Outside Online: Operation Afghan Rescue

In 2017 Jason Motlagh described the dangerous and wild horseback sport of buzkashi in an unforgettable Outside story. He has reported from Afghanistan for the past 15 years. As a journalist, I had to prepare a network of reliable translators, interpreters, and travel facilitators to work in a nation at war. We asked Motlagh, after Afghanistan descended into chaos during the Taliban takeover, if he was doing anything to protect those he knows. According to him, he is. Approximately how many? At the moment, there are more than 100.”

As soon as he heard about the evacuation effort, Motlagh stopped by Outside’s Santa Fe offices to speak with editorial director Alex Heard. While he and Motlagh were seated, his phone rang. A man living in fear of his life in Kabul answered the other end. “We’re working on it,” Motlagh urged him, “Don’t worry about it.” Still, his words seemed only partly to calm him down. I just learned that two of my colleagues had been captured and killed by the Taliban, and I was terrified and despondent. How did they do it? Westerners and working with them.

Jason Motlagh and Aziz Tassal
Aziz Tassal and Mark Oltmanns filming at frontline Afghan police outpost in Wardak province, August 2020 (Photo: Jason Motlagh)

OUTSIDE: Don’t use names, but describe who you and others are trying to save.
MOLLAGH: One of our friends worked with us on National Geographic assignment in Kandahar a few months ago. An Afghan journalist with experience, he was trained and funded to become a reporter by Western organizations during the post-Taliban era. Helmand Province is where he comes from. A number of his closest reporter friends have been killed in recent years, as a part of the Taliban regime’s campaign to eliminate people it deems undesirable.

That alone would make him a target?
It isn’t necessary. I’m referring to the aggressive reporting on Taliban abuses and lies he has done. Since he was on a hit list, he was forced to get out of Kandahar when militants surrounded the city. There is no doubt about it.

Is he going to be executed if he’s caught?
As far as he’s concerned, so it seems. There are six children in his family.

In order to rescue someone like this, what needs to happen? Is there a way to extricate someone?
In this case, the man has already fled to Kabul after leaving Kandahar. They are now hiding there. The United States military is trying to get them on an ad hoc flight. Our current case exemplifies the challenges we face in many of the cases we deal with. Documents are in his possession. It’s not the same for his children. The process of leaving is complicated by that.

How is the logjam you keep hearing about? Have you seen any improvement?
I am beginning to see some of the bureaucratic obstacles melting away. I’m confident people understand the urgency of this, and working together is the best course of action. They are doing all they can to get people out of Afghanistan, including a network of journalists who have worked there.

What happens after the paperwork is set up?
Through the chaos outside, we need to gather everyone and get them to the airport. It’s just a matter of time before we face that problem.

Are there checkpoints controlled by the Taliban to get there?
Definitely. In the end, many evacuees will likely find that hard to accept. Taliban fighters are fleeing. Taliban frightens them to death. Throughout the night, I have nightmares.

Going back a bit in time, I assume that the Trump Administration’s deal served as a signal to you that the time had come to begin preparing for this change. Did you assume it was going to be this chaotic, or has that been a surprise?
There was no doubt the Taliban were gaining strength, and that things in the provinces were falling apart. But no one expected the fall to be so pronounced. Until a few weeks ago, there was no provincial capital for the Taliban. The event happened faster than anyone could have predicted.

It has been incredibly frustrating for a lot of us for months and months to coordinate visas for Afghans–journalists, people who work with Afghans, foreign military, NGOs, etc. The whole process has seemed nonsensical and ineffective, like sending messages into a black hole. In the United States, expediting that process could have been much easier. Our current bottleneck is due to this.

Biden’s administration is very different from Trump’s, but did you imagine him to handle this better than he has? Or are you not really surprised?
Having committed to withdraw, the next question was: Will Biden stick to Trump’s timeline, which called for the U.S. military to leave en masse by May 1 or would he push it back? After a few months, he decided to delay it. As in the past, Vice President Biden expressed his desire to withdraw the U.S. troops, ending the Forever War. Biden and Trump were on the same page on this, I think. The U.S. public had abandoned this war: it was no longer supported by the public. As a result of continuing Trump’s playbook, Biden managed to get troops out. Although the outcome is clearly his own. His plan to streamline the bureaucracy to issue visas and begin evacuating those whose applications have been pending for years did not appear to be any threat. My people are journalists, but there are many thousands of Americans who have worked with the military and turned their lives around on the promise of an exit card when it came time. There hasn’t been any progress. In addition, there is this airport fiasco. What kind of a mind would consider a mass evacuation in the middle of a city of 4.5 million possible when all other outlets have been shut down? The highest levels of leadership have failed.

When given the option, where would your group members go?
Almost everyone I’ve worked with for 15 years, both men and women, would come to the United States right now. There are some who may think their prospects and support may be better in Europe or Canada, but if given the choice would it be better than what they’re facing now? It would be a dream come true for them to live in the U.S.

Why do they still want to come here?
Many Afghans have had strong relationships with Americans despite the disappointments and betrayals they are feeling. Families who escaped past wars have immigrated to America. Their roots are here, so to speak. According to their perceptions of America, many Afghans still have high hopes for the future, expecting security and opportunity. It’s better than being at home. They’re devastated by leaving the country they love.

Racism has been predicted regarding the sudden influx of Afghani refugees. There was a picture of a planeload of refugees on social media, with a caption that went something like: Do you want this landing in your town?
It would be my pleasure. The U.S. stands for values that a lot of people in Afghanistan have taken very seriously, even risking their lives for them. Our knowledge of what’s going on in Afghanistan has been greatly enhanced by these individuals. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to do my work without them.

How many of the people you are trying to save have you lost already?
I am not aware of any. Our asylum seekers have already lost family members and friends.

What about your colleagues and friends? Have they made it out?
The first good news came this morning. Reporter Aziz Tassal, a friend of mine and someone with whom I’ve known for five years, had managed to reach Doha, Qatar, from Kabul. His wife and four children have just arrived in Washington, D.C., according to word we received from him. Together we produced several documentaries for Al Jazeera and have written several articles for Rolling Stone since we started working together years ago. I am very close to him and he is my right hand man. Having him home is a great relief to me. It gives me hope for others.

Tassal by the sandbags
Tassal by the sandbags (Photo: Jason Motlagh)

Can Americans provide the best support to Afghan refugees who arrive in the U.S.?
The number of organizations preparing to accept Afghan refugees is considerable, both national and local. These people are a lot of times leaving their homes at night, with possibly only a backpack in hand. Hence, picking up people at the airport and helping with living arrangements and meals are good places to start. It would be greatly appreciated if you could donate food, clothes, and other basic necessities. Afghanistan’s new residents will need assistance with finding jobs, finding child care, and integrating into their new communities once they arrive. There are two well-established organizations that are worth mentioning: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Homes Not Borders.

In what ways does what’s going on in Afghanistan now scare you the most?
What you’re seeing in Kabul day to day is a huge disconnect between what’s happening in the provinces and what’s happening in Kabul, where the Taliban, who are good at cultivating the media, are trying to make a good impression. Despite our best efforts to get there, reporters are unable to get the full picture. However, there’s no denying that there are terrible things happening in the dark. Through social media and word of mouth, we know how many people connected to Westerners have been executed. People disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

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