Film Review: “Retrograde” — America’s Tragic Withdrawal from Afghanistan

By David D’Arcy

Retrograde, directed by Matthew Heineman.

Now, more than a year after Kabul fell, Afghanistan, where a conflict media-branded as “America’s longest war” waged for 20 years, barely makes the news.

Matthew Heineman’s documentary Retrograde watches Afghanistan fall to the Taliban in 2021, mostly through the eyes of one man, a young Afghan general commanding troops in Helmand province, left to fend for themselves once the White House ordered American forces to leave.

It’s not a happy ending and, as this film reminds us, it’s far from over. The anguish in this gripping story is the gradual recognition of an inevitable defeat that spreads faster than Covid, ensuring the loss of a country to religious zealots who’ve sworn to crush everything they hate about the modern world. And they’re in power.

Retrograde is now in theaters, after playing on opening night of the DOC NYC festival in New York, just after Election Day — is that a coincidence?

It’s just in time for the Taliban’s announcement that they will be enforcing strict observance of sharia Islamic law. Women are now banned from parks, gyms, and public baths. So much for what some described as a kinder, gentler, modern Taliban eager to build bridges internationally.

Heineman, whose project began as an embed with US troops, knows the belly of the beast. In his documentary First Wave (2021), he was as close to patients in the early days of Covid in New York City hospitals as the doctors were. In Mexico, where he filmed Cartel Land (2015), the gunfights on the streets were unscripted, uncontrolled, and deadly.

By the standards of those two films, if danger and immediacy are standards, Retrograde is restrained, although using the term restrained to describe the early stages of an offensive that seized control of Afghanistan (as compliant American forces decamped or stood aside) is an understatement.

We start at the frenzied airport in Kabul, lurching around now-familiar scenes of chaos and panic, with Americans firing warning shots to keep the Afghans whom they had been defending for the previous 20 years from running toward airplanes.

The images on the screen are as paradoxical as the US’s policy toward Afghanistan. American soldiers, who arrived as liberators from the Taliban, or so the official line went, acted like an occupying force at the airport as panicked families from the local population surged toward them, standing knee-deep in raw sewage in a ditch separating them from the troops behind barbed wire.

A scene from Retrograde. Photo: National Geographic

But the occupying troops weren’t really occupiers, at least not by then. When we see them, they’re attempting to manage their own stampede out of the country, threatening to shoot anyone who dares to cross the sewage ditch, contradicting decades of well-meaning American rhetoric and billions upon billions of dollars.

The desperation in Kabul in August 2021 bookends this film, most of which takes us to stark Helmand province, where a dozen or so Green Berets, all bearded and out of uniform, talk more like social workers than killers. They’re helping a garrison of Afghan troops track Taliban and prevent terrorist attacks. “We have the same DNA,” one of the Americans tells Heineman. The local commander is General Sami Sadat, earnest, understated, and well-liked by his soldiers and by the Green Berets. It all seemed to be working, until it wasn’t.

One sequence, which highlights the landscape seen from above, hints at a problem. The base, set out in tidy rectilinear streets with mountains in the distant background, looks like it could be in Colorado or Utah. Over 20 years, Americans learned again and again that the cultures of Afghanistan were a different territory.

Still, with US advisers and supplies, the place was safe. Then comes word that the US, after talking about withdrawing, is finally doing just that. Before you can say “we don’t do nation-building,” they’re gone, taking their ammunition and computers. Piles of supplies literally burn up in clouds of smoke. The goodbyes are heartfelt, but the Americans go quickly.

Heineman, one of three cinematographers on the film, has an eye for images that catch the frenzied exit after 20 years. In one unforgettable scene, a soldier is tasked with smashing computer screens to splinters with a massive sledgehammer. So much for modernizing Afghanistan. As a Taliban leader put it to a US officer early in the war, “You have all the clocks but we have all the time.”

From there, Retrograde moves uneasily into a mood of dread, as Sadat and his men sense the inevitable Taliban advance. What we first see of the Taliban is on drone monitors. At that point, the Afghan forces can still target them. Then supplies get scarce. The helicopters headed to resupply outposts have to turn back for lack of fuel. Training of new recruits is curtailed because of the lack of bullets. The Green Berets were forbidden to leave ammunition for “partners,” Army-speak for the Afghan army.

Eventually Sadat, for his own security, is taken to the leafy residence of the local political governor in the Helmand capital city of Lashkar Gah, where he paces the small compound, as the sounds of gunfire at night get louder and closer.

Morale among the soldiers drops when there’s less to fight with and the wounded pile in by the dozens, some of them moaning and screaming. Grim faces tell us as much as the dialogue does. Sadat’s troops are sure to come under siege and they know it. Even in Helmand province, where the horizons seem to go on forever, the safety that came with vast distances disappears.

We only see battles from the air in Helmand — while they still have helicopters, that is — although we do hear gunfire. We also don’t see General Sadat leave Helmand, although he later tells Heineman that he discussed resistance with the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, who appointed him head of security in the city. Ghani fled the country before those discussions amounted to anything.

Sadat ended up in the UK, where he is now. The Americans wouldn’t help him, he notes, pledging to fight in the resistance against the Taliban.

Now, more than a year after Kabul fell, Afghanistan, where a conflict media-branded as “America’s longest war” waged for 20 years, barely makes the news.

Retrograde revisits a small part of the end of that sad chapter, in which all roads eventually led to the frenzied chaos that Heineman films at the Kabul airport. Those of us old enough to remember the end of the Vietnam War (for Americans) will see familiar images of people fighting to escape, as Americans and Afghans, allies until that point, throw punches at each other in the hope of getting seats on a plane.

In light of what we had seen decades before, the scramble for escape was tragic, but not unexpected. At the Kabul airport the faces of those turned away speak with despairing eloquence. Heineman had already seen the same chilling fear on the faces of Sami Sadat’s soldiers. They knew what they were fleeing.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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