As Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, Spokanites try, mostly in vain, to rescue their Afghan friends and family

click to enlarge Numerous family members of  Spokane-area Afghan refugees have been left in Kabul, a capital larger than any other American city but New York.
Numerous family members of Spokane-area Afghan refugees have been left in Kabul, a capital larger than any other American city but New York.

It's a Sunday in late August, eight days before the last American soldier will leave Afghanistan.

Kazim Abdullahi, a community ambassador for the World Relief refugee resettlement agency, is camped out at a picnic table at Friendship Park in Spokane. At least 50 Afghan families surround him, pulling up information on their phones, showing him IDs, feeding him vital details on the ones they love.

As the American military began pulling out of Afghanistan, as a weakened Afghan government rapidly collapsed, as a resurgent Taliban regime swept across the country, Kazim sent out a rallying cry to the local Afghan community to join him at Friendship Park.

"We started writing down the names of the family members left behind," Kazim says.

Four other staff members from World Relief come to help. One local family gives them the names of four relatives. But another has a list of 90 — families run big in Afghanistan — all trapped in Kabul.

Kazim is typing, translating it all into English, converting dates from the Islamic to the Gregorian calendar, and feeding it into an Excel spreadsheet. First name. Last name. Date of birth. Place of birth. Passport number. Reasons their lives may be in extra danger.

The hope is that if they get the list to the right people, at least some of those people could still be rescued.

As the sun sets, as his laptop battery drains away, as President Joe Biden's Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline draws closer, they finish a list of 2,000 names. Kazim returns the next two days, and they come up with 500 more.

"I'm just trying to save as many as possible," Kazim says. "That's what I believe my job is."

Across two countries, countless refugees, veterans, politicians and former contractors were all trying to save friends and family who faced Taliban checkpoints, airport mobs, a perverse bureaucracy and an impossible deadline.

And in most cases, for all their efforts, those friends and family members didn't get out. Even before that last flight lifted off from the Kabul tarmac, Kazim knew it was too late for many.

Five days before the American military left, he got a call: A suicide bombing had targeted the throngs of Afghans crowded outside the gates of Kabul's airport. Thirteen Americans and over 160 Afghan civilians were dead.

"I have pictures, videos, of those bodies, that people are sending me," Kazim says.

Some of those bodies, he says, were names on his list.

And he believes those deaths were only the start. Days before the withdrawal, he worried that those left behind — including some of his own relatives and Afghans like him who'd helped the American military — will be left with only one option.

"Wait for the time to come and literally the Taliban will kill them," Kazim says. "That's all."

click to enlarge World Relief Community Ambassador Kazim Abdullahi, who came to Spokane on a Special Immigrant Visa eight years ago, says America’s withdrawal does not mean the end of the violence. “It’s the beginning of the war,” he says. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
World Relief Community Ambassador Kazim Abdullahi, who came to Spokane on a Special Immigrant Visa eight years ago, says America’s withdrawal does not mean the end of the violence. “It’s the beginning of the war,” he says.

THE ENDLESS WAIT

It's 2017 — 15½ years into America's longest war — and then-state Sen. Michael Baumgartner is writing a letter of recommendation with life-or-death consequences.

His former co-worker, Baumgartner writes to the U.S. government, was "an exemplary, talented" member of the team who provided crucial operational support "as they fought against the opium poppy that is so destructive for Afghanistan." Now, Baumgartner writes, this colleague "fears for his life and his family."

In 2009, Baumgartner had been a civilian counternarcotics adviser in Helmand province, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan and one of the world's biggest producers of illegal opium.

Sayed — to protect him, the Inlander is not using his real name — was the team's office manager.

He was "positive, enthusiastic and warm," Baumgartner says. He'd offer tweaks to the graphic design of the team's anti-poppy PSAs. He'd blast Pakistani pop songs on lazy Thursday afternoons. He had strong opinions on WrestleMania. When Eleanor Mayne, the team's other civilian adviser, had a birthday, he commissioned a cake — complete with Afghan-flag-colored frosting squiggles and the message "The-31-Birthday-Miss-Eleanor."

Like many people in Helmand, Sayed had grown up deeply poor. While the Afghanistan government only paid $100 to $200 a month, Sayed got $600 for working on Baumgartner's team, a lifeline for the young man who proudly showed off his infant son to his office.

But the big salary came with crosshairs: The Taliban's punishment for working with a non-Muslim government was death.

Baumgartner left Afghanistan after seven months. He married Eleanor, got elected to the Washington state Senate, and in 2011, wrote an op-ed titled "Time to leave Afghanistan," declaring that the "bipartisan embarrassment is costing lives" and was doomed to fail.

And Sayed? In 2012, a car bomb went off at Sayed's office in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, killing multiple co-workers and injuring others. He couldn't just leave. Without a visa to another country, he couldn't even get on a plane.

Yet just as his work put his life in danger, it also gave him an escape route: If you could prove he'd been working with the Americans long enough and that his life was in danger, he could get a Special Immigrant Visa — SIV, for short — and he would be able to flee Afghanistan for America.

After all, that was how Kazim came to Spokane. He'd spent five years helping the Americans in Kabul as a translator and computer expert. But eventually, he started getting a lot of anonymous threats and needed to get out.

Thanks to the SIV program, Kazim says, he arrived in America nearly eight years ago.

Sayed applies for the same program in 2017, which requires an elaborate series of government-mandated hoops — like including letters from Baumgartner and other past supervisors, and proving his life is actually in danger.

In sometimes-broken English, he exhaustively details the threats he'd faced on his application: the "huge car bomb explosion"; the drive-by shooter who fired on his car; the menacing phone calls from unknown numbers; the fact that his home village was a Taliban stronghold while the city he worked in was "under the attacks of insurgents every day and night."

"I have the right to live with my family in a safe location," Sayed writes. "Otherwise they will kill me."

And then all he can do is wait. Months go by. Years go by. He hears nothing. He goes about his life, a death sentence looming.

By 2020, a report from the State Department's inspector general, or internal watchdog, had revealed just how busted the SIV approval process was. The backlog was bad — over 10,000 applications — before President Donald Trump took office. It got worse under Trump. The official in charge of overseeing the program left and was never replaced. Emailed applications sat unopened for 30 days. Even as the applications piled up higher and higher, additional staff members were never hired.

And when COVID-19 hit, the process went from convoluted to downright Kafkaesque: Completing the process almost always required an in-person interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. But with the coronavirus rampant, they weren't doing in-person interviews in Kabul.

Sayed submitted his SIV application in the first summer of the Trump administration. It's only at the very end of Trump's tenure — October 2020 — that he gets a response.

It's a rejection.

The contract number he'd submitted, the letter stated, "was unverifiable in U.S. Government databases."

Yet, another co-worker with the exact same contract number got approved, Baumgartner says.

"They were making a lot of dumb denials," expert immigration attorney Margaret Stock says about the SIV process. "Like somebody who couldn't read very well was reading the packets."

Instead of being eager to make the program run smoothly, Stock says some in the State Department didn't seem to want local Afghan staffers to be able to immigrate to America too easily. If a local Afghan interpreter at the Kabul embassy, say, moved to the United States, the State Department would have to go searching for a replacement.

Whether the problem was illiteracy, apathy or anti-immigrant antipathy, politicians across the aisle decry the flaws in the SIV program as one of the biggest failures of the withdrawal.

"When it means life or death for our trusted allies, we can't let bureaucracy and red tape stand in the way," Democratic Sen. Patty Murray says in a statement.

Still, the Trump administration had made major headway on another priority in Afghanistan. In February 2020, Trump struck a deal. Trump, who thundered against the U.S. for swapping five Taliban prisoners to free "traitor" soldier Bowe Bergdahl, signed a treaty with the exact same exchange rate — 5,000 Taliban soldiers freed in exchange for 1,000 Afghan prisoners.

The Taliban swore not to support terrorism. In turn, the United States promised to start pulling out of Afghanistan.

"When it means life or death for our trusted allies, we can't let bureaucracy and red tape stand in the way."

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To a man like Kazim, the notion of trusting the Taliban's word is deeply insulting.

"If they say that 'we are not going to kill you,' the first person they're going to kill is you," Kazim says. "They're not humans. They're monsters."

He was a child in 1989 when the Soviets left his country. But he knows what happened next: The Taliban rose up and seized power, outlawing music, banning women from school, holding public executions and massacring civilians.

"We are back almost 30 years ago," he says. What has happened before in Afghanistan, Kazim predicts, is "going to happen again and again and again."

THE ESCAPE PLAN

For all the Trump policies that Joe Biden tore up upon setting foot in the Oval Office, leaving Afghanistan wasn't one of them. While he delayed Trump's proposed timeline by four months, his withdrawal would be total.

This June, World Relief, the agency that resettles refugees in Spokane, joined 56 other faith-based organizations in a letter pleading with the government to have a plan to evacuate the more than 17,000 pending Afghan SIV applicants. Fly them to a country like Guam for processing, they propose, before pulling out the bulk of our military.

"We've been making that request to the Biden administration for months, and frustratingly, they didn't act upon it," says Matthew Soerens, World Relief's national director of church mobilization.

click to enlarge Civilian counternarcotics advisor Eleanor Baumgartner (right) with Brigadier General Khatool Mohammadzai, the first female paratrooper in Afghanistan. - COURTESY OF ELEANOR BAUMGARTNER
Courtesy of Eleanor Baumgartner
Civilian counternarcotics advisor Eleanor Baumgartner (right) with Brigadier General Khatool Mohammadzai, the first female paratrooper in Afghanistan.

Some Afghans, including a few of Kazim's family members, were in denial.

"I called them, begging them, 'Please leave the country,'" Kazim says. "'You have the option to go now. Don't miss it.'"

But others know exactly what's happening.

On July 21, Eleanor — now Eleanor Baumgartner — heard from an old friend: In an email titled "need your help," Sayed alerts her that his city of Lashkar Gah was under siege by the Taliban, and he desperately needs support for his SIV application appeal.

Her husband, Michael, now Spokane County's treasurer, makes one last appeal to the State Department, writing that the "rapidly deteriorating security situation in Lashkar Gah" had put Sayed in terrible danger.

The battle in Lashkar Gah rages for weeks, and on Aug. 13 falls to the Taliban. They take Kabul two days later.

click to enlarge Michael Baumgartner (center) before he was a state senator, flanked by an Afghan elder and police officer. - COURTESY OF ELEANOR BAUMGARTNER
Courtesy of Eleanor Baumgartner
Michael Baumgartner (center) before he was a state senator, flanked by an Afghan elder and police officer.

As the Baumgartners start to circulate Sayed's case, it gets shared with not just politicians like Spokane's Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, but with the ad hoc organizations — ones with names like Team America and Task Force Dunkirk — that have sprung up to help rescue efforts.

On Aug. 21, Sayed gets an email from a stranger.

"My name is Michelle," she writes. "I'm here to help you get out."

Sayed is wary. His friends have received fake emails making similar claims.

But this one is legit. It's from Michelle Ruehl, an Air Force Academy instructor who once flew 800 combat hours over Afghanistan, but now is volunteering with an organization called Allied Airlift 21.

Started as some West Point graduates trying to get their friends out of Afghanistan, Allied Airlift 21 had evolved into something more ambitious, executive team member Adam DeMarco tells the Inlander.

Like Kazim, they'd put together a long list of names. They put more than 50,000 Afghan names on their "Afghan Ally Register" and set about trying to rescue them.

First step? Get them to the airport.

"I know this is hard," Ruehl writes to Sayed in an email. "Please keep faith."

But if he can get to the Kabul airport, she has a plan: Have enough supplies to hold out for 48 hours. Go for the North gate. Hug the southeast wall. Keep on the south side of the road.

"You will have to push your way through the mob and get to where you can physically see the Marines," she continues. "Make eye contact with the Marine and HOLD UP THAT BLUE passport."

Sayed weighs the risks. He has a wife. He has five kids. He has a friend telling him about gunfire in Kabul. Then again, when he sees a Facebook rumor that Special Immigrant Visas had already been canceled, the fear of being trapped overwhelms him.

"I can't live anymore in Afghanistan," he writes. "I think [we were] left behind. Please sister, I really need your assistance."

On Aug. 25 — less than six days before the last cargo jet lifts off in Kabul — Kazim sits down with McMorris Rodgers to share the list of names he'd compiled with World Relief.

He's not as worried about SIV holders or Americans as much as all the other family members of the Spokane Afghans who don't have anyone lobbying for them.

But there are only so many airplane seats and only so much time. Kazim says that McMorris Rodgers tells him that if Biden delays the withdrawal, they might have a better chance of being rescued. But for now? It's mostly too late.

That same day, Sayed gets a message from Ruehl with a change in instructions: Don't go to Kabul.

"I am so sorry my friend but they are only taking US passports," Ruehl writes to Sayed. "I just don't want you to take the risk of going all the way to the airport and then they turn you back. ... We are begging our government to change what's happening."

But he also gets the message he'd been waiting on for four years: His SIV appeal had finally gone through. And this time, it worked.

He'd been ruled eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa. He still didn't have official approval to get on a plane, but he'd cleared the biggest legal hurdle to legally stay in America. The problem was getting there.

He decides to risk it.

"Eleanor, my wife is saying hello to you and your family," Sayed writes in a WhatsApp message before he departs. "She is saying 'Thank you so much for all the kindness....' There [are] no words to express.'"

It's over 430 miles from the Helmand province to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Google Maps says it's at least a 14-hour drive on National Highway 01. And Sayed's family, as war ravages their country, plans to take the bus.

There are Taliban checkpoints all along the way. The documents he and his family are carrying — potentially their ticket out — could get them killed if discovered.

But Sayed hangs on to hope.

"Inshallah, there will be no problem on the Kabul highway," he writes.

For a full day, Eleanor doesn't hear anything from Sayed.

Finally, he pops up on WhatsApp. He explains their bus had been damaged in Ghazni Province — about halfway to Kabul — but he was once again on his way to the airport.

He's still on the road when the airport bomb goes off.

THE GAUNTLET

Hamid Karzai International Airport, three miles from the center of a city packed with more people than Los Angeles, has a single runway. The crowds of Afghans outside are large enough to be visible on satellites.

Only three main gates lead into the part of the airport controlled by American troops, and after the bombing, the military begins welding some of those shut.

Even before, getting in could feel impossible. Kazim says his brother-in-law and his mother tried three times to get through the mob at the airport, even as the Taliban would literally beat the crowd back.

"They had a freaking cable — like an electricity cable, one of those huge power cables — and they would start hitting everyone who tries to get close," Kazim says.

But finally, those family members got through. The flight lifts off. Kabul shrinks into the horizon. He calls them while they're in Amsterdam.

"He showed me his back, all the signs of bruises caused by that cable," Kazim says. "He said, 'Kazim, I've been there three days... but it was like three years."

His older sister tries, too, but never makes it through.

"'Kazim, I went there,'" he recalls her saying. "'They use gas. They use [rubber] bullets. I got hit. I got bruises.'"

For an Afghan woman, Kazim says, being stuck in a crowd with so many men pressed against her was a particularly violating experience.

And for a father like Sayed?

"This one video he shared, there was a 2-year-old, who was crushed to death — crushed and covered in blood," Eleanor Baumgartner says.

For him, there's no dramatic last-minute rush for the airport. Even if the former office manager, with his wife and five kids in tow, somehow managed to push through the crowds, around the Taliban, and past the gates, to place a fully completed Special Immigrant Visa into the hands of the exact right American official, it wouldn't have mattered.

When the evacuations began, a government memo had gone out, using the same authority wielded to evacuate the South Vietnamese during the fall of Saigon, that meant that as long as Sayed managed to get on the plane to the United States, he could finish processing his SIV application while living in America.

But toward the end, even Afghans carrying fully approved SIV-stamped passports who'd risked their lives to help America were being turned away at the airport.

Stock, the expert immigration attorney, says she heard that "somebody said they were only supposed to let citizens on." Even many American citizens weren't getting through.

Stock says a contact of hers at the State Department was telling her that "the White House is deciding who lives and who dies right now," but she also says "nobody knew who the magic person" actually was.

In the chaos after the bombing, World Relief called for the withdrawal to be delayed past Aug. 31 "if that's what it takes to save lives and keep our nation's commitment to our allies."

Biden doesn't budge. In fact, the Americans leave earlier than many expected.

The last American plane lifts off a minute before clocks in Afghanistan tick over to Aug. 31 — a full 24 hours before the deadline passed. The early departure is a tactical choice, the New York Times explains, intended to avoid the risk of both terrorist attacks or a surge of Afghans trying to board.

"I was not going to extend this forever war," Biden said in a speech last week. "And I was not going to extend a forever exit."

On the one hand, the withdrawal had been a remarkable achievement: Over 122,000 Afghans and Americans had been airlifted out from Kabul in only a few weeks. But the New York Times estimates that as many as 300,000 of our allies had been left behind.

"This is heart-wrenching," McMorris Rodgers tells the Inlander. "We are leaving behind Americans and Afghan interpreters and other allies, behind enemy lines. This is fundamentally wrong."

Before the withdrawal, Kazim said, he helped at least 20 get out. But there are still thousands on his list remaining.

McMorris Rodgers' office had helped seven of the Afghans they were trying to assist get to Washington, D.C., including a pregnant woman and her husband. But 120 of the others her office had hoped to help remained stranded in Afghanistan.

Diplomatic efforts to rescue Afghan allies will continue, the Biden administration stresses.

But for now, it's demoralizing. On Twitter, Allied Airlift Executive Director Mike Jason writes that "my friends and I just emerged from two exhausting harrowing weeks where we tried our damnedest to help terrified Afghan families run for their lives — mostly without success."

As for the paperwork that Afghans once hoped would save them?

"If people have documents, the majority of people, they're burning them," DeMarco says. "They're getting rid of any ties to the U.S. government."

click to enlarge The Registan Desert between Helmand and the Spin Boldak border crossing into Pakistan. - ELEANOR BAUMGARTNER PHOTO
Eleanor Baumgartner photo
The Registan Desert between Helmand and the Spin Boldak border crossing into Pakistan.

THE BORDER

Sayed is left with a difficult choice: Since he couldn't escape Afghanistan by air, should he try to flee by land?

Millions of refugees, after all, fled to Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the Baumgartners' other Afghan contacts tried. He set out for the border crossing at Spin Boldak, a town southeast of Kandahar bordering Pakistan. But hundreds of thousands had the same idea. The crowds were even worse than in Kabul. And without a Kandahar-based National ID card, he couldn't cross.

"He says he's now deleting all English WhatsApp messages as he reads them," Eleanor says. Being caught communicating with foreigners was too dangerous.

Kazim, however, says his oldest sister successfully got through. Speak Pashto, the language of the Taliban, and pay off the right people and you may have a chance.

"It's 50-50," Kazim says. "Either they will let you go, or they will kill you."

But DeMarco, with Allied Airlift, is certain.

"Whoever is still talking to Afghans directly, I forcefully tell them, 'Do not send them to the borders,'" he says.

Pakistan's borders are closed. If you go north, toward Uzbekistan, you risk hitting "the frontlines of what is a pending civil war," as the rebel forces try to strike back against the Taliban.

Even if they make it, being a refugee can be brutal.

"Refugees have waited a decade or more in a camp setting — or living in a city in a neighboring country without legal status — before they get resettled," Soerens says.

The psychological toll of what they've gone through is immense. They'll face culture shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor's guilt, fear for those still left behind.

Baumgartner says one Afghan woman he helped get out was so afraid for her sons — one of them is in hiding from the Taliban — that she's talking about trying to go back to Afghanistan to help them.

Finally, Sayed makes his decision. He sends one more email to Ruehl: He thanks her. He says he's not going to try to run for the border. He has children, he says, and doesn't have the kind of money to wait out the glacial SIV process in a foreign country.

He knows exactly what it's like to grow up in harsh impoverished conditions far away from home. In his SIV application, he wrote about how, when was a child, the Taliban regime's oppression forced his father to relocate to Pakistan.

Instead, he plans to stay in Afghanistan, he tells Ruehl, but to seek out a different location "so that the Taliban [doesn't] reach and find me."

DeMarco's personal advice? Stay with Kabul.

For now, the eyes of the world are laser-focused on the Afghan capital, and — oddly enough — the Taliban seems to want respect from the international community.

"Ironically, the further away you get from the flagpole of the Taliban, the more lawless it gets," he says.

THE LESSONS

Fifteen SIV applicants were already sent to Spokane in August, Soerens says. Hundreds more Afghans are likely on their way.

For them, the good news is that there's a fair amount of bipartisan political support for Afghan refugees in Washington state.

While Idaho's far-right Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and former President Trump cast Afghan refugees as potential terrorists, Washington state Democrats have found Republican leaders a lot more agreeable.

In Washington state, Republican state legislative leaders J.T. Wilcox and John Braun enthusiastically called for Washington state to welcome "duly vetted" Afghan refugees with "open arms," tying pro-refugee sentiment to a classic Republican value: respect for the troops.

"I don't think there's anything more conservative and Republican than standing up for our service people," Wilcox tells the Inlander. "And you do that by standing up for the people who stood with them."

But the end of America's longest war will continue to be debated for years.

Biden's supporters scoff at suggestions that the evacuation could have been conducted any better than it had been. To Michael Baumgartner, withdrawal was the right policy, "but horribly, foolishly executed."

McMorris Rodgers speaks with more idealism about what America's occupation had accomplished. She recalls visiting a girl's school on a trip to Afghanistan a decade ago, seeing the kind of education that the Taliban would never have allowed.

"These high school girls had dreams of becoming a teacher and a doctor and a lawyer," McMorris Rodgers says. "I think those dreams have been shattered."

There's an argument that if we had just stayed longer, maybe even indefinitely, we could have continued to help Afghanistan while fighting terrorism in the region.

"We've left troops in South Korea all this time," McMorris Rodgers says. "We left troops in Japan."

But there's a darker counterpoint, outlined by those like Stanford history professor Robert Crews: that the United States had stayed too long. That every U.S. drone strike, every nighttime raid carried out by our Afghan military allies, fed the Taliban and starved the Afghan government of credibility.

The American military provided one last bloody case study for that view before they left: The U.S. hit what they claimed was a car bomber vehicle with a drone strike. The explosion killed 10 Afghan civilians, survivors say, including at least six children.

Kazim shares the photos of the dead on Facebook.

"Mr. Joe Biden, you have destroyed a family," he writes on Facebook.

It captures the complicated anguish of many Afghans — horrified by the damage done by the Americans' leaving, but also the damage that had been done by America's staying.

Kazim had worked side-by-side with the American military for years. But he still can't truly fathom what the Americans were doing in Afghanistan for so long.

"You never helped Afghan families. Look what you've done," Kazim says, thinking about how many had been killed in the airport bombing. "One day, over 100 people are killed. Look what you have done right now." ♦

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

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