Afghanistan’s last finance minister, now a D.C. Uber driver, ponders what went wrong

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Khalid Payenda, 40, waits for his next Uber rider in D.C.
Khalid Payenda, 40, waits for his next Uber rider in D.C. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Until last summer, Khalid Payenda was Afghanistan’s finance minister, overseeing a $6 billion budget — the lifeblood of a government fighting for its survival in a war that had long been at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Now, seven months after Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, he was at the wheel of his Honda Accord, headed north on Interstate 95 from his home in Woodbridge, Va., toward Washington, D.C. Payenda swiped at his phone and opened the Uber app, which offered his “quest” for the weekend. For now his success was measured in hundreds of dollars rather than billions.

“If I complete 50 trips in the next two days, I receive a $95 bonus,” he said as he navigated the light Friday-night traffic.

The job was his way of providing for his wife and four children after he had exhausted his modest savings supporting his family. “I feel incredibly grateful for it,” said the 40-year-old. “It means I don’t have to be desperate.” It was also a temporary reprieve from obsessing over the ongoing tragedy in his country, which was suffering through a catastrophic drought, a pandemic, international sanctions, a collapsed economy, a famine and the resurgence of Taliban rule.

Senior U.S. officials had largely moved on from the Afghanistan war, which began 20 years earlier with high-minded promises of democracy, human rights and women’s rights and ended with an American president blaming Afghans, such as a Payenda, for the mess left behind.

“So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” President Biden said as desperate Afghans rushed to the airport the day after Kabul fell, adding: “We gave them every tool they could need. … We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

The question of what happened and who was at fault haunted Payenda. He blamed his fellow Afghans. “We didn’t have the collective will to reform, to be serious,” he said. He blamed the Americans for handing the country to the Taliban and betraying the enduring values that supposedly had animated their fight. He blamed himself.

“It eats at you inside,” he said. He felt trapped between his old life and dreams for Afghanistan and a new life in the United States that he had never really wanted. “Right now, I don’t have any place,” he said. “I don’t belong here, and I don’t belong there. It’s a very empty feeling.”

He crossed the Potomac River into D.C. On his right, monuments to America’s democracy and its Founding Fathers shone against the night sky. His Honda rolled to a stop in front of the Kennedy Center, where two George Washington University students were waiting for him.

They settled into the back seat of his sedan and began talking about their day — the sudden drop in temperature, their plans for dinner, a mishap earlier that morning on the Metro train. “I dropped my phone, and it slid down the entire car,” one of the women was saying. “It was the worst moment of my entire life.”

After a few minutes’ drive, Payenda dropped the women at their apartment and quickly checked his phone.

“Four-dollar tip,” he said.

The phone that glowed on Payenda’s dashboard and led him to his next fare held the story of his final months in Afghanistan, in photos, videos and text messages.

He had resigned as finance minister a week before the Taliban seized Kabul, when then-President Ashraf Ghani lashed out at him in a public meeting and then privately upbraided him over the ministry’s failure to make a relatively small payment to a Lebanese company.

“He was angry and all over the place,” Payenda recalled. The strain of the Americans’ departure and the Taliban’s advances had brought out the worst in the Afghan president, who was tireless but also micromanaging, mistrustful and short-tempered, aides said. Payenda didn’t think the government was about to fall, but he felt he had lost the president’s trust. A part of him even worried that Ghani might have him arrested on false charges. So he quickly boarded a plane to the United States, where his wife and children, who had left a week earlier, were waiting for him.

On Aug. 15, the day the government collapsed, Payenda woke around 2 p.m., still jet-lagged and exhausted from watching the news until dawn, and saw a text message from the World Bank’s country director in Kabul.

“What a sad day,” it read.

He glanced at Twitter, learned that the Taliban were now in charge of Afghanistan and typed a reply: “Now that it’s over, we had 20 years and the whole world’s support to build a system that would work for the people. We miserably failed. All we built was a house of cards that came down crashing this fast. A house of cards built on the foundation of corruption. Some of us in the government chose to steal even when we had a slim, last chance. We betrayed our people.”

In the hours that followed, Payenda’s fellow cabinet ministers began exchanging messages on a WhatsApp group chat, first of shock and concern for one another, and then anger. They criticized a member of Ghani’s inner circle who had fled the country with the Afghan president and appeared to be reading their WhatsApp messages from the safety of exile.

“Cursed is the life of those who fled,” one cabinet minister wrote.

“You have a responsibility to us,” another complained. “We are like prisoners here, but you are on the outside. You can help.”

Payenda thought about joining the free-for-all but stayed silent. “What’s the point?” he recalled thinking. “It would be like scratching a wound.”

Seven months later, his former position of finance minister was held by a childhood friend of Taliban founder Mohammad Omar, who had made a name for himself during the war by raising money for suicide bombers in Kandahar.

As Payenda drove through Washington, the WhatsApp chats seemed as if they were “from a different lifetime,” he said. “It’s like a part of my life is a story someone else told me and that I have not lived.” His car radio was tuned to Delilah, a DJ mixing soft-rock song dedications with advice to the lovelorn. “I’m falling head over heels,” confessed a woman who sensed her new boyfriend didn’t feel the same way.

“Why would you want to be in such a one-sided relationship?” Delilah asked.

Payenda was scanning the sidewalk for his next rider. “People call and tell her their dilemmas,” he said of the radio host. “She’s one of my favorites. She’s so wise.”

All evening, passengers cycled through the back seat of his car. They gossiped about their friends — “Anthony says, ‘I want to work for Gucci and Chanel,’ but he’s not polished enough” — and complained about their dinners. Occasionally a rider would notice Payenda’s accent and ask him where he was from and how long he had been in the United States.

“What’s it been like so far?” one asked.

“Quite an adjustment,” Payenda replied.

On this Friday night, Payenda’s Uber app steered him past so many reminders from his old life.

There were the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters — boxy, modern buildings where Payenda had once attended training sessions and meetings with fellow economists on his country’s future.

He had been drawn to that work by a desire to help a homeland that he had fled as a child. He was just 11 in 1992, when shelling broke out in his Kabul neighborhood part of the civil war that followed the Soviet-backed government’s collapse — and his family abandoned their basement bunker for Pakistan. A decade later, after the Americans toppled the Taliban, he returned to co-found Afghanistan’s first private university.

He believed in all the things that the Americans said they were fighting for — democracy, women’s rights, human rights. He worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank, and in 2008 he came to the United States for the first time, attending the University of Illinois on a Fulbright scholarship.

Even in the war’s later years, after American ambitions had shrunk from leaving behind a stable, democratic country to simply leaving, Payenda was part of a small group of young, Western-educated reformers who still believed it was possible to build a competent and democratic state. He became deputy finance minister in 2016, determined to fix some of the poor planning that had left the government unable to spend up to 50 percent of its annual budget. By the time he left government in 2019 and relocated temporarily to the United States, he had helped boost the amount spent to more than 90 percent.

Two years later, a nightmarish experience in a Kabul hospital drew him back to Afghanistan. In November 2020, he had returned to the Afghan capital to work on a short-term project for Ghani when his parents fell ill with covid-19. Payenda cut short his work and spent 13 days with them in an intensive care unit. “The worst 13 days of my life,” he said.

The hospital — one of the best public facilities in Kabul — couldn’t afford a $200 machine to help his mother breathe. She died with Payenda at her bedside.

A few weeks later, Ghani offered him the job as finance minister. Payenda’s wife and former colleagues urged him to reject the offer: The Taliban were gaining ground, the Americans were leaving, corruption was siphoning off huge sums of government revenue, and the threat of assassination was real.

But the conditions at the hospital and his mother’s suffering convinced Payenda that he had to take the job. As long as he believed there was still a slim possibility of success, he had to try.

Now, he tells his wife that he wished he had never accepted the position. “I saw a lot of ugliness, and we failed. I was part of the failure,” he said. “It’s difficult when you look at the misery of the people and you feel responsible.”

Before he had set out on his Friday-night Uber shift, Payenda had co-taught a course on the war and reconstruction efforts at Georgetown University with an American colleague from Kabul. The teaching job paid only $2,000 a semester, but Payenda didn’t do it for the money. He hoped that the class would help his students — future State Department officials and aid workers — see the conflict from the perspective of those on the receiving end of U.S. and European aid, rather than those giving it.

The class was also a place where Payenda could work through the questions he still carried from the war. What had caused the massive corruption that had destroyed the Afghan state? Selfishness? Afghan bureaucratic incompetence? A U.S. strategy that empowered warlords who were good at killing Taliban, no matter their ruthlessness or how much they stole?

A few months before Kabul fell, Payenda made a surprise visit to an illegal customs post outside Kandahar that was netting millions of dollars per day, money that the Afghan government and military desperately needed. When he confronted the police officers, who were running the operation, they cocked and pointed their rifles at him. A video of the incident, saved on Payenda’s cellphone, shows his security team shouldering their weapons and spiriting Payenda from the building.

Among the biggest mysteries of all for Payenda was why U.S. officials in his view had essentially handed the country to the Taliban in peace talks that had excluded an elected Afghan government that it had spent more than $1 trillion trying to build. Payenda knew Americans were weary of Afghanistan. He and his wife watched U.S. television dramas that left them feeling “bombarded” with fictional portrayals of lost and disabled veterans whose lives had been ruined by the war. “It’s so negative and subtle,” he said.

But he couldn’t understand how U.S. military officials and diplomats could so easily abandon the high-minded principles for which they said they had been fighting all these years. As he drove the streets of Washington, past the buildings where so many of the decisions about Afghanistan’s future had been made, it seemed to him as if the Americans’ assurances that they cared about democracy and human rights were never more than a “pretense.”

“Maybe there were good intentions initially, but the United States probably didn’t mean this,” he said.

Once a month or so, a think tank invited Payenda to speak on a panel devoted to the current crisis in Afghanistan. Aid workers and former government officials spoke of starving babies, mothers selling their kidneys and parents selling their daughters to survive. International organizations that could help, such as the World Bank, seemed unsure how to provide assistance without violating U.S. sanctions on the Taliban.

Payenda was especially exasperated by Biden’s decision to set aside $3.5 billion from the Afghan central bank’s $7 billion in frozen reserves for potential litigation involving survivors of the 9/11 attacks. The rest of the money would go to humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. Payenda worried that, taken together, the moves would destroy the Afghan currency, cripple the central bank and plunge even more Afghans into desperate poverty. “It’s outrageous,” he had complained on one of the think-tank panels. “This is the single biggest blow you can deliver to the Afghan economy. The afghani would be a worthless, dirty old piece of paper if you don’t have the assets to back it up.”

Just before midnight, Payenda picked up two young men from Lebanon heading home after a night of partying. They talked about how long they had been in the United States, how they missed their families back home, and the Lebanese diaspora, fueled by decades of war. “I’ve heard there’s a bigger Lebanese population outside of Lebanon than within,” Payenda said.

The men were executives with a construction company that builds schools. “An emotionally rewarding job,” one of them said. “Good for the community.”

Payenda thought for a moment. “It’s tangible,” he agreed. “I worked in public finance, and it’s not tangible. People say your budget is BS. It all gets ruined, and you can’t even see the ruins.”

Payenda often thought about finding a new career in which he could clearly see the results of each day’s work. He pictured himself buying and fixing up old houses or farming or opening a restaurant with his wife.

He still worked on studies and reports on Afghanistan for donors and aid groups, but there wasn’t enough Afghanistan-related work these days to pay the bills. Recently he was offered an international development job in Iraq, and although he was tempted to go, his wife, Husnia Sidiqi, talked him out of it. They have four children, ranging in age from 2 to 15. “The kids need you,” she told him. “And if you keep going back and forth, you will never settle here.”

Before the Taliban takeover, Payenda’s wife and children had split much of the previous six years between Kabul and their home in the Virginia suburbs. In 2015, they qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa, but Payenda said he never imagined “a future” for himself in the United States. “I only had one country, and it was Afghanistan,” he said.

Sometimes when he was driving, his thoughts turned to his 75-year-old father, who in August had been too frail to fight through the crowds swarming the Kabul airport and escape. He knew that he could have easily helped his father secure a Turkish visa before the country fell to the Taliban, but he did not expect the collapse to come so quickly. “My biggest regret is that we were so focused on reforms that we forgot the bigger stuff,” he said. “It would have taken me an hour to get the visa.” He thought about his former colleagues, including his director general for customs, who had been wounded in the August airport bombing and was stuck as well. He wished he’d done more to help them.

Payenda checked his Uber app, which was offering him a $19 bonus if he completed three consecutive rides between 1 and 2 a.m. He dropped a rider at a dance club and ferried a couple home. His last ride of the night was an intoxicated 20-something who spent much of the ride unleashing a string of mostly good-natured profanities at the traffic lights and the suddenly chilly weather.

“He cursed so much,” Payenda said as the man stumbled toward his front door. Most of the people Payenda picked up after 1 a.m. — when the Uber bonuses were typically the best — were intoxicated. “I have seen a lot of sadness and hollowness,” he said, “people who work hard all week so they can go get wasted.”

Payenda clocked off the Uber app and headed home. With tips he had netted a little over $150 for six hours’ work, not counting his commute — a mediocre night.

It was a little after 2 a.m. when he pulled into his neighborhood of two-story colonials with American flags, basketball hoops and small, patchy lawns. For the first few weeks that he drove, his wife would wait up for him to make sure that he had made it home safely. Now she no longer worried as much and left the hall light on.

Like so many Afghans who had escaped the country, Payenda found that when he tried to imagine a new future for himself, his thoughts turned to his children. “I think a happy, meaningful life is one where you raise responsible children who are aware and are not too spoiled or too materialistic,” he said.

He wanted to expose them to Afghanistan’s poetry, its history and its music. And he wanted them to be aware of its struggles.

But he didn’t want to burden them — even his 15-year-old son — with stories of poverty and starvation. “He should be protected from that,” Payenda said, “but not too much.”

Payenda sat in his driveway in the dark listening to Afghan songs of love and faith that had been a part of his life since childhood and that the Taliban now insisted were forbidden by Islam. He turned off the car and walked stiffly up his brick path, his back and legs aching from hours of sitting.

He noticed a glow from behind the curtains in the upstairs playroom, where his children had forgotten to turn off the lights.

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