In July, 2001, Zarmina Faqeer, a sixteen-year-old Afghan refugee living in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, learned that the BBC radio soap opera “New House, New Life” was seeking an actress for one of its lead roles. Faqeer, who was compact and scrappy, had little interest in fame. “It wasn’t about the glamour,” she told me recently. “It was the salary.” Her family had fled Afghanistan on foot in 1985, when she was six months old, during the Soviet occupation; her father, a wheat farmer, carried her over the snowy Hindu Kush mountains to safety. He found work in Peshawar as a security guard, and his wife had five more children. He died in 1995, and the family moved into a single room in the children’s school. Now, six years later, Faqeer had got a job as a middle-school teacher to support her family, earning about five dollars a month. An actress, she thought, had to make more than that.
On the day of the BBC’s open auditions, she took a bus across town. Eight women and girls sat waiting to try out, all of them poised and evidently experienced. Faqeer read her lines, but kept shrinking away from the microphone, and the director threatened to kick her out unless she stopped moving. Afterward, Faqeer cried as she walked back to the bus stop, cursing herself for wasting rupees on the fare. She didn’t have a mobile phone, so she’d given the director the number of the school’s crackly landline. A couple of weeks later, the principal summoned her to his office: the BBC was on the phone, and said she’d got the part.
Faqeer was offered a salary of a hundred dollars a month, and, that August, she started recording the show. Her character, Ghotai, was a struggling mother who’d recently returned to Afghanistan from Iran and was trying to start a small business to help her family, defying her father-in-law, who thought women shouldn’t work. “New House, New Life”—which became the most popular radio program in Afghanistan, with seven million listeners—was a well-meaning soap opera. Its story lines paired secret love affairs with messages encouraging women’s empowerment and participation in vaccination campaigns. “Everyone listened,” Faqeer told me. “Even the Taliban listened. They had nothing else to do.” Fans often wrote in to congratulate characters on their successes or to offer condolences when favorites died. “People thought our characters were real,” Faqeer said. “They believed that we lived in a village, and asked to visit.” Faqeer used the money to enroll in English-language and computer-literacy courses. She rented her family a house, paid her siblings’ school fees, purchased their first TV, and bought matching purple outfits for herself and her sister, Mina, who was twelve. “I loved those suits,” Mina told me. “They were a sign that our lives were getting better.”
In October, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The streets of Peshawar grew choked with donkey carts and refugees arriving from across the border. But the fall of the Taliban opened new possibilities in Afghanistan. The BBC studio, which had moved from Kabul to Peshawar during the Taliban’s rise, returned the next year; a few years later, Faqeer moved her family back, too. She helped Mina get a part on “New House, New Life” as a young girl fighting with her father for the right to go to school. “My sister convinced me that I had to be brave,” Mina told me. Faqeer knew that, in their home village, in the rural province of Kunduz, there were questions about how she was supporting her family. When their cousins came to visit, the sisters kept their roles on the radio a secret. They attempted to ignore how the visitors eyed the quality of their carpets and their heaping trays of rice and meat. “Men in the village were in a tough situation,” Faqeer said. “Maybe I was doing something wrong to be making that money.”
“Something wrong” was a euphemism for working with the Americans. Billions of dollars in foreign-aid money were pouring into Afghanistan to promote “democracy-building” and other U.S. projects. Young women in Kabul could make hundreds of U.S. dollars a day from an array of new civil-society jobs; the city seemed to be thronged with trendy Kabulis hopping into Toyota Corollas and blaring Bollywood music. Under the surface, though, resentments simmered. U.S. soldiers launched night raids on family homes; air strikes mistakenly struck weddings, killing civilians. “Everyone thought bad things about the women who were working in N.G.O.s,” Faqeer said.
In 2005, Faqeer took a side job translating for Torrie Cobb, a police officer from Little Rock, Arkansas, who was training Afghan policewomen. Cobb was struck by Faqeer’s enthusiasm. “She was so excited to be part of a new movement in her country,” Cobb said. The job paid four hundred and fifty dollars a month, but it was dangerous. The U.S. compound where they worked was frequently attacked by suicide bombers, who also targeted the buses that the employees rode to work. “Every day, I got on that bus thinking I would die,” Faqeer told me. Once, she witnessed a bombing that left the body of a young guard entangled in power lines. Faqeer’s co-workers encouraged her to join the Afghan police, but she politely declined. She overheard Afghans talking about the women who enlisted. “They were saying they were having sex with their commanders,” she told me.
Faqeer attended fancy lunches with colleagues and shopped at high-priced boutiques. “It feels so good when you’re independent,” she said. She ignored the men who jostled her in the street. One afternoon, in 2005, when she took Mina and one of their brothers to the bank, she noticed a group of men in white following them. She pulled her siblings along, then ducked inside the bank. She tried to hide her fear, but Mina knew what was happening. “If my sister was under threat, we all were,” she told me. Faqeer called a colleague at the radio station, who sent a car to bring her to work, and she bundled her siblings out the back door, telling them to go straight home. That evening, the men were gone. She put the incident out of her mind.
Sometimes men claiming to be Taliban called in to a talk show she had begun hosting for the BBC. They threatened her and others, saying that it was against Islamic law for women to be on the radio. But often, she said, they ended up telling her how much they loved the talk show, or her voice. She learned to end the discussions by asking if they had a song request, and they usually did. “Not everyone was as hard line as the leaders,” she told me. Eventually, a distant cousin recognized her on the radio, and told another cousin that he was going to kill her. She travelled to the village to confront him, shaming him for his “sinister plots,” and he seemed to back down. “I didn’t think anything could harm me,” she said.
To its allies, America has often proved a dangerous friend. Shifting foreign-policy objectives have frequently led the U.S. to abandon the civilian populations it previously vowed to protect. Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, traced this pattern to the early Cold War, when the United States promised to support civilians who rose up against the Soviet Union. In 1956, Polish and Hungarian dissidents took to the streets. The U.S.—which had indicated that it would back them, but feared starting a war—left them to face Soviet tanks on their own. After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, in the seventies, an estimated one million suspected collaborators were sent to prison camps. In 2011, when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, local civilians who had worked with the military were still living on its bases for their protection. “We had clients who were escorted to the gates and no one even got them a taxi,” Becca Heller, the executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me. “Then they faced a multiyear wait for a U.S. Special Immigrant Visa with nowhere to hide.”
The pattern repeated itself in Afghanistan. In 1979, when the Soviets invaded the country, the U.S. supported the mujahideen rebels and funnelled millions of dollars to civilians displaced by the war. But, after the Soviet Union withdrew, the money stopped, and the country faced famine and mass migration. Helena Malikyar, a political analyst and a former Afghan Ambassador to Italy, told me, “The U.S. abandoned Afghanistan once it thought it had achieved its goals.” In the resulting chaos, the Taliban—founded by former mujahideen—rose to power. When the U.S. invaded, in 2001, it relied on Afghans to work as interpreters, police officers, and military personnel. It promised protection in return, but its visa programs moved slowly, and some locals faced retribution. In 2013, when American troops began to withdraw from the town of Sangin, the Taliban launched a campaign of reprisals, killing hundreds of Afghan police officers and soldiers. Heller told me, “We say, ‘Come work with us. We know it’s risky and puts a target on your back, but we got you.’ In fact, we don’t got you.”
I met Faqeer, in Kabul, in 2012, when I was collaborating with Seamus Murphy, a photographer and filmmaker, on a project for Poetry magazine inspired by the work of Sayd Majrouh, an Afghan intellectual. Majrouh had travelled to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation to collect poems by women, which he published in a book called “Songs of Love and War,” a searing record of women’s voices raised against the constraints of their private lives and the pressures of perpetual war. Murphy and I wanted to do the same for women living through the American invasion. We travelled around Afghanistan collecting folk poems called landays, which are traditionally narrated from a woman’s perspective and offered in song. One begins, “When sisters sit together they always praise their brothers / When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.” In our travels, we noticed how decades of occupation had seeped into the country’s poetry. Women sang of falling in love with British, Russian, and American soldiers, and then being betrayed by them. They recited poetry about drones—in Pashto, bipilot—and described Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, whose clothes were “made of dollars.” In a poem that was popular on Facebook, an aggrieved woman says to her lover, “My darling, you are just like America! / You are guilty. I apologize.”
I worked with female translators and fixers and grew used to high levels of intimacy. I visited their fathers to vouch for their safety, and slept next to them on floors, or in locked cars, when we were on the front line surrounded by soldiers and there was no other way to protect their honor. When I first arrived in Afghanistan to collect poems, I worked with a translator named Asma Safi, who followed strict purdah, refusing to sit near Murphy in a vehicle and wearing black gloves to cover her hands. As we grew closer, she explained that her choice of clothing was an armor of sorts: a way to display a set of conservative values that made other Afghans leave her alone. One night, Safi confided that she had a heart condition and needed to undergo surgery that wasn’t available in Afghanistan and that cost tens of thousands of dollars. She didn’t ask for my help, and I rationalized that it wasn’t my responsibility to raise the money; we were colleagues. Six months later, Safi’s heart stopped, and she died in a taxi on her way to the hospital.
Soon afterward, I began working with Faqeer. She was lighthearted and relentlessly chatty; during long drives, Murphy took to leaning his head out of the car window in a futile search for silence. She spent hours at the Deh Afghanan market, in Kabul, sifting through piles of gold nose rings and necklaces. I feared that, when the Americans were gone, and she lost her steady flow of cash, she would regret her shopping sprees. Outside the capital, walking through muddy warrens, she seemed out of place wearing makeup and high heels. She teased that my running shoes hardly helped me blend in. I was pregnant at the time, and Faqeer taught me to say “Zma mashoom halek day,” which means, in Pashto, “I’m having a boy.” This caused jubilation among the women, but in places where sonograms were unknown, some furtively asked Faqeer if I was a witch.
Among groups of rural women, Faqeer sometimes whispered, “I’m Ghotai, from ‘New House, New Life,’ ” and even those who’d been reluctant to speak to us would freak out and offer us cushions and tea. Many had sons who’d died fighting with the Taliban, and their poems reflected their rage at the U.S. But they also chafed at the strictures of their families, which they said precluded them from taking small jobs that would have helped them support their children. In the afternoons, Faqeer and I translated poems over bowls of green tea and dried mulberries. I could read as much Pashto as a five-year-old, and she made fun of how I puzzled the sounds out aloud. She invited me over to her house for dinner, where I met Mina, her pale-eyed little sister, who was then twenty-three. Mina seemed to regard Faqeer as a parent as much as a sister, and Faqeer bossed her around in a tender way, insisting that she practice her English. “Hello, how are you?” Mina asked, giggling.
In the weeks after I left Afghanistan, Faqeer, sensing that she was being followed again, dressed more conservatively. But one morning, in July of 2013, the Taliban posted a letter on her gate, on letterhead from “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” “We have been following you for the last eight years that you have been working with the Americans,” the letter began. It cited her work with me: “Because you have been seen with an American woman . . . now you will see the punishment for your actions.” She had been sentenced to death. “We are informing you that, if you are seen outside your house, you will be killed, according to Islamic law. You will not be excused anymore.”
Faqeer called me in a panic. To keep her family from worrying, she told no one else about the letter. “I could tell that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” Mina said. The quickest way out of Afghanistan was to go on hajj, and Faqeer had always wanted to make the pilgrimage. While she was in Saudi Arabia, I paced around my studio apartment in New York City, fretting over the nature of my responsibility to her. News organizations have protocols for protecting local journalists and fixers; Poetry magazine did not. I contacted friends at the Committee to Protect Journalists, and we scraped together enough money to send her to India and help her start a new life with one of her brothers, who was studying in Pune. She left dressed as a bride, wearing the gold she’d been quietly buying for years in anticipation of this moment. The bangles and necklaces that I had judged frivolous proved to be just the opposite: they were her mobile bank.
Faqeer hated India; she couldn’t find a job and feared that, without her salary, her family would slip back into poverty. Within a few months, without telling me, she had gone back to Kabul to live with Mina, who was now married, and who eventually had three sons and a daughter. Faqeer hid inside and cared for her sister’s children. On the Internet, she met a man named Nazir, and he soon sent his mother to ask for her hand. “I clicked on his face because he looked nice and I didn’t think he’d hurt me,” she told me. “I didn’t realize I was clicking on the rest of my life.” She got married and moved to his home town, Mazar-i-Sharif, where she knew no one and where she hoped no one knew her. She found a job with the United Nations, and applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, which allowed Afghan nationals who had done work for U.S. interests to come to this country. The process was lengthy, and, after Donald Trump was elected President, and enacted his Muslim ban, I was concerned that she wouldn’t be allowed in. But in the spring of 2017 Faqeer, her husband, and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter were granted visas. They arrived in Richmond, Virginia, that May, and Faqeer adapted so effortlessly that the International Rescue Committee hired her to help others do the same. Nazir got a job as a data analyst at a pharmaceutical company. They saved their money and bought a house in the suburbs.
Even so, when we met in Washington, D.C., at Thanksgiving, 2017, she looked drawn and anxious. She worried about her siblings and her mother back in Kabul. Mina still worked as an actress on “New House, New Life,” and was also running U.S.-funded education programs for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Her husband, Zahir, managed interpreters for a U.S. military contractor. Mina had been followed home many nights by strangers in cars, and she and Zahir had applied for S.I.V.s.
In February, 2020, when the Trump Administration struck a peace deal with the Taliban called the Doha agreement, Faqeer despaired. The deal, negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government, called for the complete withdrawal of nato forces the following year. Mina’s final interview at the U.S. Embassy was scheduled for August 31, 2021, and she hoped that, when Joe Biden took office, he would delay the withdrawal to insure Afghans like her a safe way out of the country. Instead, he set a withdrawal deadline of September 11th. “Biden was every Afghan’s hope,” Faqeer wrote to me. “I am sure all Afghan American citizens voted for him, but he did worse than Trump. I am sorry to say this :(.” On August 13th, she wrote, “We are so depressed no one counts afghans as humans their blood is even not valuable than water.”
The speed of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan startled even seasoned observers. In the months before the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban had been negotiating agreements with provincial governors, who surrendered their forces. “It was like watching a Category 5 hurricane approaching, but the sky’s still blue,” Ioannis Koskinas, a former military officer who was living in Kabul at the time, told me. “It was a total façade of normalcy.” U.S. intelligence experts had predicted that it would take eighteen months for Kabul to fall and the government to collapse. Instead, in the course of a weekend, the Taliban took over the capital. At the time, there were still thousands of U.S. citizens in the country, as well as tens of thousands of green-card and S.I.V. holders, and hundreds of thousands of other Afghans who had worked with the U.S. and might face retribution.
This past spring, in the leadup to the U.S. withdrawal, the State Department processed more than five thousand S.I.V.s—more than at any point in history, but not enough to address the logjam. It eventually launched an aggressive calling campaign to reach U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. “We gave bloodcurdling warnings for people to leave,” Ross Wilson, the chargé d’affaires in Afghanistan, told me. “There were repeated attempts to make voice-to-voice contact to ask, ‘Are you O.K.? Do you want to leave? How do we make that possible?’ ” The State Department organized flights to speed departures of S.I.V. holders and, later, to evacuate U.S. citizens.
Yet the U.S. government had few plans in place to get large numbers of Afghans to safety. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, told me, “We went to the White House in May and urged in emphatic terms that the evacuations begin then and there. It was frustrating beyond words to hear about these Afghan allies desperately trying to leave the country without any American presence to provide help.” The U.S. was reluctant to organize a large-scale exodus, which it feared would cause a panic and weaken the Afghan state. When Kabul fell, the Americans hadn’t succeeded in organizing asylum agreements with third-party countries, which balked at receiving large numbers of Afghans, and hadn’t created sustainable humanitarian corridors to allow refugees safe passage out. The only option was to fly them to the U.S., or to military bases in the region. But officials worried that Al Qaeda or the Islamic State would embed sleeper agents in the flights. “You felt like you were in a race against time,” Suzy George, the chief of staff to the Secretary of State, told me. “There were some times where we just got it right, and we got people through the gate, and there were lots of times where it was just so much more complicated.” Until this past summer, the State Department had a nascent mechanism, the Contingency and Crisis Response Bureau, that was to be charged with organizing such complex operations. But in July the Biden Administration abandoned the project, a move that some advocates have argued hobbled the effort. (A State Department spokesperson denied that this move hindered evacuations.) There was no single entity or senior U.S. official charged with overseeing the process. “We should have assumed that there was going to be a rush of Afghans who worked with us who wanted to get out,” Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan and a former C.I.A. official, told me. “Instead, all systems were overwhelmed and blinking red.” For most Afghans, there was no official path for escape. “The trouble is that in this crisis to evacuate American citizens, some of our Afghan allies were left behind,” Slotkin said.
Women who had worked with the U.S. were at particular risk. Local clerics gave speeches on the radio urging that they be kidnapped and married off to Taliban fighters. An employee at a health N.G.O. funded by the United States Agency for International Development wrote that she had sewn a pocket into her nightdress so that she could take her phone if she was abducted. N.P.R. reported that a female gynecologist who’d given a contraceptive injection to the thirteen-year-old wife of a Taliban commander had received a phone call from the commander, who said that Taliban forces would soon come for her. A poet who had helped me translate landays, and who requested anonymity out of fear for his family, was threatened by Islamic State fighters. In 2016, isis militiamen had murdered his father. They were imprisoned at Bagram Air Base, but, when Kabul fell, they escaped and contacted him to say that they were coming for his brothers, in punishment for speaking out.
In the absence of an adequate official response, thousands of volunteers banded together to help get Afghans out of the country. “America is throwing them to the wolves,” Yasmine Delawari Johnson, an Afghan American advocate, told me. Military veterans formed groups to save the lives of people they had worked with in the field. Tim Flynn, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who volunteered in the evacuations, watched footage of chaotic scenes unfolding in Kabul. “I started to realize that the U.S. military was not going to be able to get people out,” he said. Aid workers, journalists, and former officials created encrypted chats and crowdsourced how to charter flights and secure landing rights. The efforts pulled in hundreds of people with deep experience in Afghanistan, including my colleagues Jon Lee Anderson, Anand Gopal, Luke Mogelson, and David Rohde. But, Flynn said, “it’s not sustainable to run government-scale evacuations with volunteers and donations. The biggest frustration is all of this is really best handled by our State Department and Department of Defense. And they appeared to be sitting on their hands.” Some groups proved effective; others did not. “Once you do this once, you get a million people reaching out, sending crying emojis, saying, ‘Why can’t you help me,’ ” Kim Barker, a journalist who joined the efforts, told me. “Why isn’t the State Department getting crying emojis?”
For many Afghans, the best way to leave the country was through Hamid Karzai International Airport, which was surrounded by Taliban checkpoints. Inside, American military and intelligence operatives faced the impossible task of allowing a select few to enter. There was an overwhelming sense of urgency, since the airport might close at any time. Lieutenant Colonel Jason Hock helped to oversee operations there. Hock is also an Osprey pilot who formerly dropped teams riding A.T.V.s into war zones. He’d helped to form the Multi-National Coordination cell, which fielded requests from government and private groups. If groups assisting those in danger could charter a plane, get refugees to the airport, and gain government approval, Hock could usher the refugees through the gates.
The most critical members of the evacuation teams were Afghans, some of whom led operations on the ground. One volunteer, who asked that his name not be used, to protect his family, told me that, even once his relatives were safely inside the airport, he continued to leave the gates to retrieve others in danger. “I thought of it like fishing,” he told me. “The families were just like mine, and I wanted to rescue as many as I could.” Finally, an American at the gate put his hand on his shoulder, saying, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Wazhma Sadat, an Afghan attorney, missed a flight in Los Angeles, hunkered down in the terminal, and spent the night on the phone helping those waiting outside the Kabul airport secure permission to get in. “I heard a little boy asking his father why his life was not a priority,” she told me. “I still struggle to understand how this supposedly preplanned, negotiated, and inevitable withdrawal ended the way it did.” Rina Amiri, a former U.S. official involved in the efforts, said, “These are people many of us have known intimately. It is immensely painful and difficult to only be able to help a few. It feels so much like living ‘Schindler’s List.’ ”
When the Taliban took Kabul, Mina was waiting in line at the bank, trying to renew her credit card, and heard gunfire. Through the window, she saw Taliban fighters arriving in the street. The bank suddenly emptied. As Mina ran, she passed a unit of Afghan soldiers in retreat. “I couldn’t believe how much they have sacrificed for the rest of us, only to be abandoned,” she told me. When she reached home, she called Faqeer and told her, “It’s like a zombie city.” Mina’s husband, Zahir, now had a senior position at the government’s Ministry of Agriculture. The next morning, the Taliban showed up at their driver’s home, seized the car, and asked where the family lived. It was clear that they had to leave immediately, but, Faqeer wrote to me, “Taliban are now at every single checkpoint. To be honest I don’t have any idea how to help them getting to the airport.”
A close friend put me in touch with Ashley Bommer Singh, a longtime aide to Richard Holbrooke, who had been the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009 and 2010. Ashley’s husband, Vikram Singh, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Obama, now worked for a government-funded think tank that had dozens of Afghan staff members with families at risk. To help get them and others out, the couple teamed up with Bancroft Global Development, a humanitarian nonprofit that has run emergency evacuations in places like Somalia, Yemen, and Mali. I joined their effort and, in several days, we raised the one and a half million dollars necessary to charter an Airbus A340. (Condé Nast, which owns The New Yorker, contributed, as did dozens of individuals, media organizations, and nonprofits.) The easiest part was filling the seats: we were flooded with requests from Afghans at extreme risk, including several who had already survived assassination attempts. The final manifest included women’s-rights advocates, journalists, high-profile government employees, judges being hunted by the Taliban fighters they’d convicted, female doctors, and the stars of the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner.” It was daunting to work on such sensitive operations. But sometimes strangers appeared in encrypted chats, using code names like Mike or Matt, and giving reassurance about having “eyes” on the convoys or offering “handshakes” at the gate. We realized that there were current and former intelligence officers and other government officials working behind the scenes to insure the safety of the refugees.
Most, like Faqeer’s family, were afraid to leave their homes. Mina sat up all night watching the door, waiting for the Taliban. “I wasn’t so worried for me and my husband,” she told me. “It was for our four children and my mother.” Her mother had dropped her passport off at the Turkish Embassy, for a visa, when the Taliban took over, and she now had no government I.D. They decided that they would huddle together at the airport, and hope that she was overlooked in the chaos. Habib Zahori, an Afghan TV writer in Canada, ran phone trees for the refugees and organized muster points for buses to pick them up, one of which was outside Mina’s house. On August 22nd, Mina packed some clothes and, under each sleeve, slipped a stack of gold bangles that her sister had instructed her to buy. When families began to arrive at her home, the men stood in the street, and the women and children waited inside. It was crowded and noisy, and she warned them to be quiet: “If our neighbors hear so many people here, they will report us to the Taliban.” The bus was late, and Taliban officials asked the men outside where they were headed. “We’re going to a wedding,” a passenger said. This wedding ruse soon became commonplace, and Vikram joked, “How many weddings does the Taliban think there could possibly be?”
Around seven-thirty that evening, Mina’s family boarded the bus, and by nine it had crawled through more than a dozen Taliban checkpoints and was approaching the north side of the airport. A Taliban spokesperson had issued a new mandate that Afghan citizens were no longer allowed to leave the country, and it wasn’t yet clear what the regime would do to enforce it. As the bus stopped near a final Taliban checkpoint, the guards started firing indiscriminately. The driver got down to speak to the commander, who struck him in the face with the butt of his automatic weapon. “I thought for sure they would kill him and then kill the rest of us,” Mina told me. He stumbled back onto the bus, and continued to the airport. They ended up idling at a gas station across from the gate, waiting for permission to enter. Soon, sporadic shooting started from several directions. Mina turned to Zahir. “We’re all going to die,” she said.
The Singhs reached out to their network of contacts. My New Yorker colleague Dexter Filkins, who helped lead the effort, texted that the refugees were “sitting ducks out there.” Ashley dictated a note to a White House aide, who promised to get it to officials in the Situation Room. “Tell them the ‘Kite Runner’ stars are sitting outside the airport gate and could be killed,” she said. All of us scrambled, pleading our case to anyone who would listen. Soon, my phone pinged with a text from Hock: “Just got a cryptic call a second ago about a ‘white house’ level mission. Is this it?” He added, “I just grabbed our seal team guys. They are on their way there.” The Navy seals couldn’t reach the convoy of buses through the crowd. Instead, they told Mina and the others to get out and run. “Better move before anyone sees this gate open,” Hock wrote. Mina had her three older children hold hands and instructed them to run as fast as they could. “We are right behind you,” she said. The family slipped through the gate, which closed after them. Mina sent her sister a voice message saying, “We are inside the airport and we are safe now.”
When the families reached the tarmac, they were blocked from boarding the Airbus A340. Afghan intelligence operatives backed by the C.I.A. had pushed their way onto the plane and refused to get off. (A C.I.A. spokesperson told me that the agency evacuated “numerous locally employed staff” and “partners who were at particular risk of retribution.”) Most of the convoy’s passengers were loaded onto a C-17 and flown to Al Udeid, a U.S. base in Doha, Qatar. But Mina and her family had got lost in the airport and missed the flight. Soon, Mina heard the roar of a nearby plane. “Just get on,” Faqeer told her. “It doesn’t matter where it’s going.” About four hours later, they landed at Al Udeid, and joined three thousand Afghans huddled in the airplane hangar.
In early October, I visited Faqeer at her home near Richmond. Although I was the only guest, she had cooked enough for twelve, and stuffed me with homemade kebabs and dumplings. Her three daughters played on the carpet beneath the dining table. The six-year-old, Hadia, had a doll she’d named Ghotai, after her mother’s radio character. Nazir scrolled through YouTube videos of a Taliban victory parade, which included pickup trucks outfitted for use by suicide bombers. Winter was coming, and the Taliban, struggling to feed its citizens, had asked the U.S. for aid money. “These same people have been killing us for twenty years for being friends with America,” Faqeer said. “Now they come to America to beg for help.” Nazir had been nine when the Taliban first took power, and he remembered walking through the street among the bodies of people they’d assassinated. Since then, he’d had a recurring nightmare that the Taliban had retaken Afghanistan. For years, Faqeer had reassured him that it would never happen. “Now it’s become a reality,” she told me.
Once word got out that Faqeer’s family had been safely evacuated, her phone was inundated with pleas from former colleagues. “Everyone thinks I work at the White House now,” she grumbled. The family was shuttled through the system of “lily pads,” travelling from one military base to another. They had gone from Doha to Germany, then to D.C., sixty miles from Faqeer’s home, then, inexplicably, to Holloman Air Force Base, in New Mexico, where they spent seven weeks living in a tent. “We kept wondering when we would get to the real America,” Mina said. An Afghan American medical professional working with refugees told me, “It’s like a screwed-up Ellis Island.” During our lunch, Mina FaceTimed Faqeer, pointed to a long line of people waiting to pick up airplane tickets, and said that she would soon be on her way to Richmond. “Prison break!” Faqeer said. Mina started to cry, and Faqeer tried to cheer her up. “Why do your eyebrows look so good?” she asked. “Is there a beauty parlor in camp?” Faqeer turned to me and said, “If we didn’t laugh, we’d be dead by now.”
A few days after Mina’s family escaped, a suicide bomber outside the Kabul airport killed thirteen U.S. service members and a hundred and seventy Afghans. Our group was still running convoys, but, five days later, U.S. troops left the country. “I apologize. I am hopping on a plane out of here soon,” Hock texted me. After that, evacuations became nearly impossible. Faqeer’s husband, Nazir, had thirty-five family members who remained trapped in the country, including an uncle who had coördinated nato air strikes. They were now living in hiding. Most nights, around midnight, the Taliban went door-to-door in their neighborhood, interrogating people and sometimes kidnapping them. Nazir’s family eventually made it out, but the slowing bureaucracy had brutal consequences. In Mazar, Taliban soldiers detained two people who managed safe houses, then raided a safe house and threw a man out of a window. In Kabul, they killed a nine-year-old girl whose father worked with an international aid organization and was on our next manifest. They arrested a government bodyguard and held him in a basement, chained him to a chair, poured freezing water over him, shaved part of his head, and forced an unknown substance into his mouth. “They said I could tell them where the ministers were and work with them as a brother,” he told me later.
In the past three and a half months, the U.S. government has evacuated only three thousand or so people. Passengers are now required to carry passports, but requesting them from the Taliban is dangerous for dissidents; those with newborns who haven’t yet received identification are effectively banned from flying. Recently, a senior Administration official told me that, due to ongoing logistical disputes at the airport, flights were stopped entirely. Biden has touted the effort as “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history”; the U.S. has helped more than a hundred and twenty thousand people flee. Still, the government has acknowledged that, as of this month, a handful of U.S. citizens remained in the country, along with fourteen thousand green-card holders, thirty thousand Afghans with vetted S.I.V.s, and thirty thousand who have applied. “With their immediate families, this could easily be over a hundred and fifty thousand people,” Vikram told me. An untold number of Afghans endangered by their work also remain, including human-rights advocates, journalists, former members of the Afghan military, and judges. “Their only way out is through U.S. bases,” Vikram said.
The U.S. plans to take in an additional twenty thousand Afghans by the end of next summer. Senator Blumenthal recently called on President Biden to appoint an evacuations czar to handle the crisis. “I have trouble discerning any system here,” Blumenthal told me. Helena Malikyar, the political analyst, argued, “By carrying out this withdrawal the way it happened, the Biden Administration not only betrayed the Afghan people but did a huge amount of damage to the U.S. reputation around the world, by presenting itself as an ally one shouldn’t rely on.” Blumenthal asked, “If we break our promises now, will we have the cred if we’re in similar situations?”
In late October, Faqeer’s family was finally released from military custody. I went with her to meet them at the Richmond airport. Through the plate-glass doors, we could see that the baggage-claim area was nearly empty except for a masked family of seven wearing hip-looking sneakers and toting only carry-on luggage. Faqeer was suddenly rooted in place. “I can’t move,” she told me, studying them. “I think I’m in happy shock.” Then Mina glimpsed her sister through the window, and she and her four children bounded through the automatic doors. Faqeer shouted, “Welcome to our country, you refugees!” Then she handed them two takeout pizzas, bundled them into a borrowed minivan, and drove them to her brick Colonial. ♦