“The US have left us behind for these kinds of humans to kill one by one.”
That was a text I received last week from my friend Mo, an Afghan interpreter currently trapped in Kabul. One does not have to be a rocket scientist, or Secretary of State for that matter, to know that he is referring to the Taliban in his message. Mo is a man with whom I worked closely in 2017 when I was teaching English to the Afghan air force on the military compound attached to Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Mo, who asked that his real name be withheld out of fear of reprisal by the Taliban, was more than just a colleague; he was good friend; a young guy whose English was so good that our American team could be sarcastic and crack inside jokes with him. He just got it. He exuded that “chill” vibe you’d find in any millennial office culture stateside: he wore jeans and hoodies and rocked a head of shaggy dark hair. We couldn’t help ourselves when we fondly nicknamed him “Afghan Hipster.” His job was to act as a liaison to military commanders and aircraft mechanics with whom we were conducting Maintenance English training.
As a woman, it was not always appropriate or comfortable for me to walk into a military commander’s office alone, or teach in aircraft hangars full of men, both parts of the job on a daily basis. However, with Mo by my side, those cultural barriers were cleared which enabled me to interact with my counterparts in a way I simply could not have done on my own.
While not high stakes combat missions, his skills as an interpreter on the flight line were invaluable to the Maintenance English training, as well as the broader, long-term operability and sustainability of the AAF.
By the time we met in 2017, Mo had already worked for several years as an interpreter for US defense contractors. So, it was in 2018 that he finally met the length-of-employment criteria needed to apply for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. Just as I completed my year-long contract and left Afghanistan, Mo started his SIV application, patiently working through the multi-year process, step by step.
At one point in 2019, Mo contacted me to ask if I would write him a letter of recommendation to support his SIV application packet. He was worried because had not heard from the State Department about his case for a while and thought an extra letter of recommendation might grease the wheels. I was happy, and honored, to write the letter even though I figured the delay was probably some run-of-the-mill bureaucratic hurdles that federal agencies often face. However, I could never have imagined how sinister the underlying issue really was.
Mo had begun his SIV application process under the Trump administration. At the time, the president was allowing his White House advisor, Stephen Miller, to heavily influence policy on the SIV program. Miller, an unelected official with a well-documented history of both anti-immigrant views and white supremacist rhetoric, intentionally stalled and all but halted thousands of SIV applications from being processed.
In fact, the applications were delayed for so long that in 2019, a federal judge found the Trump administration guilty of breaking the law, citing legislation written in 2013 which stated that SIV applications should be adjudicated within a nine-month timeframe.
When combat veteran and former CIA analyst, Matt Zeller, stated earlier this week that Miller is “as complicit” in any Afghan interpreter deaths as the Taliban, I could not have agreed more.
If these delays had not occurred, many of the SIV applicants now trapped in Kabul would already be safely resettled in the U.S., beginning a new life of freedom and opportunity. Instead, they are texting us from hiding in Kabul, frantic, and afraid for their lives.
There was a slight glimmer of hope on Tuesday night, when Mo received an email from U.S. Embassy staff that he was cleared to proceed to the airport in Kabul for an evacuation flight. He, his wife, and three small children made their way in the night, when they felt it would be safest to attempt the perilous approach.
Unfortunately, they arrived only to find that they could not get through the overwhelming masses of people clogging the areas surrounding the gates. They tried to wait it out, to see if the crowds would thin and they could make it to the front. However, the chaos, heat, and desperation were unbearable. At one point, there were bursts of dispersive gunfire that left people screaming, crying, and ducking for cover.
Afterward, many lay bruised and bloodied from getting caught beneath the stampeding crowds as they tried to flee the hail of bullets. Upon passing the body of a dead woman, her three children left milling around her lifeless body, Mo and his family could take no more. While they did not want to miss an opportunity to gain entry to the airport, they ultimately decided it would be safer to return home.
As it turns out, they made the right call. Mo’s good friend, Hamid, called later that day to report that he had actually made it through the crowds at the gate. However, when he finally reached the front, U.S. Marine guards were shouting and swearing at people; yelling at him to leave. Hamid, who also asked that his real name not be used out of fear of Taliban reprisal, said he showed them his confirmation email from the embassy. But the troops, he said, told him that anyone without a U.S. passport was not allowed inside.
It is a painful irony to us that Mo and Hamid risked their lives working on HKIA’s military base; and now they may lose their lives because they cannot gain access to it.
The president and his White House National Security Advisor may want people to believe that the traumatic scenes unfolding outside of that airfield are just part of the “inevitable chaos” of war, a talking point they continue to push in televised briefings. However, anyone with friends or family texting them from that hellscape outside of HKIA can tell you that it is, in fact, the inevitable chaos of ineptitude: the inability of, or worse, the lack of desire on the part of the administration to coordinate effectively between their own State Department and Department of Defense to successfully in-process and save these vulnerable Afghans.
The fact that this administration has had a week to develop an action plan to triage the masses of people outside HKIA but has not, reveals either a case of gross negligence, or worse, a sick calculus concerning the value of human lives beyond the airport’s concrete T-walls, where the situation continues to deteriorate into unmitigated turmoil and death.
For the past two decades, “winning hearts and minds” was the fundamental strategy of triumph in the war on terror. Today, it is clear that breaking hearts and minds is the strategy of surrender in that fight.
Mo and Hamid feel like they have been abandoned, thrown to the wolves, their harrowing experiences reflecting those of thousands of interpreters who are desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan before they end up on a Taliban hit list.
Multiply each of those terrified interpreters by the number of people in their extended family. Do the math. That is hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who are about to witness the U.S.turn its back on them while hiding behind neatly prepared talking points from public relations teams at the White House. I think it goes without saying that this is more than just an issue of international credibility, it is also one of national security.
When all of these abandoned people, along with their friends and families, see the American flag in the future, will they feel a fullness in their hearts…or a sickness in their stomachs? Our leaders will make that decision in the coming hours. As citizens, we must do all that we can to convince them to make the right one.
Joan Barker is a consultant whose work focuses on Defense Department contracts that support various language and cross-cultural training elements. She also teaches English to partner force military cadets. Joan has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the UAE, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Niger. She worked as a defense contractor in Kabul in 2018, where she taught English to members of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and Special Mission Wing (SMW).
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.