Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift camp on August 10, 2021, in Kabul. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

We Once Waltzed in Kabul

The U.S. abandoned my friends. Now they are trapped in Afghanistan and hiding from the Taliban.

Catastrophe. Calamity. Chaos. Humiliation. Tragedy.

All words that can be used to describe what we are witnessing right now in Afghanistan, 20 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

You can believe, as many people I respect do, that this war should have ended long ago. You can believe that it was always unwinnable and should have never started in the first place. You can believe that it was utterly naive that America ever thought that something resembling human rights could take root in this foreign land.

But the disgraceful, haunting scenes we are now witnessing— were those also a fait accompli? Of course not.

And I cannot look away from them. From the helicopters evacuating Americans from the U.S. embassy. From the Taliban flag flying over the presidential palace; and from the terrorists who hoisted it hosting a press conference inside. From the supposed leaders of the free world beseeching medieval barbarians to recognize “the international community,” warning them that “the world is watching.”

The most shameful and dishonorable part of this shameful and dishonorable exit is Washington’s abandonment of those Afghans who helped us, trapped by American bureaucracy and now by the Taliban itself.

The email inbox for emergency visa requests for Afghans who worked with American forces has reportedly crashed. “This is murder by incompetence,” said one former sergeant trying to get apply for Special Immigrant Visa on behalf of his Afghan counterpart.

There is so much to say about this unfolding catastrophe. In the coming days I will have pieces from the likes of Gen. H.R. McMaster, Justin Amash, Thomas Joscelyn, Nikky Haley and others explaining what this unraveling means for America and the world. If you haven’t yet subscribed, now is a great time to lend us your support:

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But before the day was out I wanted to share this moving essay by the journalist Kathy Gilsinan, whom I have long admired, about her friends trapped in Kabul.

We hear a lot about privilege these days in America. Reading Kathy’s moving essay, I am overwhelmed by my own.

I am a free woman — a freedom hard-won and so very far from inevitable.

It’s a freedom that Afghans tasted and will now lose. A freedom that so many of them sacrificed to secure. Surely we owe them something more than abandonment? — BW

“The Taliban have entered Kabul from the south and east.” I saw the note on my Facebook messenger app when I woke up Sunday morning, but by then it was all over the news. “We can’t do anything kathy jan,” wrote my friend, a young Afghan man in Kabul. “The Taliban have taken over all of Kabul. They are like wild animals with long hair and dirty outfits. We all have taken shelter inside our houses . . . Everyone is panicked.”

I’m not using names here, because I believe my friend when he says no one is safe. We met in 2011, when we were both working for an Afghan news organization. He was 19 then and had never known a country at peace. He was also very cute, and the other American girl and I would anticipate prayer times because he would roll up his sleeves to do his ablutions. We surreptitiously called those moments “muscle o’clock.”

Once, when we thought there was a Taliban threat to our office, he told me not to worry. “I will protect you,” he said then. “And Allah gave me the heart of a lion.”

The Taliban didn’t hurt us that day, but on Sunday they took over his city. “I cried so much,” he told me.

He was trying to get a visa to leave — everyone in his neighborhood knew he’d worked for the Americans, it was only a matter of time before the Taliban learned it, “and then you know what will happen to me.” He needed one more document: a letter from a supervisor who had stopped returning his emails. On Saturday, I got help from some D.C. friends to track the supervisor down. The supervisor responded immediately, saying the young man had “worked tirelessly to help the U.S. mission in Afghanistan,” and had “regularly placed himself in harm’s way without any objection.” 

I was relieved he’d gotten this ticket out. But by Sunday it was clear it was too late; the Taliban weren’t letting anyone leave.

A man shows a certificate of appreciation from an American defense contractor while seeking help with his Special Immigrant Visa application at Herat Kabul Internet cafe on August 8, 2021, in Kabul. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Another friend, a translator, had all his paperwork filled out. He had been telling me for months of his plans to leave, asking about what it was like in the United States. He’d already done his interview in July and gotten a medical exam on August 7.

But he hasn’t heard from anybody since. He doesn’t know where his visa is. For the past week he’s been listening to Chinooks fly over his house. They’re not stopping for him.

A friend of a friend, this one a female journalist, made it to the airport after being stopped on the way and robbed at gunpoint. She didn’t get to say goodbye to her family. Like so many other women in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, she dared to build a life for herself based on promises we made. Now she’s hunkered down at the airport, which is under fire. She is awaiting an escape that may never come.

In 2011, I lived in a guest house in the Shar-e-Naw neighborhood, which is now full of refugees who fled the Taliban blitzkrieg throughout the country only to have it follow them to the capital. The proprietor of the guest house also became a friend; he found me a guitar to play, and he smuggled me alcohol. We smoked and waltzed and read poetry. He introduced me to Hafiz and Rumi, and I introduced him to Elliott Smith. He smelled like cigarettes and Axe body spray and spoke English with a pretentious British lilt. 

I wrote to him today, saying we’d waltz again soon, inshallah. He, too, is in Kabul, with no idea what will happen, just trying to stay sane for the next phase of the resistance. “Thank you for everything,” he wrote back. “I truly lived a good life.” 


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