Washington Post: A convoy to the Kabul airport, hostile Taliban and the faint hope that the gates to escape would swing open.
For those who made it out on the airlift from Kabul, their fate was often determined by a combination of courage, split-second choices and chance.
September 10, 2021
By Greg Jaffe and Griff Witte
A month before the Taliban seized Kabul, a letter appeared on the doorstep of Sara Qaderi’s home in the city. The militants knew she was working for a U.S.-funded research program, the letter stated. It was only a matter of time before they killed her.
Qaderi immediately thought about leaving Afghanistan, but had no place to go.
Now it was Aug. 15 and the government was collapsing. Taliban fighters were streaming into the capital. Qaderi, a 24-year-old agricultural scientist, raced out of her office and into traffic-choked streets; her normal 10-minute commute by car stretched to three panic-filled hours. When she finally reached the safety of her living room, her parents and siblings were already gathered there.
The largest airlift evacuation of civilians in American history was about to begin. By the time it was finished, more than 120,000 people had been spirited to safety in a 17-day operation that President Biden deemed “an extraordinary success.”
But it was also a terrifying, bloody crisis that often overwhelmed the capacity of the U.S. military and diplomatic corps. Instead of an orderly exit, a mad rush for the airport left many behind and others dead in a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans.
In a matter of days, thousands of families were divided, with no immediate prospect of reunion, and a continents-spanning diaspora was born. Lives, such as Qaderi’s, were indelibly altered, their trajectories determined by a rough combination of courage, split-second choices and chance.
As the United States retreated, thousands of Afghans who had assisted its mission in ways large and small over the preceding 20 years were left feeling abandoned and betrayed. A motley collection of volunteer groups emerged to try to fill the void. Driven by a combination of duty, embarrassment and guilt, these veterans, aid workers and average citizens banded together to save as many people as they could before the U.S. military withdrew.
The groups relied on cellphones and ad hoc online networks to communicate directly with Afghans, foreign diplomats and frustrated military officials at the airport. Often, they were the Afghans’ only hope for escape.
Within minutes of Kabul’s fall, people in the city were racing to connect with anyone who might have the email of someone in the United States who could help. Their pleas were the electronic equivalent of a message in a bottle tossed into a sea of desperation. Communications were pouring into the office of Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) by the hundreds, so fast her staff barely had time to read them all.
“I might be raped or forcefully married to a Taliban commander, and I will have no other choice without hanging myself,” read one from a young female deputy minister. “You are my only hope.”
“They may kidnap and kill me and my family,” wrote a father of three.
The possibility of leaving allies behind was infuriating to Slotkin. Before Congress, she had served in the Pentagon and as a CIA analyst in Iraq. She understood how essential local allies were to the American war effort and the dangers they would face after the U.S. withdrawal. She threw herself into the rescue effort, compiling lists of Afghans whom she would personally vouch for in order to get them on planes.
Other pleas came to her office via American intermediaries. “As you are aware, the situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly dangerous and unstable,” began one email from a nurse who had worked with Slotkin to procure protective masks for Michigan hospitals.
The nurse’s neighbor, a grain researcher at Michigan State University overseeing a U.S. Agency for International Development program in Kabul, needed help getting some 70 Afghans out of the country. One was Qaderi, who because she knew someone who knew someone who had the email of someone in Slotkin’s office, now had a slightly better, though still faint, chance of escaping Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
‘This is not going to work’
That chance became tangible on Aug. 18, three days after Kabul’s fall, when Qaderi’s phone pinged with an email from the State Department. She had been approved, the email said, to leave Afghanistan and should report to Camp Sullivan, next to the airport, as soon as possible.
She and her family hurriedly packed small bags and closed the door of their home — perhaps, they thought, for the last time. But as they neared the airport, their hopes of a smooth exit evaporated.
A crowd of thousands mobbed the gates. Taliban fighters cracked whips and smacked people with long rulers. Off in the distance, from within the airport, American troops fired in the air. Taliban guards answered with warning shots of their own. Volley upon volley of tear gas erupted, dispersing the crowd — but only temporarily.
Qaderi decided there was nothing to do but join the masses and start making her way toward the gates. For hours, she and her family rode the wave of humanity as the sun beat down and the dust kicked up. They moved inch by inch, hour by hour, eventually crossing Taliban-controlled checkpoints.
When they got close enough to see American personnel on the other side of the airport gates, they held their documents in the air and called frantically. But they couldn’t be heard above the din. Defeated, they turned back. They didn’t make it back home until Aug. 20.
“For two days, there was no water, no food, no sleep,” she said. “There was hardly any place to stand. How could we sleep? It was only the crush of people.”
Qaderi’s colleague, Ahmad, had been caught in the same chaos with his wife and young children. They, too, had been told to come to the gates but never made it close enough to show the Americans their documents. Ahmad asked that his last name not be used as he feared for the security of relatives he left behind.
At one point, Ahmad became separated from his family as bullets snapped over their heads and people shoved them from all sides. He thought he had lost them for good, before diving back into the crowd to eventually find them.
By the time he got back to his Kabul home, the whole family was traumatized. Ahmad delivered a blunt message to his colleagues in Michigan: “This,” he told them, “is not going to work.” There had to be another way.
‘A long shot’
Reports of Qaderi’s experience made their way to Slotkin in short and frightening text messages. “Can someone help me?” Qaderi had written her Michigan State contact, Kurt Richter, amid the crush. “I think I am going to die.”
Slotkin worried that there was no way out for the Afghans she had promised to help. The White House and State Department were deluged with frantic pleas. “I literally heard from people from all periods of life,” said a senior administration official, who was authorized by the White House to speak on the condition of anonymity. “People I grew up with, people I went to school with … people who were just acquaintances.”
Aid groups, such as the Open Society Foundations, were given numbers for the U.S. military that didn’t ring. Slotkin’s four-star military contacts in the Pentagon took her calls but couldn’t help. An email address that the State Department had set up for lawmakers trying to get Afghans expedited visas and airport passes was turning out to be a black hole.
In Washington, White House and State Department officials described an orderly process that sought to prioritize the evacuation of American citizens and former Afghan interpreters. They described daily videoconferences that included senior officials from more than two dozen U.S. allies and a massive phone-banking effort that placed more than 55,000 calls to American citizens who might still be stuck in Afghanistan.
The on-the-ground reality in Afghanistan was entirely different. The gates would pulse open and the crowds would surge. There were “people with crushing injuries and gunshot wounds,” said Greg Floyd, the top U.S. consular officer at the airport. There was “rioting and gunfire and people throwing children over the gates.”
Floyd and his team fielded calls from generals, lawmakers and other powerful Washingtonians trying to secure help for vulnerable Afghans. But there was little he could do for them. The desperate crowds and Taliban checkpoints, he said, served as “the great equalizer.”
“There were times where we allowed more extended family through simply because it would have been a death sentence to send them back into the crowd,” Floyd said. “It was too dangerous for both us and them.”
A week after Kabul’s fall, Congress was on summer recess and Slotkin was in Denver visiting David Kilcullen, a former Australian military officer who had spent much of the past 20 years advising U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kilcullen had worked to evacuate a handful of at-risk Afghans a few days earlier and had phone numbers for U.S. military officers in Kabul.
After Slotkin had returned to Washington, Kilcullen said he had learned that the Asian University for Women, an independent college in Bangladesh, was putting together an airport convoy for its Afghan graduates who lived in Kabul.
“It’s a long shot, but I might have an option for you,” Kilcullen texted Slotkin. The women’s group offered to let the Afghans Slotkin was helping “piggyback” on their airport push.
Word of the convoy also spread among veterans and aid groups, and by the evening of Aug. 24 in Washington, it had grown to more than 31 vehicles carrying 757 Afghans. Slotkin was personally vouching for 113 Afghans. But she felt a responsibility for the entire group. She ran through all that could go wrong: What if the Afghans couldn’t get through the Taliban checkpoints? What if the Islamic State attacked the buses? What if the U.S. troops at the airport turned them away?
“This is nuts,” she told one of her staffers. “Are we the ones who said we could get all these people in?”
‘A slave of the United States’
Less than a week after their first calamitous attempt, Qaderi and Ahmad were prepared to try again. They had been told to stay up and wait for a signal that it was time to move. At 1 a.m. on Aug. 25, it came via text message: Meet at Shaheed Square, a bustling roundabout near the airport, at 4 a.m.
Once there, they joined hundreds of others who packed onto minibuses, with as many as five people on bench seats normally reserved for two. The buses crept under cover of darkness toward the first Taliban checkpoint.
A U.S. military officer at the airport sent a list of the approved Afghans to an intermediary who passed them to the Taliban. “You should be clear to roll through when and if the log jam clears,” the officer texted Kilcullen as well as a member of Slotkin’s staff and others who were coordinating the buses’ movement through the city.
Rather than let the buses pass, as had been expected, the militants told the drivers to turn back. The buses circled, regrouped and made another approach. Again, the Taliban refused to let them through.
One of the passengers, Neak Mohammad Mohibi, hopped off for a face-to-face appeal. A mild-mannered budget official in the government that had just been toppled, he gave the long-bearded, rifle-toting fighter the password the group had been told to use — Ravi — and flashed the passengers’ entry documents.
“We were invited by our U.S. colleagues,” he pleaded. “We are on the list. So, please, allow us.”
The fighter was unmoved: “You are a slave of the United States,” he spat. “They may take you in there, but you will remain a slave. We will not allow you to leave.”
Through the day and deep into the night, the convoy periodically tested whether that verdict had changed. It never did. All the while, gunshots pierced the air as a despairing crowd of people on foot made their own attempts.
Aboard the buses, passengers placed backpacks along the windows to provide a thin measure of protection against stray bullets. Children crouched at their parents’ feet. Food and water were in short supply. Bathrooms were nonexistent.
For some, it got to be too much. By midnight, a rebellion was brewing as some demanded to be taken home — or at least allowed to leave.
“We have waited for 20 hours,” Ahmad, the team’s leader, calmly replied. “I won’t force you, but I think we should wait for a few more.”
Most agreed. But two colleagues said they couldn’t bear to stay any longer. It was too difficult, too dangerous. They disappeared into the Kabul night.
Don’t give up’
Slotkin’s phone was buzzing with troubling reports that the Afghans were starting to worry that their lives were being put at risk for a mission that was destined to fail.
More of those on the buses were talking about going home. Others wanted to abandon the vehicles and push past the armed Taliban on foot — a tactic that the Americans told them was too dangerous and likely to fail.
“Gunfire is increasing and bullets are falling close,” Nathan Ramia, a U.S. Army veteran who was in contact with the bus drivers, wrote on the encrypted text message chat that Slotkin and others were monitoring.
One Taliban round punched through a bus window.
“Is everyone okay?” Ramia asked the Afghan driver.
“Thank God it didn’t hurt anyone,” he replied.
“This is why you need to stay in the vehicles,” said Ramia, who was trying to reassure the Afghans by sharing messages showing that they were still in regular contact with U.S. military officers at the airport.
Slotkin decided she needed to do something to give the Afghans hope and began typing a message on her phone: “To our Afghan brothers and sisters waiting in buses outside the airport: I want you to know, from me personally, that there are dozens of people who have been working nonstop for nine days to get you out — and that we continue to work minute by minute… You are not alone.”
She grabbed a piece of notebook paper and, using a Sharpie, wrote: “We are fighting for you! Don’t give up!” One of her aides snapped a picture of Slotkin holding the handwritten message as she stood between American and Michigan flags and sent it along with the text message to the Afghans on the buses.
Hours later, Slotkin was sitting outside the Oval Office where the president had invited her to watch as he signed a bipartisan bill that she and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) had sponsored to help veterans get service dogs. Slotkin took a quick glance at her phone for texts from Kabul, dropped it into a lead box and headed in to see Biden.
As a CIA analyst, Slotkin had written and delivered the president’s daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office. As a senior Pentagon official, she’d worked closely with then-Vice President Biden on Iraq policy and traveled with him to Baghdad. She knew she couldn’t ask Biden to help her get the buses into the airport. She didn’t expect him to fix her problem.
But she wanted to make sure he understood on an operational and human level the perilous journey Afghans were making to the airport and the fear they were experiencing as they sat in the dark at Taliban checkpoints.
“Sir, I literally have people sitting outside the gates in Afghanistan right now,” she told the president. “They need a safe, predictable and understandable route in.”
Slotkin and Sherrill pressed Biden to expand the U.S. security bubble around the airport and to push the deadline for the U.S. withdrawal beyond Aug. 31.
Biden empathized with the plight of the Afghans but also was deeply worried about the threat to U.S. forces. He wasn’t going to put American troops at greater risk in service of a war that had already gone on too long. The meeting ended after about 40 minutes. Slotkin left the White House understanding that time was running out on the airlift and that the threat of a terrorist attack was growing more dire by the hour.
‘I am crying now’
The Taliban guards were refusing passage through their checkpoints at the south gate, so the U.S. military officers proposed the Afghans try another entrance. At 4 a.m. in Kabul, the buses churned through the streets to a sealed gate on the north side of the airport away from most Taliban checkpoints. Along the way, they picked up the two colleagues who had earlier lost their nerve. This would be the last attempt, and they wanted to be on board for it.
The drivers had been instructed to turn off their headlights as they approached, so as not to tip the Taliban off that the designated gate — which was supposed to stay shut — was briefly swinging open.
The first several buses, moving through darkness, made it into the airport without incident. But as the convoy snaked its way through, gunfire erupted. Everyone on board dove for cover as the air came alive with bullets. A crowd of people nearby who were not part of the convoy surged forward on foot, threatening to breach the gate. The Americans slammed it shut, dividing the convoy between the 20 vehicles that made it in and 10 others left on the outside, filled with Afghans losing hope.
Some of the buses would get in 48 hours later. Others never made it. Those left behind included the Afghan family of a U.S. soldier, as well as two former U.S. military interpreters and their wives and children.
“Sir I am crying now but I cannot show my face to my family otherwise they will start crying with me,” one of the interpreters texted Ramia, the U.S. Army veteran who had been helping to guide the convoy. “Why is that sir? Why is that dear sir?”
‘The hardest part’
To those who had made it, piercing the airport’s perimeter felt like a deliverance.
“You crossed a border,” said Ahmad. “Before you were at risk. And now you were not.”
But that sense of security was short-lived. Within the airport, sirens periodically sounded, warning of incoming fire. The line to record biometric data — an essential step before departing — had become a scrum of thousands, with people fainting from the congestion and heat.
Then, as the sun dipped low late that afternoon, the entire building shook. A suicide bomber had detonated at one of the gates. In an instant, the airport became a blur of motion, with U.S. service members rushing toward the blast and coming back carrying the mangled bodies of their comrades.
The troops at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate, where the bomb detonated, had been especially vulnerable. In combat, soldiers and Marines are told to stay at least five yards apart. But the Marines at the gate knew they couldn’t prevent the crowds from breaking through unless the troops were bunched together.
For nearly two weeks they had held their ground as Afghans, including women and children, pleaded in broken English for entry. “That was the hardest part,” said a Marine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “You lost your humanity over there.”
‘No strength left’
A few minutes after the gates slammed shut, Slotkin received a text that 547 Afghans from the convoy had made it inside the airfield. She still had to find a country to accept the 113 she was vouching for. They weren’t eligible to come to the United States until their visas were formally approved — a process that could take as long as 12 to 14 months.
More than a dozen countries had offered to take the refugees while they were in limbo. The list included Uganda, Kosovo, Colombia, Rwanda, Uzbekistan and Albania. Slotkin and U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim in Albania had worked together years earlier on Iraq policy. And so it was arranged with the authorities in Tirana that 113 Afghans refugees would start their new lives in Albania, a country that many of them had never heard of.
Slotkin and retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was vouching for 43 additional refugees in the convoy, drafted a joint letter to the Albanian foreign minister. “We can assure you that they will be a credit to your nation, as they have been to the one they have been forced to flee, and to ours,” they wrote. Spirit of America, a charity formed after 9/11 to support U.S. troops and diplomats overseas, agreed to cover the Afghans’ room and board in Albania.
Most of the Afghans from the convoy had not slept for three nights. As a chilly dawn broke on Aug. 27, Ahmad surveyed his colleagues and concluded they could not hang on for a fourth.
“There is no strength left,” he told his contact in Michigan.
Late that afternoon, when Ahmad saw the gleaming charter plane that would ferry him and his family from Afghanistan, he deemed it “the most beautiful thing in my life.”
Before they could board, the passengers were informed that the security rules had changed. They had been told they could bring one small bag. Now they learned that no bags were allowed. They would have to start over with only the clothes on their backs and whatever small items they could hold in their hands.
Family mementos were discarded alongside toiletries. Shoes and baby bottles fell away.
Qaderi considered the unimaginably filthy clothes she had been wearing through days of torment but still decided to dump the ones she had packed to change into when she escaped. Her laptop had years of thesis research on it. That’s what was important. That’s what she would carry with her to start her new life.
As the plane lifted off into the darkening sky, no one cheered.
Ahmad looked out at the lights of Kabul and could think only of loss. The city that was home. The relatives still on the ground. Everything built in the past 20 years, fast receding.