I kept wanting to scream out loud as I read George Packer’s piece, “The Betrayal,” in The Atlantic, about our recent military pull-out from Afghanistan. The most accurate way to describe my response would be visceral, both for what was included, but also for what remains to be revealed about the catastrophically mismanaged U.S. withdrawal last August. I recommend everyone read this important piece in full. But as vivid as Packer’s description of last August’s catastrophe is, and as damning as so many of his revelations are — the sheer scale of the terror and violence that Afghans fleeing for their lives experienced is almost too much for words.
Many of us who spent sleepless nights last August (and many months since) desperately trying to help our Afghan friends and colleagues will find Packer’s article triggering in how accurately the stories he tells are in recounting the chaos, brutality, and heartbreak surrounding Kabul International Airport. He also captures how it felt for us to be hunkered down in our living rooms and home offices, where we set up our makeshift command posts — and it did feel like we’d somehow transported ourselves back to our former bases in Afghanistan. Only we weren’t managing troops in contact — we were sending civilians, often families with young children, into horrific chaos and violence in an attempt to get them away from the Taliban who were actively hunting down and murdering Afghans who were in any way affiliated with the massive U.S. nation-building effort over the past 20 years.
But I didn’t need Packer’s article to tell me what I already knew: the White House didn’t care whether Afghanistan collapsed or who would suffer as the result. It may seem shocking at first to read Packer quote President Biden explicitly saying he felt “no responsibility” to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans we’ve worked so closely with over two decades. But there has simply been no other possible explanation for what we saw through the eyes of our Afghan friends in August.
Shortly after the collapse of Kabul, I gathered up a small group of people over WhatsApp and other text and email relays: one of my former soldiers, my former interpreter who is now a U.S. citizen, a civilian who had helped with educating Afghans when they were children. We did all we could to get our Afghan friends and family away from the invading Taliban and onto flights, tapping into military and veteran networks, and looking for any public information on getting Afghans inside the gates of Kabul International Airport. My U.S.-based former interpreter, who I’ll call Del, had family members with visa applications pending with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and they were living under Taliban threat for their connection to Del and to their work for U.S. forces. Del’s cousin, who had worked as an interpreter at the airport until the Taliban takeover, asked for our help to get him inside the gates and onto a flight.
Del told me that as a U.S. citizen he could bring his father to the United States on a family reunification visa, and his father had gone through the entire visa process, just short of having an in-person interview at the embassy in Kabul. But the pandemic had put interviews on hold and the embassy wasn’t granting virtual interviews or expediting processing, despite the certainty that U.S. troops would soon be gone. Del’s cousin and other family members who’d worked for U.S. troops and agencies had filed their applications for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), the program that promised to help interpreters and others who provided critical services to the U.S. government gain entry to the United States if they met basic requirements to verify their service and have U.S. officials vouch for their loyalty and good character.
Del had spent years working through the SIV process and is one of the 18,000 or so success stories, and he has earned his U.S. citizenship. Back in August, he told me that he felt guilty, even though he’d sent remittances back home to help support his family, they had received countless threats over the years because he and other family members had served with U.S. forces, and he was now an American. As of a 2019 review of the SIV program, more than 18,000 SIV applications were still backlogged due to a troubled and inefficient system.
My other interpreter, who I’ll call Yousef, had been denied years before despite a stack of glowing recommendation letters from military officers, supervisors, and others who had been fortunate enough to work with him. He had suffered Taliban attacks and a string of personal tragedies stemming from his misfortune with his SIV denial. I’d been in touch with him about it for more than a decade, and it has always weighed heavily on my conscience that I haven’t been able to do more for him.
Yousef has a wife and five young children. He told me in August the Taliban will finish him off if he stayed in Afghanistan. I was determined to help him get out. Each of us as veterans and active duty service members — perhaps thousands of us — had individual stories connecting us with each Afghan we were helping.
These were the people we trusted, who enabled us to survive and function in a war zone — who many of us feel are completely equal to us as veterans. There is nothing any American could have ever succeeded in or survived without the dedicated work of our interpreters. I received medals and commendations for my service in Afghanistan, while Yousef has only suffered for his tremendous work and dedication. It has always been painful and tragic to know this.
My former soldier Chris wanted his two interpreters out — one of whom had alerted Chris’s unit to a planned Taliban attack against their base during his deployment. Angela was in touch with Afghan college students whom she had worked with and sponsored in an educational program for orphans based in Kabul. One was full-term pregnant, her husband a former investigator who had arrested a corrupt official who the Taliban had since sprung from prison and put into their new government. Another of Angela’s kids was a college student in Kabul. The Taliban had taken over his dorm and killed some of the security guards who had protected them. They all were terrified.
My group got what information we could through networks of military members and veterans telling us which gates were taking Afghans for processing to get on flights. We had people inside the airport telling us our friends were on their lists to get in at certain gates. We told these Afghans everything we knew and sent them to the gates where they faced hundreds, and later thousands of people also clamored to get in.
Gunmen blocked access to the gates. Del’s brother sent me an audio message describing the scene, shouting over continuous machine gun fire. When one of Angela’s young Afghan students pushed his way up to the front of the crowd, an armed Afghan struck him in the face with a stick. We had a U.S. State Department official telling us our friends were on an access list. Del’s brother told me over the gunfire,“the guy at the gate is telling me there is no list.”
Our friends saw U.S. and British soldiers up on top of the walls of the various gates, which were miles apart in some places. Packer describes the violence, death, and chaos troops witnessed from atop their gates. But all around the gates were armed Afghan men, who at first we believed were Afghan army or police working with U.S. troops — the “good guys” were there, we thought. But the guys beating down our friends and spraying gunfire into the crowd we soon realized were Taliban. They had hemmed up all of Kabul with checkpoints, where they rifled through Afghans’ paperwork and scrolled through cell phones looking for any trace of contact with U.S. forces or westerners. We directed our friends away from the Taliban checkpoints, but when we told them to go up to the gates, we soon realized we were sending them straight into the Taliban. U.S. forces had given the newly arrived Taliban free rein of the outside of the airport, making them the official gatekeepers for those attempting to flee their brutality.
Our friends were fleeing the Taliban — but still having to pass through the Taliban to win freedom.
We would get word from people inside the gates that our friends could get in — only to have the Taliban shut them out time and time again. Angela’s pregnant student nearly fainted from the stress and crush of the crowd. Yousef’s 8-year-old son was trampled and had to be taken to a hospital for head trauma. Yousef told me Taliban were whipping and beating elderly women and children, and that in all his years he had never seen such brutality with his own eyes. People were holding up screaming children, shouting, “Whose child is this?” Children left without parents. Children trampled to death in mobs being terrorized and shot at by Taliban “guards.” These scenes weren’t at all inevitable — they were the direct result of the Taliban being given control of the gates and outer perimeter of the airport who prevented Afghans — especially those with SIVs — from getting through.
Families were risking their lives — and the lives of their children — in desperate attempts to escape the Taliban, while the White House waved away criticism that they had no coherent plan to evacuate our Afghan allies, or even U.S. citizens, saying the State Department would “ensure safe passage for any American, Afghan partner or foreign national who wants to leave Afghanistan.” Even six months on, this is still a complete lie.
Packer’s piece shows the viewpoint of troops, and a handful of Afghans experiencing the crowd outside. But the article only begins to touch on what was happening. I remember messaging with Del’s brother, who told me that he held his young son in his arms all day because he’d seen a child trampled to death the day before. Yousef, his wife, and young children were within sight of the horrific suicide bombing outside of Abbey Gate. I learned about the bombing when he messaged me just moments after it happened: “suicide bombing, bodies everywhere.” It seemed that hell was empty — and the United States had handed the airport to the devils unleashed upon the city.
Even early on it felt like getting Afghans into the airport would be like threading the world’s tiniest needle. Might it be better to work with other countries? I spent hours on overnight phone calls with a retired British special forces operator, concocting an elaborate story for Yousef to convince the Brits at one of the gates that he’d been embedded with their elite forces. (This wasn’t true). We got so far as having Yousef draw symbols from their unit patch on the back of one of his ID documents to wave and get the attention of the British paratroopers guarding the airport wall. Before he could get up to the gate with his improvised sign, Taliban gunfire had escalated and the Brits closed the gate and pulled back their troops.
Each attempt to get our friends in met with devastating defeat. As our Afghan allies fought to survive the crowds, I was sending messages and emails to contacts in Canada, the U.K., and even NATO headquarters, detailing the specific terror each family faced and that the U.S. was offering them no way of escaping. As a veteran of the United States military, I was begging other countries to save the Afghan partners that my own country was leaving behind.
I called and emailed State Department contacts. I messaged military contacts. I emailed legislators. I contacted people within the government whom I knew. I even had a media staffer from the White House call me to ask me to shoot a video where I explain how important interpreters were to our mission in Afghanistan to help Americans understand how important it is to resettle the incoming evacuees, she said. I explained to her the interpreters who I’d personally served with were still trapped in Afghanistan and begged for her help to get them into the airport.
“I just make videos,” she said.
“I am begging you, these people’s lives are in danger. Can you walk into the hallway and ask someone else in the White House to help my friends?” I said.
“I can’t do that,” she told me.
By that time, I was in touch with dozens of Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban – interpreters and their families; former Afghan military who had been forced by their commanders to leave their posts; former officials of the democratic Afghan government; telecom workers ousted when Taliban took over their offices; college kids who grew up in U.S. funded schools; journalists, judges, police. I asked them to email this White House staffer, so they sent her emails pleading for their lives and their family’s lives, as the Taliban had promised retribution against all of them. I don’t know what she ever did with these desperate pleas.
Packer writes about how the VA increased their suicide hotline resources for veterans as the crisis at the airport unfolded, with so many of our allies being left behind. I remember getting the email about the VA providing additional mental health resources. As a longtime veterans advocate, I know how important mental health resources are, and that the VA has the broadest reach by far when it comes to the veteran community. But in the midst of this chaos, it felt like such a kick in the face. It felt like my government would rather offer me therapy than any solutions whatsoever to keep me from witnessing these Afghan souls suffer and die at the hands of the Taliban.
There is no “what-went-right-with-the-evacuation” story that can atone for the thousands upon thousands left behind when the last military planes flew out on August 31st. At one point, Yousef sent me photos he took of planes flying out of Kabul and asked me, “Who is on these flights?” None of the Afghans my group was working with were getting out. I talked with other veterans who couldn’t get anyone through either. We kept hearing the priority were U.S. citizens and “green card” permanent residents of the U.S. Were all of the flights filled to the brim with citizens and green card holders? Who were the Taliban letting in? Anecdotally, it seemed to be an evacuation of the well-connected, or the simply lucky. Most of our interpreters didn’t seem to fit into either category. It comes as no surprise to see Packer confirm that 90% of SIV applicants were left behind.
Yousef’s heartbreaking experience being denied access to the airport mirrors the 10 years he spent getting shut out of the SIV process. He was employed by Mission Essential Personnel when I worked with him in 2010. MEP was the largest U.S.-based contracting firm that hired and managed local Afghan interpreters who worked for U.S. forces. I managed a handful of interpreters, which meant filling out their weekly timesheets and other miscellaneous paperwork, then turning it into the MEP office on my base. It wasn’t a nice experience; the men there weren’t friendly, and seemed deeply invested in their conversations with each other, surfing the internet, eating hearty helpings from the base dining facility, and, I assumed, raking in their sizable, tax-free paychecks. They made bigoted comments and treated their Afghan workforce like they were prisoners instead of locals who were risking their lives to support our mission.
I worked with Yousef during my entire nine-month deployment, and he was an outstanding interpreter and absolutely essential to my unit’s ability to work with our counterparts in the Afghan army. He wore the same uniform to work every day as I did, and he was thoroughly reliable, and always brought his best to the job. He even called me on his day off to check on me when he heard something bad had happened on our base. He was one of us. The MEP staff didn’t seem to know or care much about the Afghans they employed on our behalf. At that time, the rule for applying for an SIV was two years of service with U.S. forces.
A few months after my deployment ended and I was back home in New York, I got an email from one of the soldiers who had taken over my unit’s mission: Yousef had been fired for “security reasons.” He knew I had kept in touch with Yousef and told me I should break contact with him. It was absurd to me — Yousef had been attacked (and injured) by Taliban fighters before I’d even met him, and he was helping in his spare time to set up an education program for teenage girls to learn English in the town outside our base. Yousef was doing more to oppose the Taliban than most U.S. troops ever did. It made no sense. I would later find out that he’d come to work one day just a few days before his two-year work anniversary with MEP, when they told him to pack it up; he was promptly fired and escorted off the base. Yousef was deeply invested in and proud of his work — for the soldiers he worked with, for his family, for his country. The men who spent their months lollygagging in the MEP office had apparently decided it was time to fire him. And they falsely marked his termination as being for “security reasons,” effectively blacklisting him from any future employment for U.S. forces, or for any future application for an SIV.
Over my three tours in Afghanistan, I can count several more interpreters I’ve known personally who have been hung out to dry by false reports from contractors like MEP than I can those who’ve successfully made it to the U.S. on an SIV. No number of glowing recommendations from military officials could ever counter these contractors’ negative evaluations of an interpreter. In talking with other veterans who keep running into the same snags with their interpreters, it seems that MEP has told more lies about our Afghan Allies than the Taliban. The wrongs done to loyal Afghan interpreters by these unaccountable contractors is a long-standing, systemic betrayal.
But the problems with SIV processing over these last several years have been numerous and widespread — ultimately the U.S. system for processing visas for Afghans, whether SIVs or the “Priority 1” (“P1”) and “Priority 2” (“P2”) visa referrals that were supposedly opened up for the most at-risk Afghans, has mostly collapsed under the weight of so many thousands of Afghans trying desperately to flee a life-or-death scenario by any means necessary. Fewer than 1% of P1/P2 referrals have been processed thus far.
Last I was advised by an attorney I’m working with, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) has only been able to process requests and applications that came in near the end of August — which is to say that USCIS has not increased its capacity to read emails or handle any paperwork within six months of receiving it. This is a deliberate, calculated bureaucratic delay of programs that were designed to spare Afghan allies who faced immediate threats to themselves and their families’ lives.
In August, the United States opened up Humanitarian Parole (HP) applications for Afghans still inside Afghanistan — this is a visa status that could otherwise only be processed once an Afghan had left the country. The fee for each application is $575, which applies to each and every family member, including young children. Del, on the advice of an immigration attorney he trusts, applied for HP visas for each of his family members who have received death threats. The fees alone for his family members to apply totaled to over $25,000, not including attorneys’ fees. I helped with crowd-funding some of this amount from my friends network so they could get the applications in as quickly as possible. But, come to find out these many months later — USCIS is barely even processing any HP applications. Somewhere around 40,000 HP applications went into USCIS, but as of mid-January, only 145 were “conditionally approved.” Del has received no word about his family’s application that cost a small fortune. They wait in terror. And there is no word about whether the application fee would be refunded if USCIS ever admits that they simply aren’t going to process the remaining HP applications.
SIV applicants are getting some responses from USCIS, albeit slowly. And they aren’t typically informative responses either. Interpreters are in hiding from Taliban raids but are getting email replies saying their applications fail to show sufficient time in service — when they clearly do — or that their American references aren’t responding to the emails or phone numbers listed in the recommendation letters they’d written long ago. Others are receiving outright denials. The messages say they’re from “U.S. Embassy Kabul,” which doesn’t exist anymore, and with this deeply gaslighting and meaningless empty wording:
Our commitment to the people of Afghanistan is enduring. We will continue to press for an orderly transition of power to an inclusive government, especially [for] women and minorities, with broad support. We will use every diplomatic, economic, political, and assistance tool at our disposal to ensure the Taliban honors its commitments to uphold the basic rights of all Afghans and supports continued humanitarian access to the country.
Packer sums up the phenomenon in a statement from one of his U.S. government sources: “BUREAUCRACY IS KILLING MORE PEOPLE THAN THE TALIBAN.”
But perhaps even worse to me than this deliberate bureaucratic delay and incompetence is the outright abandonment of the former Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police forces. Since 2001, more than 66,000 Afghan military and police members were killed in combat — representing about one in five individuals who wore their nation’s uniform to defend a democratic Afghanistan. I literally do not give one single shit about whatever theorizing Western commentators or politicians have offered on “why Afghanistan fell so fast.” The Afghan soldiers I knew were incredibly brave patriots who I was proud to know and serve alongside. Yousef told me about Afghan soldiers in Kabul walking through his neighborhood in tears, saying how devastated they were when they were disbanded by whatever came down from above. They all wept together for their country. For President Biden or others to claim these forces failed to fight for their country erases the abandonment of this administration and the profound risks and sacrifices they made over two decades. Demanding that they commit suicide in the face of a U.S. -endorsed Taliban takeover is beyond inhuman, yet we’ve heard this myth repeated over and over as our friends and former colleagues have lost the country they so bravely fought for.
I still get daily pleas for help from former Afghan security forces. Just today I read through a file from an Afghan National Police commander. He and his family were recently shot at by the Taliban, who left multiple bullet holes in the car they were riding in. They are hiding in terror right now. This commander sent me all of his certificates of appreciation from U.S. and NATO forces, proclaiming partnership and loyalty. He sent me the letters his advisors sent to USCIS in August, pleading for action to evacuate him and his family. His U.S. advisor described this commander’s loyalty to his nation and to U.S. interests, and continued:
We have a moral obligation to return his loyalty and to keep faith with [this police commander] by protecting him and his family from the immediate threat of death.
Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of these letters were sent to USCIS in August, pleading to save our allies’ lives. The U.S. has effectively turned over brave heroes who fought for unity and democracy to terrorists and then left. Our pledge to them that we stood “shona ba shona” — shoulder to shoulder — with them has been shown to have been a lie.
I am just one among countless thousands who have remained connected to our Afghan friends, family, and former colleagues in Afghanistan. Veterans and active-duty military have been working and continue to work fervently, day and night, sending what money we can to support our friends amid a complete economic collapse in Afghanistan, and to do whatever we can to get them to safety. Afghan Americans support family members and friends who are under threat, as nonprofit and media organizations work to save their former staff and humanitarian networks work despite U.S. government bureaucracy and blockage to move as many Afghans to safety as possible while nonprofit groups and philanthropists fund and arrange flights and escape routes. I am endlessly grateful to those who have been able to continue the 24/7 work we began last August, organizing into coalitions and working to get what information they can from a performatively concerned, yet stubbornly immovable U.S. government.
Thanks to a philanthropic effort — wholly separate from veterans or the U.S. government — Yousef and several of his family members were able to get to safety in a third country in November. Those weeks of hiding were harrowing and filled with terror and heartbreak. I’m glad they are out of Afghanistan, but they remain in legal limbo, with USCIS still worthlessly unresponsive. I am working in my spare time to write pleas to foreign governments and nonprofits, begging them to take in this loyal Afghan ally and his family because my own government has failed to honor that loyalty.
The numbers of Afghan allies still left behind and in danger remain vast. Unlike USCIS, I manage to check my messages every day. I get emails, texts, direct messages, and phone calls from Afghans pleading for their lives, sending me large files packed with commendations and recommendations and thank you letters from U.S. forces, telling me their children are starving, that they are in hiding, that many have been killed. Some even demand to know why we have abandoned them. Why I have abandoned them. Why must their families starve while mine is fed? Why must they live in terror while I live in safety? These messages don’t’ get easier to take in. And I don’t accept the U.S. government’s de facto response of delaying, denying, and waiting for them to die. Do you?
Kristen L. Rouse is a U.S. Army veteran who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. She is the founder of NYC Veterans Alliance and serves on the Board of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
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