Evacuation from Afghanistan means answering tough questions
Updated: Jan 14
It was a long war that ended without much change but instead agonizing pleas from Afghans ready to risk their lives to get out once Americans left.
On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford declared that the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War was over.
The images of Americans frantically trying to load onto helicopters on the roof of the embassy in Saigon became an unfortunate and iconic symbol of what had taken place in Vietnam over the previous two decades.
With that image featured prominently in nearly every U.S. history textbook in the last 50 years, it was hard to believe the United States — the most powerful military entity in the world — would ever be in such a position again.
And then, 50 years later, it was.
The world watched in August as America withdrew its final troops from Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern country they had spent nearly 20 years trying to help - fighting the longest war in U.S. history.
Surreal images of the evacuation circulated television and internet, with shots of unmistakable American military aircraft taxiing at Hamid Karzai International Airport, surrounded by thousands of Afghans on the tarmac, some hanging off the side of the planes, hoping for a chance at life in America but doomed to a much darker fate.
“I think it’s pretty indicative of their view of America when you see the images coming out of the airport,” said Lt. Col. Kendra Motz, assistant chief of staff at I Marine Expeditionary Force Communication Strategy and Operations. “Seeing them chase after the aircraft to try to leave because they believe in what they had worked for and established there, at least for a short amount of time, was hard to watch.”
These images begged the question of why Americans were evacuating Afghans in the first place. Understandably, Americans in Afghanistan had to be evacuated — but why the Afghans? Afghanistan is their home, after all…why wouldn’t they want to stay?
The answer to that question begins in October 2001. Less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, a group of American Special Forces entered Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“From the time the first Americans hit the ground in Afghanistan in 2001, they were being assisted by Afghans,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Jones, a retired combat engineer with multiple deployments to Afghanistan under his belt. “Whether it was translators, Afghan National Army soldiers, local guides or even jobs like accounting, the Afghans were there by our side the entire time.”
While it was certainly beneficial to Americans to have Afghan help, the Afghans were putting themselves and their families directly in harm’s way by doing so.
“It was pretty well known that if the Taliban found out that a local was working with us, they would be killed alongside their family, often in public, as somewhat of a warning to others." - Christopher Jones, Army Sgt. 1st Class
So, what would cause someone to work with a foreign government at war in their own country? It could very well boil down to the same reason Americans sign up and fight for their country - a desire for service.
“[They] put their lives and their families' lives on the line in order to serve the people of Afghanistan and bridge the gap between Americans and locals to help accomplish the mission,” said Marine Sgt. Sean Berry, a combat correspondent who deployed to Afghanistan in 2017. “I honestly don’t think we would have accomplished much without the interpreters and security forces.”
American culture and values and traditional Afghan culture and values differ tremendously. Previous conflicts have shown America that it was necessary to work side-by-side with their local counterparts, especially considering that much of the mission in Afghanistan was to advise and assist the Afghans, not necessarily fight their war.
“We were the ones advising, but they’re the ones doing the actual work— the guys on the ground working were our entire mission,” Berry said of his experience in Afghanistan. “They knew the area well, it was their home. They were able to provide a perspective that we would have never had. At the end of the day, we are outsiders to that world and will never fully understand what was going on there, no matter how long we spend there.”
Being local also gave the Americans access to things that the United States never would have on its own.
“The Afghan Police public affairs was particularly helpful,” said Motz. “Anytime we wanted to release a message like ‘we need all civilians to not use this particular road,’ for example, they would be able to give that message to the governor's office and they would be able to disseminate it through sources we wouldn’t have had access to.”
There is simply no way to accurately gauge the number of Afghans who have worked for or worked with the United States since the war began in 2001. This is one of the issues at the core of the difficulty with the evacuations.
Recent numbers have put the total number of evacuated people at around 130,000. Since the official withdrawal at the end of August, that number has dropped off drastically.
For many of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have served in the military since 2001, watching the evacuation unfold on television was a deeply personal experience.
“It was tough to turn on the TV and see everything going on over there, especially after the attacks at the airport,” said Jones, referring to the suicide attacks that left 13 service members dead. “I couldn’t help but ask myself ‘what was all of this for?’”
“Realistically, there’s no way to evacuate everyone that helped us over the years. It’s a sad reality, but in all truthfulness, many of them will either be in hiding for the foreseeable future or be killed when they’re found.” - Christopher Jones, Army Sgt. 1st Class
Others, who served in Afghanistan closer to the end of the war, grew up watching the war on the news, and then ultimately serving there themselves.
“I grew up in New York City; 9/11 happened there. The memorial is there. All over the city are tributes to 9/11 and I have grown up for my entire life watching Afghanistan on the news,” Berry said. “It was a surreal experience.”
A way out
But all hope is not lost for those still in Afghanistan looking for a way out. There are a number of private individuals and organizations who are putting together secret flights and various other ways out of the country for those who are most at risk.
“The days of just throwing people on a U.S. plane and leaving are far gone,” Motz said in late October. “We’re actually working on a flight out tonight. I've got a couple of people who are on a manifest right now that we're going to try to get out. We'll see how that works. It's just a lot more difficult now trying to get people out now than it was when the airport was still open.”
At the end of the day, it comes down to doing what is right, and numbers for Lt. Col. Motz.
“They put themselves in danger because they believed in what we were trying to do there. We owe it to them to help keep them safe, after they did the same thing for us for the last 20 years.” - Lt. Col. Kendra Motz
Motz, who is doing all this work in her free time and in an unofficial capacity, not for the Marine Corps, is one of many Americans who volunteered her skills and connections to help during the evacuations.
“In those three or four days, I might have slept four hours. California and Afghanistan are completely different time zones, so the difference was just killer,” Motz said. “As soon as my evening is winding down and it’s time for me to sleep, they’re raring up to go in the early morning there.”
A personal mission
Since the evacuations began, Motz has been able to help many of the very people that she served with, as well as strangers.
“It started with my linguist, Rahimi, reaching out to me and telling me that he, his family, and a group of 14 others were stuck there and essentially, would be killed if they stayed in Afghanistan,” Motz said. “He asked if there was anything I could do to help him, and I told him ‘let me see, I have no idea…but I’ll try.”
While not entirely sure where to start, Motz set off to find some help for the linguist that she worked with nearly every day for her entire deployment.
“It started as a haphazard scramble of network connections to get things moving,” Motz said. “I just happened to know some people that were at the airport, and some people who just happened to have connections, or worked in close proximity with people from State Department.”
Ultimately, she was able to get Rahimi and his family out of Afghanistan safely. Two weeks after their arrival to America, Lt. Col. Motz flew across the country to Fort Pickett, to meet them, where they were able to reunite and share a meal together.
While she has grappled with some of the choices she has had to make regarding who to put on the manifests out of the country, she is able to justify it internally— at least for the time being.
“I’ve compartmentalized the decision-making right now as kind of the ‘how do you rack and stack human beings that are all in danger?’ And you know, ‘what impact or effect could that have? At a later time?’ So, I know eventually, that's going to be something for me to reckon with,” Motz said. “At this point right now, it's just, you know, how many can we save?”
*Note: All who were interviewed for this story wished to make it clear that any opinions they expressed are theirs and theirs alone, and do not reflect the position of the United States Government or any military branch they are or have been affiliated with.