if - who these people are - Afghans, Americans, whoever, good guys, bad guys, any of it. We're just trying to hold the line.

RICHARDELLA: That was it, ma'am. You know, there's no textbook on that right there. So we just figured it out as we went. And so what we did was just get shoulder to shoulder - I would say we made up about 300 people total - and just start pushing the people back to the other side of the airstrip, corral them there, then start spreading our message that we will get them out. That turned into 2 1/2 days of a constant, bitter struggle back and forth. As 5,000 grew to 10,000, panic increased. Taliban continue to shoot at us and start hurting people.

KELLY: From the outside, for those of us trying to follow what's going on, this is when we're seeing the pictures starting to stream in of people who are desperate, running after planes, holding on to planes as they're trying to take off. They're that desperate. What are the orders you're giving? You're in charge.

RICHARDELLA: Hold the line. Keep the airfield open. Protect these people. Those are the orders I'm giving. The people saw what we were doing. They saw that we were trying to stop the guys that were firing at us, that were firing through them, the crowd that is. People had nowhere else to go. And it just created riots and absolute panic and chaos.

KELLY: I want to bring in one other voice and let you respond to it, just to enlarge on quite how quickly the situation was changing. Last week, I interviewed General Frank McKenzie, the then commander of CENTCOM, and asked him about August 15 and the day that Kabul fell. He told me on that day he had flown to Doha, which is where the Taliban leadership was. He had warned them not to interfere with the U.S. withdrawal.

FRANK MCKENZIE: When I was going out to Doha, the plan was to try to get the Taliban to stop at a perimeter, maybe 15 or 20 kilometers outside the city, a ring around it. We wanted them to not come any closer until we pulled our forces out. Well, by the time I got there, they were already in downtown Kabul, so that plan was no longer operative.

KELLY: So a sense there of how quickly things were changing. Colonel Richardella, from where you sat, did it feel like things flipped suddenly over those days, from the Taliban is the enemy, we're fighting them, to hang on, we're going to have to coordinate with the Taliban if we're going to secure this airport and try to get whoever we can get out, out?

RICHARDELLA: Yeah, that really came as a shock to me. You know, I questioned that initially. When I received that guidance, I said, you know, we've had multiple engagements and killed a bunch of them at this point. And they're still shooting at us. And I was told, yes, but we're partnering with them now. They're kind of going to do security from outside the base, and we're going to do the inner security portion of the base.

You know, the people were still very scared of the Taliban, and it certainly didn't make our jobs very easy once we formally opened for processing operations to begin the evacuation. At the various gates that we had, the press of humanity of 5,000-plus people pushing against a single gate, and they see us take one, two, three people in and they just want to bum rush, claw, punch, kick any way they can to try and get on to the base.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Lieutenant Colonel Chris Richardella, one of the officers in charge of security at Kabul Airport when that city fell to the Taliban. Tomorrow on the program, we continue our conversation, with Richardella describing what happened in the hours and days that followed, as families desperate to evacuate massed at the gates that his troops were trying to protect.

RICHARDELLA: This is what you're dealing with, was this just absolute crisis of humanity and looking in these people's eyes and them looking at you as their only way out because they truly believed they were going to die. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Karen Zamora
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.