U.S. Embassy contractors, visa applicants among Afghans left behind after one of the largest airlifts in history
KABUL, Afghanistan - The day Afghanistans capital fell, a contractor who had worked at the U.S. Embassy for six years was dismissed from work early.
Embassy staff had collected his family's information weeks before in preparation for a possible evacuation. But after he was told on Aug. 15 to leave the embassy's grounds, "nobody called, nobody emailed."
"Everyone knows where I worked, that I worked with the Americans," said the contractor, who ran a shop at the embassy and who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. He eventually fled to the home of a relative in a neighboring province. "I gave my mother my embassy badges and told her to put them in a box and bury it in the garden."
Roughly 2,500 U.S. Embassy employees were among the 120,000 people the U.S. evacuated by air from Afghanistan, according to President Joe Biden. But the operation left "many of our longtime partners" behind, according to a State Department spokesperson. One person familiar with the matter said they included about 2,000 U.S. Embassy contractors and immediate family members, some of whom who had worked at the embassy for more than a decade. The State Department declined to comment on that number.
For those who were not evacuated, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said at a recent news conference, "we're looking at all possible options, but we're also conveying to them that their safety and security is of paramount concern to us."
Biden described the operation as an "extraordinary success," but thousands of Afghans considered vulnerable and eligible for evacuation fell through the cracks. They include American University of Afghanistan students and graduates, applicants for Special Immigrant Visas and members of Afghanistan's Special Forces who fought closely with the United States.
With the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, many Afghans who felt threatened by the Taliban takeover now say they are in greater danger.
Among the tens of thousands who managed to reach the airport and get on planes out of the country were 5,500 Americans, thousands of citizens and diplomats of U.S. allies, and thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States as interpreters, translators or other roles, according to Biden.
Planning for the evacuation began weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban in mid-August, but the effort began to stumble almost as soon as it started.
U.S. officials did not expect Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country so quickly and for Kabul's security forces to collapse, leaving the civilian side of the airport unguarded.
Ghani's departure as the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15 is "really what threw a wrench into the whole thing," said a person familiar with evacuation planning.
"We made every effort to know who we were dealing with and what the numbers were, making sure we had proper resources on the ground to try to assist them. But the whole situation kind of spiraled into chaos," said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The airlift is now complete, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, but other evacuation efforts are ongoing. "We've gotten many out, but many are still there," he said. "We will keep working to help them. Our commitment to them has no deadline."
When the last U.S. evacuation plane left Afghanistan, Azada said, she became a prisoner in her own home.
The 23-year-old had recently graduated from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, a distinction she fears has placed her name is on a Taliban "kill list." Now, she's too afraid to walk down the street.
Over the past two weeks she held out hope as her university repeatedly emailed advisories for an evacuation that never came.
The American University, funded largely with U.S. government money, attempted to evacuate thousands of students, faculty and graduates but was mostly unsuccessful. Afghans associated with the school are considered "at risk" and were eligible for U.S. evacuation flights, according to a person coordinating evacuation efforts in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. A deadly 2016 Taliban attack on the institution killed 15.
But those connected to the university were not prioritized as "high risk," meaning it was up to the school to navigate Taliban checkpoints without U.S. or NATO help and make it into the military side of the airport, the person said.
Azada received a message directing her to get to the airport. She waited for hours, she said, only to be turned back. The last message she received read simply: "The operation has been canceled. Wait at home; we are working on another plan."
"I can't just sit at home and wait for the Taliban to come impose their rules," said Azada, who spoke on the condition she be identified by a nickname because of fears for her safety. "What is going to happen to us?"
Azada once led a life full of work and weekends with friends meeting up at Kabul's trendy restaurants and cafes. Now she spends her days in her bedroom on her phone chatting with friends or reading.
"Most of the time we are just talking about how do we get out of here and save our lives," she said of her Facebook and WhatsApp groups. "But we also share memories about how life was beautiful." She spoke of the dorm room dance parties she threw with her girlfriends.
"Those days will never happen again," she said, "but I'm really thankful we had them."
Ian Bickford, president of the American University of Afghanistan, said efforts to relocate students, graduates and faculty continue. "It has becomes a more gradual and incremental effort, but we are in it for the long haul," he said. "And we continue to appeal for U.S. support."
Asked about the American University students, the State Department spokesman said he couldn't "speak to specific cases ... for privacy and other considerations." He said the U.S. evacuation was aimed at addressing "the needs of those most at risk, including women and girls, journalists, members of religious and ethnic minorities, and others."
On the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, an engineer who worked for the U.S. Army was scheduled to have his final interview at the U.S. Embassy for an expedited visa.
The interview was set for 10:45 a.m., but the embassy had begun dismissing staff an hour before, as news broke that the militants had reached the city's gates.
The engineer, in the final stages of processing for a Special Immigrant Visa, should have been eligible for an evacuation flight. His family camped outside the airport for three nights, he said, sleeping in an open park littered with garbage. He managed to reach the airport gates twice but was turned away both times. Taliban leaders had barred Afghans who didn't hold foreign passports or green cards from leaving the country.
"It felt like after all that time (the United States) just doesn't care about us," he said.
Neighbors warned him that local Taliban fighters were asking questions about who he worked for and whether he was still in Kabul. The inquiries were enough to scare him off the streets. But unable to leave his home, his family is running dangerously low on food. "For days all we have had is bread, tea and sugar," he said.
"My children, they don't understand," he said. His son is 3; his daughter is 1. "But my wife is just crying: Why did you work with those people? Look how you brought us under threat!"
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the engineer's case, citing privacy. The spokesman said the evacuation prioritized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other Afghans at risk.
"After 20 years of investment in Afghanistan, this was a very large pool of people," the spokesman said. U.S. troops and others on the ground "did the best they could, working around-the-clock to evacuate as many people as possible," despite "many constraints" including the threat of Islamic State attacks to the Kabul airport.
Moving forward, the spokesman said, "we will hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan."
An Afghan Special Forces officer was on the list of people to evacuate but wasn't able to get inside the military side of the airport. He said U.S. forces tried to extract him and a few hundred other Afghan commandos, but the logistics repeatedly fell apart.
"The Americans would call us and tell us to gather here. And then they would say, 'No, that is the wrong place. Go to another location.' And then they would say, 'Come back tomorrow,' " he said.
"Of course I'm angry. We were on the front line for the United States in this war," he said. "They told us you will be the best of the best in the Afghan army, and now look."
When Kabul fell, the officer said, he did not want to flee. "I called my (foreign) sources and told them, if you support us, we can fight against the Taliban in Kabul. We have the training, we have the ability, we can be the resistance."
But he said there was no response to his offers. As the Taliban tightened its grip on his neighborhood, he fled to a friend's house and then, a few days later, to another home. The night the last U.S. evacuation plane took off, he and a friend went to watch the Taliban gunfire from the roof.
"He said to me: 'Everything is finished. Now what?' "
After his experience of the last two weeks, he said, he can't imagine trusting the United States enough to partner with its military again.
The U.S. Embassy employee said the silence from his longtime employer is unnerving. "We are still waiting to see what they will do for us," he said. "We don't know, exactly."
But while the withdrawal has left him "heartbroken," he said, he remains proud of his former employment.
"It was not a mistake," he said. "I will never say that. Even if the Taliban threaten to kill me, I wouldn't. No one has helped me the way the Americans have."
Azada has been consuming all the books in her home since the United States withdrew. Years ago, she was given a copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank." The book had never interested her. But last week, she began reading it.
"I feel like it's really relatable to my situation," she said. "The girl was really strong. I admire how she adapted to a life that she didn't deserve."
Azada hasn't finished the book, but she thinks she knows how it ends.
"I heard she doesn't make it."