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America’s engagement in Afghanistan is roughly bookended by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which we remember this weekend, and last August’s chaotic departure of U.S. forces from Kabul.
In the last year, life has taken a horrific turn for the worse for the people of Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan people were evacuated from the war-ravaged country, but millions remained behind, facing an uncertain future as the extremist Taliban returned to power.
Ahmed and Mohammed, who both fled Afghanistan and now live in Maine, spoke to me last month at the offices of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lewiston, where they work. The agency has helped more than 100 people from Afghanistan resettle in Maine.
Both men asked to use a pseudonym to protect their identities for fear that the Taliban might harm their relatives who remain in Afghanistan. Although the U.S. and other countries evacuated 120,000 people, about half of them Afghans, from the country in just a few weeks last year, there are an estimated 70,000 Afghans who remain in the country who are eligible to be relocated to the U.S.
Their stories, like those of thousands of other Afghans now living in America, are a mixture of gratitude for their escape and fear and worry about the family members left behind. They are a reminder that America’s work in Afghanistan – to secure the safety of our allies, to help the country’s women and girls, to ensure an available food supply – is far from over.
Mohammed was trained by U.S. forces to become a helicopter pilot for the Afghan Army. He was training with NATO forces in the United Arab Emirates when the Afghan government fell to the Taliban. His training, which was funded by the United States, abruptly ended and he was out of a job. He was evacuated to the U.S. last October.
Taliban members went to his house in Afghanistan and took his uniform and beat his father. His family, including his wife and young children, remain in hiding as he works to bring them to the U.S.
“They are suffering,” he said, noting that since the Taliban takeover women have to wear burkas and girls no longer attend school.
Mohammed works two jobs – at Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services and at Abbott Labs – to save money in hopes of bringing his family here. And, to pay for flight lessons. He hopes to fly helicopters or planes in the U.S. He would really like to join the U.S. military to continue his fight against terrorism.
Both he and Ahmed said they fear for their families in Afghanistan, not just because of possible Taliban reprisals but also because of food shortages caused by international restrictions on Afghan assets now controlled by the Taliban.
Although he had a Special Immigrant Visa, it took Ahmed, who worked for an Afghan company that did work for the U.S. clients, more than six months to flee Afghanistan. These visas were issued to people whose work with the U.S. government put them and their families at risk for harm, including murder, by the Taliban. These documents were meant to ease their journey to the U.S.
Because he held this visa, Ahmed was told to go to the Kabul airport in mid-August 2021 to be evacuated. Thousands of Afghans, desperate to flee the country and the Taliban, mobbed the airport for days. Many had been sold fake visas, which they hoped would help them escape the country.
Ahmed was not evacuated last August. Instead, he was put in charge of a group of 180 people, many of whom had sold their homes and other property in preparation to flee Afghanistan. He was told four times that a flight would be ready the next day. Each time, he was told that he and the others would not be leaving. They were essentially being held hostage by the Taliban, which asked for more and more money to allow them to depart.
In April, Ahmed and his wife traveled overland to Pakistan. He was shocked that he was allowed to cross the border without harassment because the Taliban had earlier demanded all his documentation and presumably had a record of his visa and knew he was trying to leave the country.
From Pakistan, he and his wife were finally evacuated to the United States.
“Our fathers hoped that one day there would be peace in Afghanistan. It didn’t happen,” Ahmed said.
It’s a sad, but honest, assessment of the country he left behind for a new life here in Maine.