For nearly a year, “Nadia,” who worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been desperately trying to leave, fearful of revenge by the Taliban.
Sunday night, as the insurgent group took control of that war-torn nation, her pleas for help reached a fever pitch.
“Me and my family are in trouble,” she wrote in a WhatsApp message. “The Taliban is very bad people.”
Nadia and others who worked with U.S. forces during the nearly 20 year now-lost war in Afghanistan are seeking a way for they and their families to come to America, the place for which they risked it all. They’ve shared their stories with Military Times, hoping against long odds to be evacuated. Nadia requested anonymity out of fear of retribution by the Taliban.
“Today it was very chaotic and crowded I couldn’t reach [the airport] and besides there is a Taliban checkpoint that checks the people,” Safar Ali Paiam, an interpreter who worked with the Army, told Military Times in an email Monday morning from Kabul. " I decided to go to the airport near the evening.”
Paiam said he’s heard reports that the Taliban started checking homes of people who were government employees or worked with NATO allies. In a tweet, Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin reported that “the Taliban have already started going house to house in Kabul to look for any Afghan Special Forces who fought alongside the US military.”
As the Taliban took over Sunday, raising their flag over the Afghan presidential palace, the Pentagon and State Department announced a ramp up of efforts to evacuate thousands of U.S. personnel, Afghan embassy employees, families and those seeking SIVs.
But as Afghans rush toward the airport, chaos has ensued. media around the world have posted images of desperate Afghans clogging runways and clinging to at least one massive U.S. military cargo jet as it was taxiing for takeoff on the lone runway in the country available for what is turning into a massive effort as the U.S. and allies try to fly thousands of people out in the ensuing days.
Nadia felt a glimmer of hope Sunday night. A group of active-duty service members, who have their own list of former interpreters, Afghan military personnel and others they are trying to get out of the country, provided details about a checkpoint at HKIA where people enter. Hours after getting the information, Nadia messaged Military Times that she had arrived at the airport.
Joe Saboe, a former U.S. Army infantry officer who served in Iraq, is the spokesman for about a dozen individuals who have served in the U.S. military and various government agencies. The group is attempting to find a way out for more than 50 individuals.
“Our group is working on about 51 individuals right now in Afghanistan who are either passport holders, U.S. citizens, U.S. green card holders, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, or people that have partially completed SIV applications,” Saboe told Military Times. “We’ve been in direct communication with everyone on the ground in Kabul for about 48 hours or more now.”
The situation is rapidly deteriorating, Saboe said. He communicates with people on the ground in Kabul through WhatsApp and other secure messaging apps. He told Military Times that U.S. diplomatic staff is no longer at Kabul international airport. As a result, not only are SIVs not being processed, but U.S. citizens aren’t either.
“No one’s processing anyone, so U.S. passport holders are being turned away by American troops on the ground, green card holders are being turned away by American troops on the ground,” Saboe said.
Matt Zeller, who served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, now works with the Association of Wartime Allies, a group seeking to evacuate Afghans that supported U.S. involvement in the country. Zeller, who is also in regular communication with both Americans and Afghans attempting to flee the country, told Military Times that chaos at the airport prevents Americans and Afghans alike from leaving.
“These are American citizens who are showing their passports to the United States Marines, and they’re not being admitted entry,” Zeller told Military Times.
State Department officials declined to answer questions about whether staff remain in Kabul, instead referring all questions to a briefing to follow remarks by President Joe Biden scheduled for this afternoon. Additionally, Saboe and Zeller say they are receiving reports from those they’re attempting to shepherd to safety stating that the Taliban controls the airport perimeter and has been firing on those attempting to find safe passage out of the country.
“The perimeter of the airport is completely controlled by Taliban on all entrances to the airport. Both the civilian side and the military side,” Saboe said. “The Taliban have been firing on all of the family groups that we’re working with. Accurate fire, that’s the pinned them down, in some cases for hours at a time.”
For months The Association of Wartime Allies has been attempting to work with elements of the U.S. government to fly Afghans and their families. Zeller says warnings that the Afghan government could collapse, as it is doing now, were ignored by officials in Washington.
“[Department of] State, DoD, the White House, you name it - we reached out to the whole of government,” Zeller said. “The only people who got back to us were members of Congress who at first said, ‘Well, this is terrifying because this is not what we’re hearing from the Biden people.’ And Congress then started looking into it, and what they learned was, oh my goodness, the advocates are right. That’s exactly what’s transpiring here. There doesn’t seem to be a plan to save these people.”
Saboe explained the unofficial process by which he and other members of his group attempt to help people flee the country. As information is sent from those in Kabul they’re attempting to lead to safety, Saboe’s group identified the best ways to get to the airport and on a flight. This involves mapping out Taliban checkpoints around the airport and keeping tabs on which routes are the most effective. He says the group has been doing this due to the State Department’s seeming inability to do so.
“There’s not any coordination involving [DoS] at this point from what we can see on the ground, and it’s, preventing those who most need [to leave the country] from doing so,” Saboe said. The result of this lack of coordination is panic and a rush of people attempting to flee the country at any cost. As a result, Saboe’s group advises those trying to flee to take their chances sheltering in place.
Fear among those who helped
Speaking to Military Times via his son, who translated the confersation, Afghan Col. Mohammad Noor Qadri expressed fear for his safety. He hopes he can evacuate.
“I locked myself in my house with my family last night we didn’t sleep for all night worrying what will happen,” said Noor, a deputy inspector general for the Afghan military. “There was some gun firing and U.S. helicopter[s] were flying all night. I’m very scared and worried about my life and my children life’s.
“Anything happens no one is responsible and accountable ... I hope everything gets better soon but I’m not sure I know it is difficult . Now I just want to save our life. I don’t know what to say and what to do and where to go.”
For Nadia, the trip to HKIA was not easy. She said she and her family were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint in Kabul and had their car searched, she said.
“I hid my phone,” she said.
Outside the airport, the Taliban were firing off weapons, Nadia said.
She eventually made it inside the airport, but there were no flights available, so she turned around and went home.
“We are scared,” she said, making yet another desperate plea for answers on how to escape a dire fate.
“Don’t know what will happen to us,” she said. “Please sir, give me accurate information.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.