S pc. Fazel Roufi saw the madness right away. It was 5 p.m. on Aug. 17 when the C-17 Globemaster carrying Roufi and his fellow soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division dropped its ramp at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. The soldiers were told to lock and load their weapons before descending onto a tarmac blanketed with the detritus of refugees: left-behind clothing and empty water bottles swirling in the wind.
Everyone was on a razor’s edge, no one more than Roufi. Kabul was his hometown. He had not eaten since he left his Fort Bragg home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and choked back vomit as he walked onto the tarmac. He was frightened, but the fear wasn’t for himself. He squinted into the sun and saw the roads adjacent to the airport where he used to ride his bicycle as a boy on his way to English lessons. Those streets were now choked with thousands of would-be refugees, their meager possessions strapped to their backs, mothers grasping the hands of screaming and frightened children. They had arrived at the airport with papers signifying varying degrees of American affiliation; letters of recommendations from long-gone embassy personnel; and cellphone testimonials from now-retired Army officers who they translated for during the forever war.
Somewhere beyond the gates were Roufi’s mom and dad, his six sisters and four brothers, their spouses, and a handful of nephews and nieces, 24 in total. They desperately wanted out of Afghanistan and were counting on him. He wondered if they were nearby, jammed into cars on a side street or back home with the shades drawn.
The Afghan government had fallen 48 hours earlier, and the Taliban had entered Kabul. A madness descended over the city. There was no law and order. At the airport, the Taliban shot at U.S. Marines. They returned fire and killed two of the insurgents. Meanwhile, hundreds of Afghans broke through airport fences and chased a departing C-17 down the runway, some of them plummeting to their deaths from the wheel well of the plane.
Back in Washington, President Biden insisted this was not another Saigon. The right-wingers squealed that America was in disgrace, and the K Street crowd gathered for coffee and pastries at the Willard Hotel, raking in retainers from international conglomerates trying to get their assets out of the country.
Roufi knew it was a mad world. He had watched for two decades as billions of dollars and 176,000 dead resulted in Afghanistan replacing the Taliban with the Taliban. He knew the United States had followed the British Empire and the Soviet Union into the graveyard of Afghanistan. But Roufi wasn’t concerned with affairs of state. He already knew that the fate of Afghan families could be decided by a piece of paper or the mood of a scared young soldier.
He wasn’t the only one. Arriving at Hamid Karzai International Airport on the same day was 1st Lt. Marshall Shekib, another 82nd Airborne member and Kabul native with family in danger. Their paths would cross in three days, but right now they both fought alone.
Earlier that day, Roufi’s family had tried to make it to the airport gates, but the crush of people had reached dystopian levels. Shots rang out, the Taliban brandished whips, and mothers tossed their babies to Marines in hopes of getting them out of the country.
Roufi had last talked to his mom and dad on the phone 12 hours earlier, during a refueling stop in Germany. He could tell they were in trouble. His family had watched an Afghan policeman shoot a man trying to climb a fence and witnessed a woman run over by a truck. They were scared, and he could sense in the voice of Abdul, Roufi’s proud father, that he and the family were losing hope.
Through the fuzzy connection, Roufi heard women screaming and men shouting, the sound of bedlam. Then he recognized the voice of his 18-year-old sister, Fatima, the baby of the family. Fatima wanted to be a journalist and possessed a composure beyond her years. But right now her voice was mad with fear.
“Fazel, the Taliban are coming over to us. The Taliban are going to kill us. Fazel!”
And then the line went dead. For the next 12 hours, Roufi feared his family was dead. And he feared it was his fault. After all, he was the one who came to the United States and became an American soldier.
Roufi never thought he would go home again. That was all right with him. There were things he missed about Kabul; mostly his brothers and sisters crowded in the four-level house in the Khair Khana district, a modern section of Kabul that suggested all of the city’s hope and possibilities. He longed for his mother’s qabili palau, a meat-and-rice dish, and sharing a conspiratorial look with his dad when the old man slipped away to throw dice with his police buddies.
He was six years old when the twin towers fell, and the Americans arrived in Kabul. He remembered his mother and aunts rejoicing at their new freedoms after the Taliban were chased back into the caves and hills. His big brown eyes lit up when coalition troops walked the streets dispersing chocolates and soccer balls. Some suspicious Afghans declined the goodies, claiming the candy was poison and the balls somehow included listening devices. Roufi didn’t care, he and his friends just wanted to play like Cristiano Ronaldo, whose poster hung on his bedroom wall.
But there was much he didn’t miss. As a kid, he took up kickboxing, eventually becoming a junior national champion, so he could protect himself from thieves and gangs on his long walk to school. Afghanistan was a country where you were always on guard. The country had been run by communists, theocrats, and now kleptocrats. He knew the only Afghan certainty was that the political chairs would be rearranged, and some Afghans would pay with their lives.
You were always being watched. A friendly high-five with a Yankee soldier might be filed away and used against you during the next, inevitable regime transformation.
“Things will change, and then they will change again,” his father told him. “You have to be always careful.”
In between, there was violence. One of Roufi’s English-class requirements was to daily translate a news article from his native Pashto to English. Roufi cheated by translating the same car-bomb story every day, just changing the neighborhood or town. A bomb was always going off somewhere in Roufi’s world.
He graduated from high school in 2011. Roufi’s English was good and he was smart, so it was not hard for him to get a commission in the Afghan army. He was made a captain after a year at military academy. But Roufi had dreams other than to be sent to a faraway province to fight the Taliban. He applied for a student visa designed for Afghan officers to continue their education in the United States.
The agreement was that he would study for two years and come back and serve his country. He ended up in San Antonio and almost immediately met a kind and selfless girl named Vanessa at a crowded BBQ joint. She taught him about Mexican food and the seemingly indecipherable culture of the Lone Star State. They fell in love and married within six months. Roufi’s father, Abdul, went to his Afghan commander and explained that if Roufi came home he would not be eligible to return to the U.S. and his bride for 10 years. Abdul’s commander smiled and said anyone who could get out of Afghanistan had his blessing.
Roufi took some classes and worked security. But he felt an obligation to his new country. He wanted to thank America for welcoming him, and the best way he knew was to enlist in the United States Army. The Army welcomed him, but there was a catch. Roufi had always wanted to be an intelligence officer, but since he was not yet a citizen, his career path was either the infantry or as a mechanic — nothing that might provide him with sensitive information.
After basic training, he scored well on his placement tests and received bonus points on his Army profile for speaking Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s two primary languages. He was also athletic and in terrific condition. He would still be a mechanic, but it would be with the 82nd Airborne Division, elite paratroopers whose reputation stretched from Normandy to Ramallah.
Vanessa and Roufi moved to Fort Bragg, the 82nd’s home, settled into a two-level ranch house, and decorated it with pictures of their family. Roufi got his “wings” after completing jump school, and he slipped into a routine of repairing the unit’s Humvees and other military vehicles. Sometimes, he was a little bored. He had come here to do great things, and now he was doing oil changes for a living.
Covid hit and Roufi had more time to think. He didn’t want to be a career soldier, he wanted to move to Miami and maybe open a restaurant. (This would be a battle with Vanessa since she wanted to move home to Texas.) His dreams were sanctified when he became an American citizen in the summer of 2020. Now, he reasoned, nothing was impossible. He just had another two years left on his enlistment.
Then last spring, the calls and texts started coming in from his family. The Americans were leaving. There was happy talk that the Afghan government would be able to hang on to at least Kabul for years.
And then the happy talk changed: Maybe they could hold Kabul for a year or six months. By July, the Taliban were taking long-held government strongholds. Roufi told his family to be calm, he would check on their visa applications — some had been languishing for a decade. Roufi began hearing rumors that the 82nd Airborne might deploy to Kabul to help extricate American “friendlies” and their families. He thought this might mean his family; they had been pro-American and had a son in the American Army. Still, he didn’t know what he could do for them. He was just a mechanic.
The summer wore on, and the Afghan government kept losing territory. Roufi reasoned the Afghan generals and their troops would make a stand in Kabul, if not for the country then to save the lavish lifestyle they’d built on whatever they could skim from the Americans in schemes that ranged from pocketing the salaries of ghost soldiers to banking the proceeds from nonexistent body armor.
“The government won’t fall,” Roufi told Abdul, his father, on a WhatsApp call. “Rich people have too much to lose.”
He was wrong. The generals cut deals with the Taliban and fled for Tajikistan or Pakistan, wherever they had stashed their money and their girlfriends. Soon, the city was defenseless. Shop owners ripped down hair-salon posters advertising Western cuts. On the afternoon of Aug. 15, the president fled to Tajikistan on a helicopter without telling his senior staff. Kabul was up for grabs.
His sisters’ professional lives — the older two were a dentist and a surgeon — ended that day. And if the Taliban or ISIS-K terrorists who had infiltrated Afghanistan during the chaos learned the sisters had a brother serving in the U.S. Army, Roufi’s whole family might be killed. He told his family to go to the airport. From Fort Bragg, he was able to FaceTime at the gate with an 82nd paratrooper already on the ground.
“My family is there; can you help them?” yelled Roufi into a bad FaceTime connection.
“Bro, it’s insane here,” said the soldier. “I can’t do anything.”
Roufi had one card left to play. The 82nd has an open-door policy in which a soldier can skip the chain of command in case of an emergency. He talked to his division chaplain, and later that afternoon he was escorted to the offices of Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, a gruff but charismatic Army man. Donahue was driving back from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon on 9/11 when a jet crashed into the complex and killed 184 of his colleagues. He’d been fighting in the war without end for two decades and had deployed 17 times to Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, and Syria. He had killed the Taliban and the Taliban had killed his friends. Now 51, Donahue was preparing to lead his soldiers back to Kabul to a war he’d been told was over.
Spc. Roufi was escorted into Donahue’s office amid a tornado of majors and colonels with maps and briefing books. Roufi knew he needed to project confidence that he could be an asset, so he stood ramrod straight and saluted the general.
Donahue was called by some “the Flatliner” because his temperament never changed no matter how dicey the situation. He looked up at Roufi with unreadable eyes.
“What can I do for you, soldier?”
Roufi spoke up.
“My whole family is in Kabul. I need to help them. I don’t want them to die.”
Donahue asked Roufi if he spoke Pashto and Dari well enough to translate for him and his staff.
“General, I can.”
Donahue looked back at Roufi for a long moment.
“You’re my guy. We will get your family out.”
Roufi summoned up the last of his courage.
“Do you mean it?”
Donahue stared back at the specialist.
“Go pack your gear. We’re leaving in two hours.”
First Lt. Marshall Shekib had taken a different approach than Roufi. He didn’t tell his family he was in Kabul until he was on the ground. His reluctance to leverage his position to save his family was wrapped up in an almost pathological sense of duty to his new country. He had served 12 years in the Army, rising from grunt to officer. He would tell anyone who would listen that the United States had not invaded Afghanistan but liberated the country.
Like Roufi, the granite-jawed Shekib had been raised in Kabul. He grew up in a Westernized family, complete with HBO and a coveted box full of Jean-Claude Van Damme VCR tapes. After graduating from high school, Shekib was teaching English to Afghan children when an American soldier told him that he could triple his salary if he came to Camp Dynamite and translated in Kabul for Americans on patrol.
For the next three years, Shekib translated at night and went to college during the day. He moved into the camp and varied his routes to the university in case he was followed. Eventually, Shekib was granted a visa for himself, his wife, and his infant son to immigrate to America, based on his years of service. Like Roufi, Shekib wanted to give something back to his new country. He enlisted in the Army within a year of arriving in the United States. He was speed-rushed through a translator program and was deployed in 2010 to the northern province of Faryab, near the Turkmenistan border, where the Afghan government had only the illusion of control.
Following protocol, Shekib was ordered to brief his commanding officer on how he could be most useful to his new unit. Some of the Afghan American translators had special privileges, including being given posher tents near command. Shekib did not want that. He told his commanding officer he could best help not by representing himself as a pampered translator, but by standing in the background of meetings between Afghan locals and his commanding officer as an ordinary soldier and listening to the official translation. Afterward, he would tell his boss if the translators left out any details or if they expressed anti-American sentiments in their side conversations. Shekib said this would only work if the rest of the unit’s soldiers thought he was just another grunt who bunked in a squad tent.
Shekib’s colonel liked the idea and told him to report to the staff sergeant, who would give him a more Americanized name tag to wear on patrol. The sergeant sized up Shekib and told him that he looked like a guy in the unit named Sanchez.
“Go get one of his name tags.”
To pull off the ruse, Shekib left his sunglasses on while on patrol, and his fellow soldiers were told he was Hispanic and from outside Los Angeles. The scheme worked well for six or seven months. Then, the colonel and Shekib approached a border tower outside a Faryab village made up of a few dozen mud huts. It was a standard meet-and-greet with local officials. What Shekib didn’t realize was that the actual Afghan border unit had been kidnapped and the Taliban were wearing their uniforms. While his colonel was talking to the head of the unit, Shekib stood within listening distance of a Taliban soldier. One of them held a Russian-made PKM machine gun. They started whispering in Pashto.
“Take the PKM up in the tower,” one said, “and shoot the officer and his Humvee.”
Shekib knew what he heard and waited until one of the Taliban stepped toward the tower. He screamed at the two soldiers in Pashto.
“Drop your weapons. Now.”
His colonel recognized the situation and shouted at the rest of his men.
“Do exactly what Sanchez says.”
The Taliban were disarmed, and everyone was safe.
During his whole time in Afghanistan, Shekib didn’t dare reach out to his family in Kabul, just 400 miles away. He returned to the United States and spent the next decade working his way up the ranks, eventually going to Officer Candidate School. He was commissioned a lieutenant and became an intelligence officer in 2019.
In August, he got his orders to fly out to Kabul with the division’s First Brigade. He drove home, told his wife and son that he was being deployed and that he could be gone for six months. He pet his German shepherd and then drove back to the base for his flight. He didn’t text his sister in Kabul, reasoning that he didn’t want to get her hopes up in case the mission went sideways.
After arriving at HKIA, he lost himself in trying to get translators squared away, and it was not until his second day on the ground that he got a text via WhatsApp from his sister, who lived less than three miles away.
“Things are bad here. People are flying out, leaving the country.”
Shekib texted her back.
At first, she didn’t believe him.
If Roufi and Shekib represented the human drama of the Kabul evacuation at the micro level, Donahue saw the larger picture that was no less fucked up. He was briefed repeatedly on the 24-hour journey from Fort Bragg to Kabul. The Taliban were beating the crowd outside the airport. There had been stampedes that had killed an unknown number of Afghans. People were dying of heart attacks and dehydration. A soldier offered a water bottle to an old man, and a dozen or so refugees swarmed the man in the hope of getting a sip.
The only solution was something that would have been unimaginable just days before: cooperate with the Taliban. The two-star Donahue was the deputy commander of American troops under Navy Adm. Peter Vasley, a longtime colleague whose leadership skills meshed with his own. This was fortuitous. Vasley left Donahue in charge of extraction of all forces from the airport. Donahue had years of experience in fighting the Taliban, but more recently had found “common interests,” as the Americans like to call it, specifically a shared enemy, ISIS-K, a regional offshoot of the terrorist organization as sadistically violent as the original model.
Before coming to the 82nd, Donahue had served as the commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the successor to Operation Enduring Freedom, America’s original Afghan mission. According to a senior military official, Donahue and American forces entered into a realpolitik relationship with the Taliban in 2019, and provided air support as they wiped out ISIS-K forces in Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden’s old hiding place. Donahue knew all the Taliban players.
Donahue arrived on the same flight as Roufi, and after a quick meeting with Vasley, commandeered a Jeep and set out for a reconnaissance of the airport with a few soldiers.
Almost immediately, they spotted a half-dozen Taliban with rifles sweeping out the main terminal. Donahue swore to himself.
“Get them out of there.”
Donahue made his way to the roof of the terminal. According to a witness, he found eight Taliban snipers with their rifles trained on the gates where Marines and despairing Afghans were gathering again at full swell. The American and Taliban stared at one another for a moment. Donahue spoke first in English and then through his translator.
“Get the hell off the roof. You’re done, get out.”
The Taliban descended the stairs, and Donahue called for two squads to take their place.
Donahue understood that the Americans and Taliban were at a surreal crossroads. The Taliban had won the war, but the Americans still had the firepower to destroy their Kabul forces and level the country. He ordered a jet fighter to fly over the Taliban’s airport positions fast and low. That got the Taliban’s attention. He then met with the leader of the Taliban at the airport, a member of the group’s elite Red Unit, and told him he wanted to meet with the Taliban’s Kabul military commander.
Four hours later, Donahue and his staff sat down in a nondescript conference room at the airport with Qari Hamdullah Mohlis, the Taliban’s longtime military strategist. (Mohlis had reached a level of international fame two days earlier when he was the first Taliban leader to enter the presidential palace.) The room was full of Taliban and American soldiers who had done good and terrible things for their sides, and now eyed one another warily. Donahue and Mohlis had been hunting each other for years, and there was a grudging respect, according to a senior military officer in the meeting.
“Let’s just cut to the chase,” said Donahue, according to eyewitness accounts. “You need us more than we need you.”
Mohlis didn’t say much, letting Donahue talk himself out. Donahue then pulled out a map.
“Check it out, here’s where all your positions are. There’s a B-52 and there’s a B-1 over top. I’m telling you right now what they’re gonna do,” Donahue said. “They have every single one of your positions lined in. And if you shoot at us, we will kill every one of your checkpoints. And if you think I’m screwing around, you know me, and I know you. Tempt us.”
No one was quite sure if this was a legit threat or First World machismo — the United States had the firepower to do what Donahue said, but what would a departing America do with a bombed-out Kabul and thousands of casualties on their hands? At the moment, American troops were turtled in at the airport. Maybe it was bullshit, but the Taliban didn’t know for sure. Donahue and Mohlis’ staff worked out some rough parameters. The Taliban would completely exit the airport and set up a checkpoint 50 to 100 yards from the airport’s three entrances: the North, South, and Abbey gates. To try to restore some order, Marine and Army soldiers would communicate directly with their Taliban counterparts at the gates with translators like Roufi and Shekib facilitating the talks.
This isn’t to say there was trust. Donahue and his staff knew the Taliban were ruthless killers. Still, both sides agreed that thousands of Afghans arriving at the gates was a huge problem and pledged to work out a system in which refugees would arrive in groups, not as individuals. American soldiers would deliver to the Taliban a list of State Department-approved refugees arriving on buses. The Taliban would check the list and then let the group through. The meeting broke up, and both sides expressed hope of bringing a modicum of order to the situation.
It seemed like a good plan.
Spc. Roufi wasn’t at the meeting. The general had told him to find his family and bring them into the airport. But that was an onerous task. The entire clan had retreated back to their home after the Taliban had started moving in their direction.
Roufi’s father was ready to give up. It wasn’t only the Taliban that 63-year-old Abdul Roufi dreaded — he feared losing his family. There was no way, Abdul reasoned, the Americans would let all of them into their country. Maybe he and his wife and his daughters could get out, but that would splinter their family and destroy his wife, Diljan, a tiny but powerful force in the family. Besides, who would he be in America?
“What will I do there?” Abdul asked Diljan. “I’m old and don’t speak the language. I’ll have nothing.”
But then Abdul looked at his daughters, so successful and smart. They had no future, and to Abdul, that meant he had no future there, either. When Roufi reached one of his brothers and told them to come to the airport’s South Gate, Abdul knew it was the right thing to do. They quickly grabbed their small “go” bags and piled into three cars, leaving a house and an entire life behind.
The drive to the airport usually took 20 minutes. This time, it took an hour. Ahmed, one of Roufi’s older brothers, drove the lead car in the caravan. They passed their fellow Afghans, some trudging toward the airport, others straggling back home, ghosts covered in dust and blood.
The gates at the airport were known by different names to locals, so Roufi told his brother to head toward the customs building on Hotkhel Street. Roufi jumped on top of a concrete barrier and looked for his family. It was crucial that the Taliban not know that the Roufi family were being moved through the gate by a brother and son who now wore the American uniform. The Taliban could bar them from leaving, and from there was an endless parade of grim possibilities. The Taliban had been known to seize the houses of American sympathizers, kill the patriarch, and pair the women off with Taliban soldiers looking for brides. Roufi told his brother Ahmed to signal when he saw him, but not to betray any emotion that they were related.
When Roufi finally spotted his brother, his heart nearly exploded. It had been six long years since he had seen his family. But he just nodded and looked away. His family bunched together to one side. Roufi and another translator walked the few remaining steps to the gate. Roufi wore a uniform without rank — better to confuse enemy snipers as to who were the senior officers. Roufi had never been in combat but put on his best thousand-yard stare and pointed at his family. He gestured to the Taliban.
“Let them through.”
The Taliban soldier asked a question.
“How many of them?”
On the flight over, Roufi promised himself he wouldn’t get greedy; he would just bring in his mother and father and his sisters, the men would have to make their own way. But then he saw two things: the hellish conditions in Kabul and the well-heeled Afghan apparatchiks already in the terminal with their extended families. He saw the faces of the little nephews and nieces he had never met. How could he save some and condemn others to misery? He embraced his newly acquired American exceptionalism.
“Bring all of them through.”
Roufi’s family began to file through the gate two by two. A dead-tired Marine erupted with anger when he realized that Roufi was bringing in a small army of Afghans. He looked at Roufi, with his beard, and probably wondered if he was special ops or CIA. He paused for a minute and then learned Roufi’s rank — he was just another soldier.
“No fucking way. You can’t bring that many people in.”
Usually, Roufi would have made nice. This time he didn’t. “We have an order,” he said. “This is my family, and they’re in danger.”
The Marine still resisted. He’d been on the gate for hours and seen Afghans claw and scratch to move one yard closer to the gate. Now, he was asked to let in 24 people who had emerged out of nowhere. He wasn’t backing down.
“You can’t do this.”
At this point, having friends in high places changed the direction of 24 lives. A special-forces officer that Donahue had sent along in case of trouble spoke up.
“You’ll let them through, per General Donahue’s orders.”
And just like that, the Roufi family was through the gate. Neither Roufi nor his family showed any emotion until they had moved out of sight of the Taliban. His mother began to cry, but not Roufi. For the next six hours, he managed his family through the security checkpoints and bureaucracy of a mass exodus. At 2 a.m., the family joined a line and began walking toward a C-17 bound for Qatar. He noticed that his mother, his sisters, and their children looked frightened. He didn’t understand why until one of them explained it to him. None of them had ever been on an airplane before. His mother seemed calmer than the rest.
“If we crash, it will be our way to freedom,” she said.
Roufi stayed with his family until the plane was ready. He then watched the aircraft take off and disappear into the night. It was then that he finally cried.
“They’re getting out, they’re getting out,” he told one of his fellow soldiers, repeating the words. He then threw up and stumbled toward the airport’s main terminal, where Gen. Donahue had set up shop. He found a spot in a hallway outside an abandoned dining hall and laid down on the floor, his helmet his only pillow. He was asleep in seconds.
In the TV movie, this is when the credits roll. But Roufi had 12 more days in Kabul. He had saved his family, but now he had to help others. Two days later, Roufi was ordered by Gen. Donahue to help 1st Lt. Shekib and another Afghan American soldier get their families out. Shekib was still apprehensive about taking time off from his duties for a personal quest and had to be counseled by the division chaplain that it was OK.
Roufi checked the gates through the 82nd’s video cameras and saw the North Gate was the least chaotic. He told Shekib to tell his family to make their way there as quickly as possible.
After Shekib’s sister recovered from her shock that her brother was on the ground and less than three miles away, he told her to call his mother-in-law and sister-in-law. He told them to come to the North Gate with nothing more than what they could carry. He asked her to send a photo of what she was wearing so he might try to spot her in the crowd.
“Don’t change your clothes,” Shekib told her. “This is the only way I can find you.”
His sister had another concern. She wanted to bring $2,000 in American money, but she feared some American soldier might steal it when she got inside the gate.
Shekib’s voice rose with exasperation as he heard her fear.
“They are not going to steal your money,” he told her. “Soldiers don’t do that to each other.”
Their first attempt was a failure. It was near midnight when they arrived, and with the crowds and darkness they couldn’t get close enough to the gate where Shekib could see them. Roufi offered his fellow soldier some advice.
“Tell them to come to the North Gate in the morning,” he told Shekib. “It won’t be so crazy.”
Shekib passed on the new plan to his sister. He then connected her with the two brothers and mother of Sgt. Sayeed Omar, another 82nd Airborne soldier trying to get his family out of Kabul.
Daylight provided easier sight lines but posed different problems. The crowds were even larger and unmanageable. The desperate Afghans were sent into a further panic when the Taliban began firing into the air in order to drive the mob back. Sgt. Omar’s brother was struck in the face with the butt of an AK-47.
Eventually, Shekib spotted his sister. He had another soldier vigorously point that she and the rest of her party needed to work their way to his left. This was a mistake. The entire crowd saw the American’s hand gesture and they moved as a mob in that direction, nearly crushing Shekib’s family. Shekib called his sister back and told her he would have the soldier signal again, but this time they should move in the opposite direction of where he pointed. That worked, and the six Afghans went against the wave of refugees. Still, others in the mob saw through the misdirection and grabbed at Shekib’s family. Shekib continued not to make direct eye contact with his sister, lest the Taliban connect them, but he stole a glance and caught a glimpse of her face. She had grown from a girl into a young woman since Shekib last saw her in 2008, and he recognized the sheer terror in her eyes. She had a hunted look on her face that he said would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The six reached the gate and grasped hands. Shekib and Omar formed a chain with some other soldiers and began pulling them through, one by one. His sister-in-law was last. A man Shekib had never seen held tightly to her hand. He spoke to Shekib in Pashto.
“I am her husband.”
Shekib barked back.
“No, you’re not.”
He wrested the man’s vise-like grip on his sister-in-law and pulled her through. They were free.
Fazel Roufi’s days blended into a horrifying sameness. Part of the day would be spent with Donahue’s senior staff translating papers and communications coming in from the Taliban, and the rest would be spent at the gates, trying to bring in Afghan Americans and Afghans with papers.
It was a hellscape that Dante could not have envisioned. On the day that he helped 1st Lt. Shekib’s family, Roufi watched the Marines try to keep control of the North Gate, driving the crowd back by shooting in the air and throwing flash-bang grenades. One exploded near a small child, tearing up his little face.
Roufi and the other American soldiers were told repeatedly not to cross the line into the crowd on the Afghan side of the gate, lest they be pulled into the throng and dragged away. It made sense, but it was so hard not to physically offer support when you saw so much misery and suffering. One afternoon, Roufi was translating for accepted Afghans when he saw the crowd surge forward toward the concertina wire separating the Afghans from the gate. Bodies began to pile up on top of one another. Roufi saw an old woman gasping for air at the bottom of the scrum, her lined face perilously close to being slashed by the wire. Roufi moved as close as he could to the wire and shouted at the woman.
“Grab my leg and don’t let go.”
The woman did as she was told, and the bodies were pulled off her. Roufi thought she was just another desperate Afghan, but then she staggered to her feet and spoke to him, flashing an American passport.
“I am a U.S. citizen. I am from California.”
The woman began to recede into the retreating mob. Roufi grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the Marines, who did not want to let her through since she was alone and not part of a sanctioned group. He shouted above the clamor.
“She has an American passport. Let her in.”
A Marine yanked on her and pulled her through to the processing line. She turned back toward Roufi.
He never saw her again.
All the gates into HKIA had different challenges and horrors. Shekib worked the South Gate, both translating and supervising enlisted translators. There were sharpshooters on the roof of a nearby terminal who had a panoramic view of the entire field of action. Down on the ground, Shekib stood more than 100 yards behind the Taliban lines with Marines and Army soldiers posted in a horseshoe pattern, with an eye on the gate. From that distance, Shekib could still see women holding their infants over their heads, as if saying, “If you can’t take me, take my child.”
Communicating with the Taliban had all the orderliness of a Three Stooges routine, and would have been equally hilarious if some elements of the Taliban weren’t brutalizing the Afghan crowds. Shekib and other soldiers would make their way to a chaotic middle ground, just short of the surging crowds, and present an older Taliban soldier with a printout of State Department-approved departees who should be allowed to pass through the gate. Invariably, an hour or two would pass and Shekib and the other soldiers would approach the Taliban and ask for a progress report.
“Is the bus ready to come through?” asked Shekib. “We’re ready for them.”
There would be much fumbling in the pockets, and the Taliban might pull out an exit list from two or three days ago, rarely the one that Shekib had given them an hour earlier. They’d try to stall and make small talk with Shekib.
“You look like a good Afghan. How did you end up serving in the imperialist’s army?”
Shekib lied. He told them that his father was Afghan, but he had been raised in the states by his American mother. Giving them real information, he reasoned, could only end badly for his family.
Invariably the younger Taliban soldier would defer to the older Taliban man who Shekib deduced was the boss, since he didn’t carry a rifle and was chauffeured for short distances that the other Taliban made on foot.
This maddening routine continued for days. Shekib and the others couldn’t tell if it was incompetence — not a great feeling for American soldiers who had just lost a war to the Taliban — or something more sinister. The more the Taliban played themselves as fumbling buffoons, the slower the Afghans moved through the gates, a disconcerting development as the calendar moved toward Aug. 31, the agreed-upon American departure date. Shekib eventually came to an inevitable conclusion: The Taliban didn’t want Afghans to leave the country. They wanted to run out the clock.
Shekib watched the older Taliban soldier with increasing interest. During one conversation, the man’s pocket began to ring and he wrestled with three or four phones, speaking into one in Pashto before realizing it was the wrong one. He flipped open a different one and began speaking in English with a Pakistani accent. It wasn’t until Shekib was back in the United States that he was able to identify the older man. He was Soahaib Saeed, the leader of the Taliban’s elite Badri Brigade, their version of special forces.
Gen. Donahue continued talking with Mohlis, his Taliban counterpart, on a regular basis. Despite the Taliban’s delay tactics, every day, more Afghans were flying to safety, reaching 14,000 refugees exiting on Aug. 20.
While Mohlis held the land and many of the airport-adjacent buildings that Donahue had used as command posts on earlier deployments, Donahue still controlled the sky, and that provided him with information about the Taliban’s movements. He also hinted to Mohlis that there were credible threats of suspicious men and vehicles operating near the gates.
According to a senior Army officer, Donahue shared something more personal with Mohlis. ISIS-K had targeted him for death.
“Be careful. They’re coming for you.”
Mohlis paused before responding through his translator.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve seen the intelligence. They’re coming for you, and they’re coming for me.”
Abbey Gate was supposed to be already closed. From the start, it had been a ticking time bomb. It was the one entrance where the Taliban held the high ground of midlevel buildings that provided a view of all the American operations. Conversely, the American soldiers had limited sights on the men and women being checked for documents. Meanwhile, American intelligence had identified a legitimate threat targeting Abbey Gate at an undetermined hour. Gen. Donahue and Adm. Vasley decided to close down the gate that afternoon, and their decision was passed on to the Pentagon.
And then it didn’t happen. The “why” will be argued about for years. The British forces had been processing their refugees at the nearby Barron Hotel, which described itself as “the most secure and comfortable hotel near Kabul airport.” Indeed, there were five manned towers on the hotel grounds, but after being processed at the hotel, most of the refugees then made their way on foot to the Abbey Gate, adding to the confusion.
On the morning of Aug. 26, the British Embassy sent an email to Afghans, saying that because of security threats they should not make their way to the gate. The email was poorly worded, and it wasn’t clear if this applied to just non-approved Afghans or to everyone.
The American plan was to close the gate in the afternoon, but the closure was reportedly delayed because the British were waiting on some last busloads of refugees. (The British have denied this, saying the refugees could have been routed to other gates.)
Whatever the reason, the gate was still open shortly before 6 p.m. That’s when an Afghan man made his way toward the Marines’ checkpoint. He waited until he was asked for his papers, as close as he could get to the Americans, before he detonated his suicide vest. Within seconds, the streets were soaked in blood and body parts. In the ensuing mayhem, gunfire rang out, adding to the body count. No one was sure if the gunfire came from Americans protecting their wounded, the Taliban, or other armed actors.
It didn’t matter. This was the “extreme casualty event” that the American military had feared since its arrival. Roufi was translating back at headquarters when he heard the distant explosion. Within a few minutes, he was rushed to a makeshift hospital to translate for doctors and victims. For about 30 minutes, he helped assemble and dress the American dead. Soon, Roufi was needed for the living. A Norwegian doctor grabbed him and brought him into a triage ward filled with the screams of wounded Afghans. Roufi and the other young soldiers weren’t prepared for this kind of carnage. Some stepped outside the tent and puked before returning to help.
After a few minutes, a screaming Afghan woman came in carrying her one-year-old baby girl. She thought her baby was OK after the blast, but she kept bleeding from behind her ear. A nurse grabbed the baby and told the woman to wait outside. A doctor examined the child and identified a piece of shrapnel that was embedded in her skull. The doctor made a snap decision.
“She needs to be medevacked to Germany.”
It fell to Roufi to counsel the mother. He found her wringing her hands outside the medical tent. “She needs to go to Germany,” he told her.
The Afghan mother had never flown or been outside her own country — Roufi might as well have informed her they were taking her baby to Mars. Roufi told her she could go to Germany with her child. The woman’s face filled with anguish.
“But my husband. He is still out there. I don’t know what happened to him. He could be bleeding.”
“Go with your kid,” Roufi told her. “She needs you right now. The rest will work out.”
The woman nodded. A nurse led the mother to her daughter. A little later, the mom and baby were led out to a medevac flight for a journey to a strange new world that might just save the child’s life.
Roufi never heard what happened to the baby girl and her mother. Instead, he went back to work. For five hours, he translated for the wounded, his hands covered in the blood of his countrymen. A crying girl with a leg wound and blood in her hair asked Roufi if she could find her mother. A boy with his head swaddled in bandages did the same. Roufi went outside to a nearby tent, where terrified relatives awaited news of loved ones. It turned out the two kids were siblings, and Roufi brought in their mother. She cried as she moved from stretcher to stretcher. Roufi eventually realized all seven of the mother’s children were in the hospital.
Some time after midnight, he made his way back to the 82nd Airborne’s headquarters. He knew of a storage room with a few cots. He collapsed on one of them and fell into a deep sleep.
It took less than an hour before he began having nightmares.
First Lt. Shekib stayed in Kabul until the end. He flew home on one of the last flights, sleeping most of the way. On his first night back home, his wife gently asked him a question.
“What was it like?”
Shekib gave her a hug.
“Everything is different,” he told her. “It’s not the Afghanistan we knew.”
Roufi left a day before the end of operations. But he didn’t fly directly home. Instead, he caught a ride on a C-130 bound for Doha, Qatar, where his family was being processed before heading to the U.S. Some of his family still feared that somehow they would be deported back to Afghanistan. Roufi wanted to ease those fears and expedite their journey to America. He didn’t have the energy to think of the country he was leaving behind again. Later, he’d have the reaction centuries of soldiers have had before him: “What was it all for?”
Before leaving on the last flight out of Kabul, Gen. Donahue told Mohlis, his Taliban counterpart, that no good could come out of the Taliban taking a rocket shot at the last American plane. He informed him that bombers, fighters, and drones were still lurking above. Mohlis understood. Donahue also reminded Mohlis to watch his back; American intelligence still suggested he was an ISIS-K target.
A few hours later, Donahue was the last American soldier to board the last plane out of Afghanistan. Somewhere in Kabul, Mohlis watched his longtime enemy depart his homeland. What he thought at that moment isn’t known. What is known is that on Nov. 2 Mohlis was killed by ISIS-K while visiting Taliban soldiers at a Kabul hospital. He outlasted the Americans by 63 days.
The other night, Fazel Roufi’s wife woke him up because he was crying in his sleep. Often, he dreamed of the children he met in Kabul. The babies being passed over barbed wire by their mothers. The 10-year-old boy separated from his family, and the little girl with shrapnel behind her ear. They all said the same thing, some in Pashto, some in Dari.
“Help me, Fazel. Help me.”
He tried, but he could never reach them.
During the day, he dealt with survivor’s guilt. A cousin he didn’t save was recently shot in the leg by the Taliban. The man texted Roufi, asking, “Why didn’t you get me out?”
Still, he didn’t have much time to dwell on personal healing. There were now 24 family members depending on Roufi and Vanessa to help them negotiate English classes, Medicaid eligibility, and finding a place of their own. Depending on the week, a dozen or so of his relatives were staying at their house.
Somehow, Fatima, the youngest, was the first to find a job. She wanted to become a journalist, but selling cosmetics at the mall would do for now. She was already sending money back to Afghan friends who face a winter of hunger and uncertainty. Abdul, Roufi’s lanky father, roamed the halls looking for things to do besides watching Afghan news on the satellite television. Roufi told him not to bother.
“Dad, you don’t have to worry about Afghanistan anymore. You’re here now.”
But his father still worried as he wandered the house, making the adjustment from chain-smoking to vaping. A proud man, it stung when he failed his driver’s test on his first try. He joked when a visitor asked if he ever thought that leaving Afghanistan was the right thing to do.
“Only every hour.” But then he smiled. “I have my family here.”
On Thanksgiving, the late-fall sun shone brightly in Fayetteville. Roufi and Vanessa — OK, mostly Vanessa and Roufi’s sisters — were preparing two turkeys and traditional Afghan dishes for the family’s first American holiday. The house was a montage of happy chaos: someone checking if there was enough Coca-Cola; a nephew asleep with his head resting against a foosball table; and another nephew, with giant round eyes, standing on a chair and smiling mischievously, as he bit into a giant pomegranate, the purple juice running down his face.
Food was served, including Roufi’s beloved qabili palau. The table settled into a babble of English and Pashto. At one end of the table sat Roufi’s mother, dressed in a traditional long white dress and headscarf. She didn’t say much, but smiled with contentment.
Before dessert, everyone was asked to say something they were thankful for. Their answers were similar, but Abdul, the patriarch, said it best.
“A little while ago, we thought we might all be dead.” He waited for Roufi to translate. Then he spoke again, breaking into a smile. “But here we are. We are all safe and together.”
Eventually it was Roufi’s turn. He wore a red Armani T-shirt and looked shy as he spoke in English.
“For a while, I didn’t think I was making a difference with my life. Just fixing trucks didn’t seem like much to brag about. But then I was able to help bring my family here.” He looked over at his wife across the table. “No matter what else happens, I was able to do this one good thing.”
Roufi’s mother’s eyes filled with tears after the words were translated. Mother and son shared a look. Just as quickly, the table erupted again in conversation in two languages. Laughter filled the house.
Everyone was home.