Tommy Yang – Without a proper plan to ensure the smooth power transition in Afghanistan, the poorly organized withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021 led to the country’s swift fall into the hands of the Taliban (under UN sanctions for terrorism) and left millions of Afghan allies in jeopardy.
Following an uphill battle against claims of election fraud from former US President Donald Trump, it took newly inaugurated US President Joe Biden almost two months before he unveiled his action plan for US troops in Afghanistan in early April.
As the United States was unable to meet the previous withdrawal deadline of May 1 set by the Trump administration, Biden announced on April 13 that he would complete the country’s military exit from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the US invasion in the first place.
As the US military carried out Biden’s exit plan from Afghanistan, the Afghan government led by former president Ashraf Ghani appeared to be completely underprepared to deal with the insurgence of the Taliban in the country.
After more and more US soldiers and military advisors left Afghanistan, the Taliban mounted offensives and took over capitals of several provinces in the country’s northern regions in early August. The Taliban’s surprising success looked to have had a domino effect on the confidence of the Afghan government led by president Ghani.
Within two weeks, the Taliban forces swept through most parts of the country facing little resistance. On August 15, the Taliban took over the capital city Kabul and the previous Afghan government collapsed completely as president Ghani fled the country.
CHAOS IN KABUL AIRPORT
The rapid collapse of the US-backed Afghan government caught almost everyone, especially the Afghans who worked with US forces for 20 years, by surprise. Panicked over the dangers they might face under Taliban’s rule, thousands of Afghans stormed to the airport in Kabul hoping to catch the last evacuation flights organized by the United States to flee the country.
US military personnel at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul appeared to be totally unprepared to handle the large number of Afghans desperately trying to get out of the country. As the US forces tried to take control of the airport, the soldiers shot and killed two armed Afghans as part of their efforts to restore order, the Pentagon said on August 16.
The chaos at the airport in Kabul topped international news headlines, when videos began to circulate on social media showing dozens of desperate young Afghans climbed onto the landing gear of a US military aircraft preparing to take off.
However, instead of postponing the flight to avoid harming the Afghan civilians clinging to its wheels, the US military aircraft took off as planned. Shocking videos showed a number of Afghan civilians falling off the sky as the plane climbed higher. A 24-year-old dentist and a young soccer player were among the Afghans who were killed in the tragic incident, US media reported.
The fact that so many young Afghans risked their lives in an attempt to flee the country demonstrated the kind of desperation they felt when facing the prospects of living under the Taliban’s rule.
An Afghan national who worked with US forces for over ten years at the Bagram Air Base explained to Sputnik why people like him were worried about reprisals from the Taliban.
“Can you help me please. I worked for the USA for more than 10 years. What [do] I need to do now? I need to go to America or some other countries. My shop is right there [he points out of the window in the video chat]. But I’m afraid to go out. I can’t even open my shop now, because I think they [the Taliban] will come for me,” G., whose real name was being withheld for his protection, told Sputnik at the time.
G. expressed concern that even if the Taliban would not go after him right away, they could seek retribution for his work for the US forces.
“Maybe somebody will come to me and ask: ’Why you worked for Americans before? Why you did this? Why you did that?’ Maybe they will not tell me today, or not even after one month or five months. But after that, they can still come to me and say:’ You know, I know what you did [for the Americans],’” he said.
Although the United States expanded additional Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for Afghan allies who offered assistance, the sheer number of Afghan SIV applicants made it impossible for everyone to be evacuated in a timely manner.
In the situation of G., his limited English language skills made it a daunting task to even try to get in touch with his former US employer to obtain a verification letter, which is critical to the SIV applications.
In the end, it came down to luck to decide who could be evacuated from Afghanistan.
T., a 28-year-old Afghan national, filed an application for the special immigrant visa in April, went to the airport in Kabul to try his luck after sharing his story with Sputnik. Fortunately, T. allowed to enter the airport after showing his identification documents.
T. became one of the 123,000 civilians who were flown out of the Afghanistan by the United States and its allies, when the last US military plane left the country on August 31.
CIVILIANS KILLED WITHOUT ACCOUNTBILITY
During the two weeks of chaotic evacuation at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the ISIS-K terrorist group (banned in Russia) carried out bombing attacks that killed over 170 civilians and 13 US service members.
In retaliation, the US military responded with drone attacks that aimed at preventing further attacks from this terrorist group.
However, one of the US drone attacks on August 29 hit a car supposedly filled with explosives, killing ten Afghan civilians, including Naser Nejrabi who served almost 10 years in the Afghan army and fighting alongside the US special forces.
“My brother had arrived in Kabul three days before the city was taken over by the Taliban, and was staying at the uncle’s place,” Naser’s younger brother Nasir Nejrabi told Sputnik in an interview.
According to Nasir, his brother — who is survived by his fiancée — planned to get married that week because he hoped that he could bring his future wife to America once he receives approval for his application for a US special immigrant visa.
Nasir added that his brother had already filed an application for the special immigrant visa and was awaiting approval.
“My brother served for some 10 years in the army and also used to work with the US Special Forces. Our house is situated in the city of Herat, and my brother served in Kandahar, he was in Kabul to settle issues on his moving to the US,” he said.
Although the US military admitted that the drone attack was a mistake, the Pentagon decided not to hold anyone accountable or punish anyone involved in the airstrike, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in December.
INADEQUATE RESISTANCE FROM AFGHAN GOVERNMENT
Facing criticism over the negative impact of hastily US withdrawal from Afghanistan, US president Joe Biden tried to divert the blame on the fact the previous Afghan government put up little resistance against the Taliban.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said during a speech in August.
Khaled Hassanzada, a police officer in the northwestern Herat province in Afghanistan, shared details with Sputnik on how inadequate support from the central government in Kabul made his efforts to defend his district fall apart quickly.
“We really needed weapons and soldiers but the central government didn’t arrange for them. We called for help and they [the central government] didn’t reply. They had time [to help us prepare the defense], but they didn’t want to defend. I think it’s a betrayal from the central government,” Hassanzada told Sputnik.
When about 600 Taliban soldiers riding in cars and motorcycles attacked his district, Hassanzada decided to take a last stand to defend his home with fellow police officers and other local forces. But with the kind of manpower and weapons available, Hassanzada and his fellow officers did not stand a chance.
“We had only 70 soldiers and used Kalashnikov [assault rifles] as our weapons. The Taliban had M4 and M16 [assault refiles], and they even had snipers with night vision goggles,” he said.
As a result, the battle against the Taliban in the Injil district only lasted about two hours.
CORRUPTION TRIGGERED COLLAPSE
Wahidullah Azizi, anti-corruption activist from Afghanistan, argued that systematic corruption, resulted from the 20 years of mass US investments without accountability, could be a key factor in the rapid collapse of the previous Afghan government.
“It was not a military defeat [for the government forces] because the soldiers did not fight. I think there was a very grave understanding that many soldiers would ask:’ Whom I’m fighting for?’ The government would steal from their food, fuel or clothing,” Azizi told Spuntik.
The Afghan activist believed the competition for US investments was the root cause of the widespread corruption under the previous government in Afghanistan.
“The Americans did a very poor job on nation building in Afghanistan, despite frequent denials that they wanted to get involved in state building in the country. They were deeply involved in Afghan politics for years and there was a huge amount of money involved. But we didn’t have a control mechanism for that. Everybody was trying to enrich themselves and there was very little accountability. Now, some of those Afghan officials have fled the country,” the activist said.
Injecting massive amounts of investments into a war-torn country was a fatal mistake in US policies in Afghanistan, Azizi pointed out.
“I think the West is partly to blame for that because you just don’t throw money into a war-torn country, where there’s very little accountability. There’s this theory that aid money cannot replace state building. It’s been proven not only in Afghanistan, but also in some other African countries, where they offer the aid but those places still turned out to be failed states,” he said.
Raeis, a 32-year-old resident from Kabul, argued that the 20-year US presence in the country simply replaced the Taliban with a group of Islamist fighters known as the mujahideens.
“After the Americans came, all those mujahideens who fought against the Taliban came to power again. Most of them were corrupted people. That’s the reality. In 20 years, they corrupted all the government resources in the country,” Raeis told Sputnik.
Raeis argued that the United States never intended to help Afghanistan become a modern nation and only went after their specific targets such as the terrorist groups.
“Americans did not bring freedom to Afghanistan. Americans only came for their targets. They made the warlords and the corrupted people stronger than ever. When they reached their goals, they left Afghanistan. They don’t care about people in Afghanistan. [US President] Joe Biden said, ‘We did not come to Afghanistan for nation building. We just wanted to reach our goals,'” Raeis said.
DIRE SITUATION FOR AFGHAN WOMEN
In addition to the millions of Afghans who worked with US forces, women in Afghanistan would also be facing much more restrictions and even life-threatening dangers under the Taliban’s rule.
Despite its claims of respecting women’s rights and freedoms, the Taliban began to introduce a series of restrictions on Afghan women shortly after it seized power. The Taliban replaced the Women’s Affairs Ministry with a new ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.” And the acting mayor of Kabul just announced over the weekend that almost all municipal jobs held by women would be given to men.
“Before the Taliban took over, girls went to university as they wished. But now, we have thousands of fears. The Taliban separated men and women classrooms. Before we had the energy [to study], but the Taliban took the energy from all of us,” M., a 23-year-old female Afghan journalism student, told Sputnik.
She explained the kind of threats she received for her previous work as a reporter.
“Once I received a letter which said that I should surrender to the Taliban and apologize for my activities. If I didn’t turn myself in to the Taliban, I would be the one to blame for everything that might happen to me or my family,” she said.
The drastic changes under the Taliban’s rule stood in stark contrast with the freedoms Afghan women enjoyed under the previous government.
Sofiea, An Afghan female entrepreneur who designed her own clothing line shared her experiences with Sputnik about what life was like for women in Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power in the country.
“After 2001 when the Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan, girls and women living in the country, especially those living in the capital city Kabul, experienced big changes. For young girls in Afghanistan, when we watched a movie or saw famous stars, like Indian actresses or Hollywood actresses wearing beautiful dresses on the red carpet, we tried to make similar dresses for ourselves. Some girls even became fashion models,” Sofiea told Sputnik.
She started her own fashion brand named “Sofiea Design” and sold different kinds of traditional Afghan dresses for women which she designed. Her online shop’s Facebook page attracted over 3,000 likes and she served customers from all over the country, and even had some overseas clients.
“I started my business with two other Afghan women in June 2020. The business was going very well and we sold many dresses to women from all over Afghanistan. We even had foreigners from the US or European countries sending us emails and asking about our dresses. We made good money,” Sofiea said.
However, everything changed when the Taliban took over the country.
“They [the Taliban] don’t know anything about women’s rights. I had a lot of plans for my future. I wanted to make my future better. But it’s impossible under the Taliban,” Sofiea said.
Nevertheless, some defiant Afghan mothers were determined to help their daughters continue to receive proper education, even if it meant home schooling them.
Being a 13-year-old girl in Afghanistan in 1996, FD, who wished only to be identified by the initials of her name, could no longer go to school because of new restrictions the Taliban introduced after taking power. Fortunately, the Taliban’s ban did not halt FD’s education thanks to her mother, who was a school teacher and decided to continue to teach her at home.
Today, FD’s oldest daughter, who is 15, faces the exact same challenges of going to school, after the Taliban took over the country once again in August. Following in her mother’s footsteps, FD decided to help her daughter and other girls in the neighborhood by running an underground school out of her apartment.
“Unfortunately, history has repeated itself in a bad way in Afghanistan. My children are experiencing the same troubles as I did more than 20 years ago. But we shouldn’t give up and we should invest our time and resources in the next generation,” FD told Sputnik.
FD and her husband, who is a doctor, started to offer various classes for girls at her daughter’s age from their apartment in Kabul.
Despite the Taliban’s promises to offer general amnesty for Afghans who worked with the United States, Faridon, a former Afghan interpreter for US Forces, who also worked closely with the Afghan Air Force, shared with Sputnik the details of the life-threatening dangers he experienced in recent months.
“It’s just an announcement of general amnesty for those who worked for the [former Afghan] government and those who worked for the coalition forces like me. It’s just a promise. But on the other hand, they’re still raiding people’s homes and killing Afghan nationals who did such work every day,” Fraidon told Sputnik.
When the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August, Faridon burned all his personal documents that could link him with this previous job of working for the US forces and went into hiding in a safe location in a remoted area in Kabul far away from his home.
According to Faridon, a group of Taliban soldiers stormed into his home, where his parents still lived, on Oct 9 and demanded the family to hand over the “infidel” who worked for the Americans.
The Taliban came to his home again on October 13 and went away empty handed. To Faridon’s surprise, he later found out that the reason the Taliban raided his home was not because they saw pictures or videos of him working for the US forces. It was because his aunt, who is a cousin of his mother, reported him to the Taliban.
“She told my mother:’ Soon, your son will die. I know where he is.’ She actually doesn’t know where I am right now. My mother told her that they can’t catch him, because he’s in the US,” he said.
Another Afghan national whose aunt’s husband was a commander in the Taliban faced similar dangers because of family connections.
“One night, my aunt called me and told me:’ Escape from your home and hide yourself, because my husband will seek revenge from you if the Taliban reaches Kabul,’” M, who wished only to be identified by the first letter of his name, told Sputnik.
M explained that his aunt’s husband became a Taliban commander a few years ago and was arrested by the Afghan government about two years ago. But because of the peace agreement initiated by the United States, his aunt’s husband was released last year and joined the Taliban once again upon his release.
Unlike Faridon, who chose to hide in Kabul, M decided to take the risks of paying human smugglers to flee the country through the border with Iran.
After paying $2500 to a smuggler, M set out on a daring adventure to try to flee the country through the land border with Iran.
“At around 2am at night, he sent a vehicle to pick me up. We drove through the Nimroz province to the border between Afghanistan and Iran. I stayed one night in Nimroz and the next night he sent another person to help me cross the border into Iran. We walked for about 10-12 hours until the next morning, when we saw a vehicle waiting for us. The vehicle drove us to Teheran [the Iranian capital],” M said.
Six other Afghan refugees joined M in Tehran and the group traveled together in a vehicle to the Iranian border with Turkey. They stayed in a village about 10 miles from the border for one night. After crossing the land border through a mountainous area, the group had to walk for another 10 hours before reaching a safe house. The next day, they walked through various villages in the Van province in Turkey.
After renting a cheap apartment in Istanbul, Turkey for a few weeks, M paid another smuggler to board a ship in an attempt to reach Italy.
Unfortunately, M’s ship broke down in the middle of the Mediterranean before it could reach Italy. Along with other refugees on the ship, M was taken into custody by the Greek coast guards and held in a camp for illegal immigrants in Greece.
M said he began to try to apply for asylum in Greece.
The instant collapse of the Afghan government also forced M to make the unimaginable choice as a husband and a parent: to leave his wife and three young children, aged six, five and two, behind.
“I left my wife and my three children in Afghanistan. It was an emergency and I could not take them out of the country with me. It’s a very difficult situation. I think no one else can feel my situation. This situation shocked me. Sometimes, I think I’m in a dream. This is a dream,” he said.
If he couldn’t obtain an SIV visa from the United States, M hoped that he could build a new life as a refugee in Europe and make enough money to move his wife and children from Afghanistan in the future.
Other Afghan nationals who worked for the US forces like Faridon still held hopes that the US government would fulfilling its pledges to evacuate Afghan allies.
NEW CHALLENGES IN NEW LIFE
At the same time, the Afghan nationals who were safely evacuated to the United States continued to face new challenges when they tried to start a new life.
K., a female Afghan student, told Sputnik that she was haunted by ethnic tensions and stereotypes she thought she left behind in her home country during her stay at the US military base Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.
As a member of the Hazara ethnic group from Afghanistan, K had to continue to face insults from Afghan evacuees who were from the dominate Pashtun ethnic group.
“I am a Hazara and here are a lot of Pashtun people. They treat us very badly whenever they see us. Most refugees are Pashtun in here,” K said.
K explained that the Pashtun Afghans at Fort McCoy picked on her exactly because of her appearance.
“They say: ‘why you are here? Instead of the US, you have to go to Iran or China.’ They call us Chinese because we look like Chinese,” she said.
In addition to dealing with ethnic tensions at Fort McCoy, what worried K more was her future plans.
After majoring in economics for two years at the Asian University for Women, K’s original plan was to pursue a Master’s degree at a Western university in the United Kingdom or the United States upon graduation.
However, her evacuation to Fort McCoy made it impossible for her to continue her education at the Asian University for Women. Although she had received a full scholarship from the prestigious Brown University in Rhode Island, it was only for a one-year English language training program. If she wanted to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at Brown University, she had to start over at the age of 24.
Other Afghans who settled into a new life in the United States earlier told Sputnik that they were grateful to be living safely in a new country where people were tolerate of their traditions.