In the aftermath of a lost war, a lucky few who escaped reflect on what was left behind.
The last time I saw Mansour, I was ending his job. My employer at the time, the International Republican Institute, or IRI, was dramatically scaling back its operations in Kabul and it was my responsibility to dismiss nearly all our staff. It was March 2012, and things were not going well in Afghanistan. Taliban attacks had been increasing, and Kabul had become a T-wall lined fortress of snarled traffic, urban sprawl, and nervous guards. Amid spiraling security costs and declining funding, IRI had made the decision to reduce its portfolio of democracy-building activities to a concentrated few, with the staffing footprint to match.
I don’t remember what I said to Mansour then, or what he said to me, but I know he was gracious. The Afghans I’ve known over the years have always been accepting of calamity as part of life, grateful for the stability or the job while it lasts, and resilient when it ends. Far more resilient than I, who had known many of IRI’s Afghan staff for years and was heartbroken to show them the door. For as heartfelt as my farewells were, I couldn’t bring myself to share the truth of what I felt: America was tired of Afghanistan, had already given up on it and was just trying to figure out how to walk away. The end of IRI’s big ambitious program was part of a larger shift underway in the United States, even if it might take years to fully realize. As I shook Mansour’s hand and sent him on his way, I was certain that I would never see him again.
The Afghans I’ve known over the years have always been accepting of calamity as part of life, grateful for the stability or the job while it lasts, and resilient when it ends.
Now it was 2021, and I was shaking Mansour’s hand again, this time in Tirana, Albania. It was six in the morning, still dark, and Mansour was one of more than a hundred Afghan evacuees filing past me into their temporary housing, rucksacks on their shoulders and suitcases trailing behind. Sleepy children were everywhere, rubbing their eyes and clutching their mothers’ long dresses and shawls. They had spent all night on a plane from Abu Dhabi, and were bussed from the Tirana airport with a special police escort, now guests of the Albanian government. It was August 30, and Kabul had fallen two weeks earlier.
In the waning weeks of the war, the United States and its coalition partners airlifted tens of thousands of Afghans out of the country, but only a fraction of the perhaps one million at risk and eligible for U.S. immigrant visas. The Department of Defense, guarding the walls and flying the planes, did their best for their own Afghan contractors and interpreters. The Department of State appears to have left many of their own contractors behind and hardly made an effort for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who had worked for U.S. grantees such as IRI or the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED. As recently as July, in fact, these Afghans did not qualify for an immigrant visa at all, victims of the arbitrary distinction between contractor and grantee. Only in August did the State Department expand its refugee program by introducing the Priority 2 visa for the broader population of American Afghan allies, but by then it was too late.
As the enormity of the failure became apparent, into this breach stepped a motley assortment of NGOs, private charities, veterans, Members of Congress, and do-gooders. In Tirana I met half a dozen different groups involved in helping Afghans resettle there. Other evacuees wound up in Somaliland, Uganda, Colombia or North Macedonia—anywhere their sponsors could negotiate landing privileges and accommodations. This private airlift, made up of chartered flights or spare seats on military aircraft, is perhaps the least understood and yet most impressive part of the ignominious wind-down of the Afghan War. In a tragic imitation of the famous 1940 British evacuation from Dunkirk, much of the effort in Kabul fell to private citizens cobbling together whatever improvised transportation they could manage.
As the enormity of the failure became apparent, into this breach stepped a motley assortment of NGOs, private charities, veterans, Members of Congress, and do-gooders.
So, I found myself in Tirana, this time a volunteer with IRI, welcoming a straggling line of Afghans as they were processed by Albanian municipal officials, then sent to dormitory rooms only recently commandeered from incoming university students. The NED family of NGOs, including IRI, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the National Democratic Institute, or NDI, had marshalled resources in the U.S. and around the world to arrange a series of flights for their former staff and families from Kabul to Abu Dhabi and then on to Albania, where they had negotiated landing rights and accommodations directly with the Albanian government. The evacuees I met were on the first flight of three, but the second and third never made it out of Kabul, arrangements falling apart after the August 26 suicide attack at the airport. Left behind were hundreds of our former staff and their families: Mohammad, who had been my Dari tutor and later office manager, our unflappable accountant Bilal, my resourceful driver Ahmad. I’ve changed the names of the Afghan evacuees in this story, because even those who escaped have extended families in Afghanistan still at risk.
Those who had escaped were the lucky ones, in the right place at the right time. They were the ones who had their papers in order when the call came to finalize the flight manifest, and when that call came, hard choices had to be made, immediately. The adult son of IRI evacuee Hamidzada qualified for a visa and a seat on the flight, but his wife and children did not; he left them behind, hoping they will follow someday. When Hamidzada and his family arrived at the rally point in Kabul after having traveled all day from an outlying province, they realized that one of their sons who was traveling separately was missing; they got on the plane anyway. I remember the lesson I first appreciated while reading the semi-biographical graphic novel Maus about the Holocaust: individual survival is part grit, part self-interest, and part dumb luck. There is little room for heroism.
Heroism on the part of nations, on the other hand, is another matter, and the actions of the Albanian people during the Holocaust have become part of their national mythology. Occupied first by Italy in 1939 and later by Germany in 1943, Albania nonetheless managed to largely protect its native Jews and some 2,000 Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe. Albania ended the Second World War with more Jews than when it started. Albanians say this is because of their traditional code of honor, which includes helping people in their time of need. During the 1999 Kosovo War, Albania opened its borders to Kosovar refugees and ultimately welcomed some 435,000 of them. And in June of 2021, when American planners still expected the Kabul government to hang on for another year or two, Albania announced that it was prepared to take in Afghan refugees—a pledge now up to 4,000.
As I experienced during my time in Tirana, the day-to-day practice of the humanitarian ideal is a lot harder than its theory. Full-time humanitarian aid organizations like the World Food Programme or the International Rescue Committee have well-established procedures, methodologies, and dedicated staff to address the different elements of a humanitarian crisis. None of the NGOs caring for Afghan evacuees in Albania were such organizations, and absent help from the professionals, had to develop new skills on the fly. Because of the chaos of the departure, there was confusion over who exactly had made it to Albania. Hamidzada’s son Jahid did not, but Abdul Sattar’s brother was put on the plane in Kabul and made it as far as Abu Dhabi. Abdul Maqsody was in Pakistan, I was told, and Habib Khatibi’s daughter Nargis chose to remain in Kabul with her husband and family. First collected and screened at student dorms in Tirana, the evacuees were quickly bussed to a beach town two hours away, some with little warning late at night. At a seaside resort, the evacuees were reshuffled and given steeply discounted rates negotiated by the Albanian government and paid by sponsoring organizations like IRI and NED. The Albanian government tested evacuees for COVID on arrival, but vaccination rates were low and mask use spotty; the government organized an on-site vaccination clinic within weeks.
Arriving with little more than a few changes of clothes, the displaced Afghans needed basics from hand soap to diapers, and initial supply distribution by the NGOs was not easy. The humanitarian professionals will tell you that distribution is one of the biggest challenges of their work, and our first attempts at order quickly broke down. One of my enduring memories is of an outdoor courtyard crowded with Afghans searching through boxes of donated clothes, a family of wide-eyed tourists in flip-flops slowly making their way through with watermelons tucked under their arms.
The Afghans are settling in for the long haul, largely understanding of the short-term hiccups and wryly grateful to be experiencing them at the beach while some of their fellow evacuees are in far less pleasant circumstances. They’re told that their visas may take a year or longer to process, and in the meantime their sponsoring NGOs will need to assess and provide for continuing needs. Health care, education for the children, and employment for the adults will need to be arranged. Psychosocial support will also be important: Afghan resilience aside, many of the evacuees have had harrowing experiences and difficult lives.
After leaving IRI, Mansour went on to work for several other NGOs and then ultimately wound up at a government ministry, continually practicing and honing the monitoring and evaluation skills he had first learned at IRI. He and another evacuee named Sultani had studied for their MBAs together, and Mansour was at the final stage of completing his degree when Kabul fell. Smiling, he told me that he’s optimistic his advisors will let him defend his thesis remotely. Mansour’s fellow student and former colleague Sultani had once worked for IRI helping organize issue-based caucuses among Afghanistan’s fractious parliament. After Kabul fell and strange men had come looking for him at his home, Sultani and his family spent ten days on the run moving from house to house while waiting for a flight out. His youngest child, staring at me with bright blue eyes, had celebrated his first birthday in the Humanitarian City in Abu Dhabi.
After Kabul fell and strange men had come looking for him at his home, Sultani and his family spent ten days on the run moving from house to house while waiting for a flight out.
The human experiences of Mansour, Sultani, and their fellow evacuees are just a handful of such stories playing out all across the world, in the millions. There are more than 2.6 million Afghan refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and another 3.5 million displaced from their homes within Afghanistan. Many of the refugees in neighboring countries have been there for decades, some since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, or the civil war of the 1990s. Afghanistan’s many wars have sent successive waves of migrants as far as Europe, which is now acutely concerned about a new refugee crisis such as that endured in the mid 2010s during the Syrian civil war.
It remains to be seen, aside from the Western Afghan allies still desperate to get out of the country, whether the Taliban ascendancy will lead to a massive surge of refugees. With borders still mostly closed, few Afghans have been able to flee whether they wanted to or not, and with the end of hostilities, many parts of Afghanistan are in fact more peaceful than they’ve been in years. There is a conceivable future in which the Taliban’s harsh rule imposes a much-needed stability on Afghanistan, stemming the tide of migrants and, perhaps, over time, encouraging a few to return. Or there’s the alternative future, in which Taliban brutality decimates the country, the foreign aid dependent economy collapses, and a new humanitarian crisis pushes millions into starvation and flight.
In perhaps the worst scenario of all, even the Taliban fractures and the country descends into a new round of internecine warfare, with warlords old and new battling over Afghanistan’s ruins as foreign powers barter Afghan lives for influence. Already the maneuvering has begun, in remote valleys of Afghanistan and the lobbying firms of K Street. Former Afghan vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, accused murderer, rapist and war criminal, bides his time in Turkey awaiting an opening. Ismail Khan, famous for his decades of exploits against the Soviets, his fellow resistance fighters, and the Taliban, now resides in Iran awaiting the call back to arms. Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, the post-Soviet Prime Minister infamous for rocketing his own capital into ruins, first fought the U.S.-backed republic, then joined it, then sided with the Taliban. And then, of course, there is ISIS. Competing with al Qaida and the Taliban for the mantle of fiercest enemy of the infidel, ISIS succeeded in adding 13 more Americans to the death toll on August 26, while the Taliban appeared to be letting them go peacefully. Now ISIS creeps back into the deep valleys of Kunar and Nangharhar, gathering its strength and craving the anarchy in which to thrive.
Thousands of miles away, the homeland and families they left behind were never far from the minds of the Afghan evacuees in Albania. One evening Mansour and I sat together enjoying the pleasant weather and watching children playing with young Albanian volunteers. One boy the same age as my own son was learning to ride a donated bike, and a group of girls were coloring and laughing. Groups of adults stood in the twilight talking quietly. “It’s like a dream,” Mansour said, turning his pale green eyes to me. “We spent most of our lives living in one Afghanistan and now, suddenly, it’s gone.” Then he smiled, shrugged, and turned away.
Hallam Ferguson is a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center. Previously he served as the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator at the United States Agency for International Development from 2017 to 2021. While at USAID, Ferguson managed the Middle East Bureau and led the effort to help religious minorities in Iraq and Syria recover from the ISIS genocide. Prior to joining USAID, Ferguson worked at the International Republican Institute from 2004 to 2017, conducting democracy and governance programming throughout the Middle East. While with IRI Ferguson lived and worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, managed programs in closed societies, and finished his time there as Director for the Middle East and North Africa. Ferguson holds his B.A. from Colby College and his M.A. from Georgetown University.
Cover art: In this Aug. 16, 2021, photo, hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shekib Rahmani/AP.