Afghans camp near Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, on August 24, a week before Joe Biden’s declared deadline for the evacuation of allies. A U.S.-military C-17 transport aircraft takes off overhead. (Andrew Quilty / Agence VU’)America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan added moral injury to military failure. But a group of soldiers, veterans, and ordinary citizens came together to try to save Afghan lives and salvage some American honor.
Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET on February 9, 2022
The EndIt took four presidencies for America to finish abandoning Afghanistan. George W. Bush’s attention wandered off soon after American Special Forces rode horseback through the northern mountains and the first schoolgirls gathered in freezing classrooms. Barack Obama, after studying the problem for months, poured in troops and pulled them out in a single ambivalent gesture whose goal was to keep the war on page A13. Donald Trump cut a deal with the Taliban that left the future of the Afghan government, Afghan women, and al‑Qaeda to fate. By then most Americans were barely aware that the war was still going on. It fell to Joe Biden to complete the task.
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View MoreOn April 13, 2021, the day before Biden was to address the country about Afghanistan, a 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran named Alex McCoy received a call from a White House speechwriter named Carlyn Reichel, who was also the National Security Council’s acting senior director for partnerships and global engagement. McCoy was a co-founder and the political director of an organization of progressive veterans called Common Defense, which had been waging a lobbying campaign with the slogan “End the forever war.” McCoy and his colleagues believed that more American bloodshed in a conflict without a definable end could no longer be justified. “The president has made his decision,” Reichel told McCoy, “and you’ll be very happy with it.” She explained that it was now too late to withdraw all troops by May 1, the deadline in the agreement signed in early 2020 by the Trump administration and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. But the withdrawal of the last several thousand American troops would begin on that date, in the hope that the Taliban would not resume attacks, and it would end by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the day the war began.
On April 14, Biden, speaking from the White House, raised his hands and declared, “It’s time to end the forever war.” The withdrawal, he said, would not be “a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.” The president ended his speech, as he often does, with the invocation “May God protect our troops.” Then he went to pay his respects at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the dead from the 9/11 wars are buried.
Afterward, Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said, “When someone writes a book about this war, it’s going to begin on September 11, 2001, and it’s going to end on the day Joe Biden said, ‘We’re coming home.’ ” With firm resolve, Biden had done the hard thing. The rest would be logistics, while the administration turned its attention to domestic infrastructure. Alex McCoy framed the front page of the next day’s New York Times and hung it on the wall of his Harlem apartment.
But the war wasn’t over—not for Afghans, not even for some Americans.
A week after Biden’s speech, a group of refugee advocates—many of them veterans of the 9/11 wars—released a report on the dire situation of the thousands of Afghans who’d worked at great risk for the United States during its two decades in their country. In 2009, Congress had created the Special Immigrant Visa to honor the service of qualified Afghans by bringing them to safety in the U.S. But the SIV program set up so many procedural hurdles—Form DS-260, Form DS-234, Form I-360, a recommendation from a supervisor with an unknown email address, a letter of employment verification from a long-defunct military contractor, a statement describing threats—that combat interpreters and office assistants in a poor and chaotic war zone couldn’t possibly hope to clear them all without the expert help of immigration lawyers, who themselves had trouble getting answers. The program, chronically understaffed and clogged with bureaucratic choke points across multiple agencies, seemed designed to reject people. Year after year, administrations of both parties failed to grant even half the number of visas allowed by Congress—and sometimes granted far less—or to meet its requirement that cases be decided within nine months. By 2019, the average wait time for an applicant was at least four years.
Toward the end of 2019, Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, visited the U.S. embassy in Kabul and found a skeletal staff working on visas only part-time. “This was no accident, by the way,” Crow told me. “This was a long-term Stephen Miller project to destroy the SIV program and basically shut it off.” Miller, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Trump adviser, along with allies throughout the executive branch, added so many new requirements that amid the pandemic the program nearly came to a halt. By the time Biden gave his speech, at least 18,000 desperate Afghans and tens of thousands of family members stood in a line that was barely moving. Many feared that the Americans would now leave without them.
Tom Nichols: Afghanistan is your fault
Najeeb Monawari had been waiting for his visa for more than a decade. He was born in 1985, the oldest son among 10 children of a bus-mechanic father and a mother who devoted herself to keeping them alive amid the lethal hazards of Kabul. He grew up in a neighborhood turned to apocalyptic rubble by the civil war of the early 1990s. He and his friends took turns walking point along mined streets on their way to swim in the Kabul River. During the Taliban’s rule, his family was under constant threat because of their origins in the Panjshir Valley, the last base of the Northern Alliance resistance.
With the arrival of the Americans in 2001, power flipped and Panjshiris became the top dogs. “We were the winners, and Panjshir Valley people were misusing their power,” Monawari told me, “driving cars wildly in the road, beating people. We were the king of the city.” In 2006, barely 20, Monawari lied to his parents about his destination and traveled to Kandahar, the Pashtun heartland of the Taliban, where he signed on with a military contractor as an interpreter for Canadian forces. “I spoke three English words and no Pashto,” he said. But his work ethic made him so popular that, after a year with the Canadians, Monawari was snatched away by U.S. Army Green Berets. He spent much of the next four years as a member of 12-man teams going out on nonstop combat missions in Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces.
In the Special Forces, Monawari found his identity. The Green Berets were so demanding that most interpreters soon washed out, but the Americans loved him and he loved them. On missions he carried a gun and used it, came under fire—he was wounded twice—and rescued other team members, » …