There’s plenty of blame to go around for the 20-year debacle in Afghanistan—enough to fill a library of books. Perhaps the effort to rebuild the country was doomed from the start. But our abandonment of the Afghans who helped us, counted on us, staked their lives on us, is a final, gratuitous shame that we could have avoided. The Biden administration failed to heed the warnings on Afghanistan, failed to act with urgency—and its failure has left tens of thousands of Afghans to a terrible fate. This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden.
Khan, an Afghan interpreter I first wrote about in March, is on the verge of escaping from Afghanistan with his wife and small son. Three clocks are ticking. The first is his wife’s pregnancy. She’s at 34 weeks—two more weeks and she’ll no longer be allowed to board a flight out of Afghanistan. The second clock is the availability of a visa to the United States and an air ticket. After years of waiting, yesterday Khan finally received his Special Immigrant Visa as one among thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. military. By then, amid the general panic of Afghans trying to get out of the country, ticket prices to Europe and the U.S. had doubled, from $800 to $1,600, and seats were going fast. A travel agent told Khan that none were available until the end of August, but yesterday morning, Khan’s pro bono lawyer, Julie Kornfeld of the International Refugee Assistance Project, managed to book him seats on a Turkish Airlines flight on Tuesday.
The third clock is the Taliban. In the past week, every city except Kabul fell to the insurgents. A few days ago, U.S. intelligence sources predicted that Kabul could go as soon as next month. This morning, the Taliban are at the city gates, preparing to enter the capital and seize total power. “I think when they enter Kabul, first they will block the airport, because they do not want us to escape,” Khan told me by phone from Kabul. Just as he seems to have obtained everything he needs to save himself and his family, it might be too late.
In recent days Kabul became the last point of escape for Afghans who fear for their lives under the return of the Taliban. Every provincial capital has fallen to the insurgent offensive; regional airports have closed; roads to Kabul and the borders are being controlled by Taliban checkpoints; government-security forces are in a state of collapse across the country. The U.S. has sent several thousand Marines to assist with the evacuation of embassy personnel, even as those officials deal with the flood of visa applications and entreaties from interpreters and others with American connections. Today, the U.S. government is more focused on saving our own than on saving the Afghans who counted on us. For many of them, time is running out. For some, it already has.
All of this was foreseeable—all of it was foreseen. For months, members of Congress and advocates in refugee, veteran, and human-rights organizations have been urging the Biden administration to evacuate America’s Afghan allies on an emergency basis. For months, dire warnings have appeared in the press. The administration’s answers were never adequate: We’re waiting for Congress to streamline the application process. Half the interpreters we’ve given visas don’t want to leave. We don’t want to panic the Afghan people and cause the government in Kabul to collapse. Evacuation to a U.S. territory like Guam could lead to legal problems, so we’re looking for third-country hosts in the region. Most of the interpreters are in Kabul, and Kabul won’t fall for at least six months.
Some of these answers might have been sincere. All of them were irrelevant, self-deceiving, or flat-out false. While some officials in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House itself pushed quietly for more urgent measures that might have averted catastrophe, Biden resisted—as if he wouldn’t allow Afghanistan to interfere with his priorities, as if he were done with Afghanistan the minute he announced the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. forces. This hardness is perplexing in a president who spent years in the Senate working on behalf of genocide victims and war refugees; who once promised an Afghan schoolgirl that he would make sure the U.S. didn’t abandon her; who cares intensely about the welfare of American troops.
Veterans, with their code of leaving no one behind on the battlefield, have been among the most passionate advocates for Afghan interpreters. A retired officer involved in discussions with high-ranking administration officials told me that the Veterans Administration plans to offer counseling to Afghanistan vets who will experience the trauma of losing their Afghan comrades to beheading by the Taliban. The retired officer struggled to understand Biden’s resistance. “If his son Beau were still alive today, he would be able to communicate to his father in a way that he’d be receptive,” the veteran told me. “I don’t know who else would be able to do that. I’ve literally thought, How do I try to get a message to the first lady? She and Michelle were both very engaged with military families and veteran issues. I thought she could convey the message in a way the president might be receptive.”
In the past month, about 1,200 interpreters and family members have been evacuated on flights from Kabul to Fort Lee, Virginia—but they had already received final visa approval. The U.S. embassy in Kabul began pushing to expedite thousands of remaining applications. But in the absence of any organized evacuation by the U.S. government, Americans in civil-society institutions tried to fill the void and scrambled to save their Afghan associates. Foundations and well-connected donors have been negotiating with countries such as Albania and Qatar to accept charter flights full of Afghan passengers—women’s-rights leaders, human-rights activists, teachers, journalists, administrative staff—on a temporary basis. Journalists are getting desperate calls from former fixers—only to find that the P2 refugee program, created by the administration to resettle Afghans who have worked for American media and nonprofit organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development, exists on paper and nowhere else.
Last month, Bard College and the Open Society University Network sent out a call to Afghan graduates of American programs in Afghanistan and the region. Immediately 120 replies came back. “I had a student this summer who had to miss class because ‘the Taliban surrounded our town.’ She indicated to me her final paper would be late because a bomb blew up her house,” Jonathan Becker, a senior executive at both institutions, told me. “This is a tragedy of epic proportions.” After reading Honorable Exit, Thurston Clarke’s account of efforts by individual Americans to save their Vietnamese allies before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Becker realized how little time was left. In recent days Bard and Open Society have appealed to universities in the region to host Afghan evacuees, and to foundations and board members to pay as much as $400,000 to charter flights out of Afghanistan. “In many cases we have institutions to host them. Colleges, universities, and funders are stepping up,” Becker said. “That is not a problem. The challenge is the time to get people out and get them visas into those countries.”
The chaos produced by the Biden administration’s delays has given an outsize role to sheer randomness, as twists of fate save one Afghan and doom another. Hakim is an interpreter who worked alongside NATO combat units. His first visa application, like those of so many others, was denied on spurious bureaucratic grounds. His second attempt hung in limbo for years as he tried to track down the human-resources department of the military contractor that had employed him and that subsequently went through several changes of ownership and name. This past June, his home district came under Taliban attack. He fled with his wife and three young children to the provincial capital, where he hunkered down while awaiting news from the U.S. “Always I’m thinking about this, how I will support my family, feed my family, feed my kids,” he told me in June. “I do not have money; I’m broke. If I had money I could move my family to Kabul or to India or another country to be there temporarily, and after that I could continue my case.” He grew a beard and mustache, wiped his phone and flash drive, and stored all his vital information on a website. He made himself unidentifiable.
Hakim’s case began to make a little progress. He finally got a reply from the contractor, with the help of a U.S. Army colonel, and the H.R. department confirmed his employment. The next step was for the U.S. embassy in Kabul to verify it. Then, last week, the provincial capital where he was living fell to the Taliban. Insurgents poured into the center of the city. On his way to the bazaar, Hakim saw them rounding up suspected thieves and marking their faces with coal. “This blacking the face—maybe they will cut the hands,” he said. “They will do bad things. They didn’t change. They are the same like 20 years ago. They didn’t change.”
With the airport now closed, Hakim’s only option is to travel overland to Kabul, hundreds of miles away across Taliban territory. Even if he makes it, his application is so far from the finish line that his chances of receiving approval before the last exit closes and the last American flees the country are extremely slim; and Kabul is about to fall. If Hakim’s first attempt at a visa had been judged fairly, he and his family would have a chance to make it out. As it stands, escape is almost impossible. But despite the long odds, he kept urging me to contact someone at the Kabul embassy on his behalf. “Please tell the U.S. embassy, ‘This is the case number of Hakim. He is in a very, very urgent situation. His recommendation letter is confirmed.’ Somehow I will find a way to Kabul. I know the flights are not open, but I will reach by the buses. I will put my life in danger, my family’s life in danger, and will try to reach myself to Kabul in other ways—for example, I will tell a lie, that I am going to Pakistan or other countries to cure myself, that I am sick like this.” Hakim’s voice had grown eerily calm. “Somehow I will find a way for me.”
Khan was among the more fortunate. After several years of effort, his application was further advanced than Hakim’s, and in late July he finally received an appointment for his interview at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. With his home province collapsing under Taliban attacks, he, his wife, and their small son boarded an ambulance taxi—safer than a regular taxi, though more expensive. They had a good cover story—that she needed medical attention for her pregnancy. Khan kept all his documents, the evidence of his years of work for Americans in Afghanistan, hidden under his wife’s burka. He wiped his phone clean—the Taliban are known to check even Google search histories.
On the way to Kabul the ambulance passed two insurgent checkpoints. At the first they were allowed through; at the second they were stopped. Insurgents glanced inside before letting the ambulance continue, but Khan saw them questioning passengers of other vehicles. “The people they were searching, all of them were young, like 20 years to 35 years, all of them their beards were cut, shaved,” he told me. “I think they were searching for people who worked with U.S. forces. They have information at this time most of the people are going to Kabul for interviews, medicals, evacuations. They were searching for modern people.”
Khan and his family made it to Kabul and looked for a place to stay. They kept changing residences out of mistrust of the people around them. A room in central Kabul, near the fortified diplomatic zone, seemed safe; Khan’s new neighbors included refugees from the Taliban offensive around the country. Then, one day, there were two loud explosions nearby, followed by hours of gunfire, as insurgents attacked the house of the defense minister.
The interview with an embassy consular officer on July 29 seemed to go well, but Khan had no idea how long the remaining steps—a medical exam and the issuance of visas—would take. Some Afghans had to wait weeks, even months, for final approval. Khan and his family couldn’t afford to stay in the capital more than a couple of weeks, but going back and forth between Kabul and his home province, with the Taliban conquering more territory every day, was unthinkable.
The family decided to stay in Kabul, and they received some support from the International Refugee Assistance Project. I helped too, sending him $1,000 and contacting the office of Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and Army veteran who has led the effort in Congress to save the Afghan interpreters. Crow’s aides brought Khan’s case and the urgency of his wife’s pregnancy to the attention of their contact at the State Department. And because of bad luck and good luck—because the Taliban had killed his brother-in-law, another interpreter, in January; because the murder had brought Khan to the attention of a few people in the U.S.; because Khan now had a few Americans working on his behalf; because of the breakdown of order in Afghanistan and in the U.S. bureaucracy—things moved very quickly.
The medical exam was completed and the results forwarded to the embassy in record time. Khan was told to look for an email approving the visas. But the email didn’t come. He and his family went back to waiting. In early August, province after province fell to the Taliban. Suddenly the collapse of Kabul seemed imminent. “Most of the people are in panic. If there is any way, no one will stay here,” Khan told me last Friday from his rented room. He had gone to the travel agency and found a scene of pandemonium. He learned that he couldn’t buy air tickets without visas and cash, which he still didn’t have. “If you do not book tickets soon,” the travel agent told Khan, “they will not be available because people are leaving; there is much rush, and also the prices will go up again.”
On Saturday, Khan walked to the U.S. embassy, showed his papers to the guard, and was allowed inside without an appointment. In the consular office—it was open and crowded in spite of the weekend—he was given the family’s passports, stamped with U.S. visas. They had been ready since Wednesday but the embassy had neglected to send Khan an email.
At the travel agency Khan heard that there were no seats left on any flights before August 27. By then his wife would be unable to fly, the government of President Ashraf Ghani would have fled, the Americans would be in full evacuation mode, and Kabul would lie open to the Taliban. But on Saturday morning in the U.S., Julie Kornfeld, the pro bono lawyer who has been advising Khan, found three seats on a Turkish Airlines flight and an organization called Miles4Migrants to pay the cost. Khan and his family were scheduled to leave Afghanistan on Tuesday and arrive in Houston on Thursday. With the U.S. visas and tickets in hand, Khan told me that Saturday, August 14, 2021, was the happiest day of his life. He sent me a video of his 3-year-old son in their rented room, dancing an Afghan dance of celebration.
Today, Sunday, the Taliban are in Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani has reportedly fled to Tajikistan. American officials are burning sensitive documents and evacuating the embassy for the airport. All the Western diplomatic missions are being abandoned. The neighborhood where Khan was renting a room has become dangerous, and he and his family have fled, walking six miles to another hiding place. He needs to find a facility that will administer the COVID-19 tests required by the airlines. He needs to get his family to the airport. He needs two more days.