In the wake of the suicide bombs at Kabul airport by ISIS terrorists, I must pay tribute to those Americans who have been helping to rescue endangered Afghans.
That includes the U.S. Marines who died while trying to help carry out evacuations, along with civic organizations, universities, veterans groups, and ordinary citizens who have sought to help from friendship or decency. And many midlevel State Department employees who worked tirelessly to save prominent Afghan women.
This is the story of what it took to get one Afghan woman activist evacuated and why another is still in hiding in Kabul. It was told to me in texts and emails, and WhatsApp phone calls. The women’s names aren’t used for safety reasons.
Their harrowing experiences reflect the greater tragedy of a precipitous exit from a 20-year war that two Republican and two Democratic presidents badly mishandled. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 the group that hosted Osama bin Laden has returned to power.
They have already told Afghan women, including many educated professionals, to stay at home for “security” reasons. This is the same flimsy excuse for confining women that Taliban leaders used when I visited Kabul in 1999 during their previous reign.
They may not have had a connection to the bombing, since the group that committed it, ISIS-K, is their enemy. But they have not changed their spots.
Which is why I am thrilled that one friend, who ran several shelters for endangered Afghan women, has escaped the Taliban’s grasp. But I am devastated that another has not.
A woman who escaped
Earlier this month, as the Taliban first began taking provincial capitals, the friend who ran shelters texted me in a panic. As the Taliban advanced, they were opening up prisons, including one that held male relatives of the battered women she was protecting, men who had threatened to kill her before.
She fled to hide in Kabul just before Taliban arrived at her home, looking for her by name. Here is where American humanitarians stepped in. Alerted of her plight by a group called Scholars at Risk, which helps endangered foreign academics, and by the Institute of International Education (IIE), Rutgers University generously offered her a year’s fellowship. This entitles her and her family to academic visas.
But getting those visas was nearly impossible because the American Embassy has been closed for COVID-19. As she rushed to the Turkish and Indian Embassies, the Taliban moved into Kabul and all foreign embassies were shuttered. She retreated back to hiding as the Taliban began pressing her relatives to reveal her location.
Three times she made it through the scary crush and the Taliban; once her flight was canceled, once her name was misspelled on a State Department document at the airport entrance, and once her name was not on the list at the gate.
At that point her friends in Philly, Scranton, and Perkiomenville sprang into action, along with Sen. Bob Casey’s office and Rutgers. Calls to the State Department, recommendation letters by former ambassadors who knew her, and still she heard nothing, ever fearful that neighbors in Kabul might report her hiding place to the Taliban.
Then suddenly, an email on Aug. 21: “I have good news to share with you that finally, we have arrived at Frankfurt airport in Germany.” The phone call to evacuate had come in the wee hours. (I still don’t know how she made it to the airport.)
Now she is in a holding camp outside Dresden, going through quarantine; the IIE and Rutgers have managed to get her clothing (she had been wearing the same for a week) and SIM cards for phones. She is free, but her staff, the victims in her shelters, and her extended family face Taliban rule.
Many splendid Afghan women have not been so lucky.
A woman who can’t get out
Another woman I know, a permanent U.S. resident, head of many U.S. aid projects in Afghanistan, has been hunkered down in Kabul, waiting for an evacuation call that never came. When she traveled to the airport on her own, she was beaten back by rifle butts at the gate, despite holding out her Green Card.
Her colleagues at USAID and elsewhere have tried over and over to get her prioritized for evacuation.
She fled the Taliban for the first time when she was 9 years old but spent the last two decades trying to build a new Afghanistan — promoting foreign trade and economic development. She writes:
“After 20 years of constant work, I am standing where my mom used to stand [under the Taliban] as the new game of survival has just begun. The Taliban will burn the city we built to ashes again and will take down … all those who shouldered the responsibility for building it. …
“It’s a week now that Kabul is under Taliban control. And we became slaves again! 21 yrs is wasted. U.S. four presidents’ work, trillions of dollars, millions of lives to replace Taliban with Taliban.
“Humanity has died, women rights is in danger and children won’t be able to dream again. … My soul is wounded and it will never heal! I am exhausted physically and mentally like all those in Kabul and around the country but none of us can afford collapsing now.”
The 13 U.S. military dead, along with 60 Afghan victims, reflect the desperation felt by Afghans who risked death to get to the airport gate. Those Americans who have rallied to help the Afghan people should keep pressing the White House to make any dealings with the Taliban conditional on permitting those Afghans who want out to leave.