Immediately after the September 11th attacks, I called 'Mohammed', who saved my life when he drove me in Afghanistan as Kabul was sinking in 2001 like Afghanistan is dying? He spirited me through a Taliban checkpoint between Jalalabad and capital where a car full of journalists was brutally destroyed an hour or so later.
That's what a 'fixer’ does to a foreign correspondent: part translator; part driver and part Mr. Fixit MacGyver. Every time I returned to the country, I would check on him and his family. And if I asked, he would drive me to hell, and back.
In 2015, three men beat and stabbed Mohammed’s 18 year-old son, in front of him telling him between blows that he was being punished because his father had worked for the Americans. I was the only person with whom Mohammed had ever worked as an American. He rushed his son to the hospital and then secreted his entire family with evidence to another part of the sprawling capital, leaving behind his home and always fearing the tap on the shoulder that meant he had been found.
He started applying for visas then and was shocked to learn that he wasn't eligible because he had worked for and protected a U.S. citizen but not a soldier. In his opinion, If that difference didn't matter to the Taliban, why should it matter to the U.S. government?
As of Aug. 2, Mohammed and hundreds more like him are now eligible for special visas similar to those created by the Biden Administration for the 20,000 Afghan workers who currently work for the U.S. government! Multiple news agencies, including my former employer CBS News, petitioned the Biden Administration to help 'those Afghans who have worked in the U.S. media as journalists, interpreters and support staff and now fear retaliation from the Taliban for having courageously associated themselves with the American press.
But here's the gut punch that comes with that good news: the U.S. won't even start looking at Mohammed's application until he gets himself and his family out of Afghanistan. Except former Afghan employees of the U.S. government, there will be no special flights — and no third country set aside where his family can wait safely. Once they've applied and have gone out, processing the applications can take more than a year with no guarantee of approval.
Still, even this slim chance of a safe exit is not available to the tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing their homes, ahead of what feels like an inexorable Taliban advance. The President Joe Biden says this war is now up to the Afghans, though the U.S will provide some financial, humanitarian and even some air support. His military commanders insist that a Taliban takeover is not a foregone conclusion, even though Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted in late July that'strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.
At the same time, though militants have seized some 200 of the nation's 419 district centers, up from 81 last month, Milley has insisted the country's 300,000 Afghan troops are simply falling back to protect the most populated areas. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says that it is the best his beleaguered troops can do because of the quick U.S. withdrawal and what he called 'an imported, hasty peace process'
Biden's calculation is simple: both political parties and the majority of American people want out. But many who served there were frustrated with an endless mission that cost lives, limbs, sanity, and marriages to a two-generation war, when the sons and daughters of American troops invaded in 2001 to fight and die.
Nearly 2,500 U.S. troops, roughly 1,150 NATO personnel and more than 3,800 U.S. private security contractors lost their lives in the war, according to the Associated Press. Nearly a quarter of a million civilians were also killed, including some 70,000 Afghan civilians, according to the Brown University's 'Costs of War' project. The U.S. military has spent as much as $2 trillion on the conflict, according to the UN chief.
But in Biden's opinion, sunk costs are no reason to throw bad money after good, especially when your key ally — the Afghan elite — has often proven loyal to themselves, more adept at taking bribes than governing. How can you trust the Taliban leader to keep up pouring blood and treasure into the money pit?
Reporters tried to draw the Afghan Defense Secretary and his top-secret subordinates on what they would do if the American government collapsed. They dodged this question, making no spoken commitment to rescue the Afghan government. They say in their vehement way that this is the President's decision.
It's the most grumpy thing of my life, one former senior Army officer told me.
'It's a waste of everything we have done, a senior European official lamented to me.
'They stand beside us. For every Afghan, navigating the past two decades has meant near-daily choices of loyalty that could spell survival or death. Those who chose the Americans and the Western government knew they would be caught up in a Taliban attack, but fear bloody, country-wide payback, no matter how many times Taliban spokesmen tell reporters like me that won't happen. Rumors fly on social media of Taliban commandos allegedly executed by Afghan forces, women forced to marry Taliban fighters and medieval punishments like stoning and beheading in locations under Taliban control. Those reports are almost impossible to lower or determine, for U.S. diplomats mostly locked down in Kabul. Mohammed knows what is coming and who has understood. Driving from Kabul to Jalalabad he'd spotted the black checkpoint of heavily armed, black-turbaned men, standing on either side of the rutted roadway. Mohammed spoke quietly to the taxi driver, who then floored past the group before they could spot me. By the time they did, shouting and raising their weapons, we'd been torn past them round a mountain corner, out of sight. I realized what only later understood what I had been saved from.
That kind of random threat, from a group of Taliban locals taking matters into their own hands, is what Mohammed fears most. 'Now living in Afghanistan is very dangerous, says he tells me. And now, Mohammed has to figure out which country to move with his immediate family before he can even start to apply for U.S. safe havens.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mohammed extolled the virtues of expanding emergency visa program to more Afghans like Antony Blinken. They stand with us. They will stand with them, he told reporters. How about every other Afghan who abandoned their lives to vote for our country?