The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He spent his adult life helping U.S. soldiers. Now, he’s desperately fleeing Afghanistan.

Iqbal, a fighter and former interpreter, battled thirst and gunfire to get to Kabul airport. Now what?

Plumes of smoke rise into the sky after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug. 12. (Sidiqullah Khan/AP)
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This story has been updated.

The voice on the phone from Kandahar Airfield sounded exhausted and resigned, as if not much hope was left. Lt. Col. Mohammad Iqbal Nuristani had managed to get the bulk of his stranded commando unit on airplanes to Kabul the night before, but he and about 100 of his men were still stuck, surrounded by Taliban fighters demanding their surrender. With the government crumbling, it didn’t seem likely that the Afghan air force transport planes were coming back.

“I can’t do anything more, that’s it,” Iqbal told me and the American veteran speaking to him from Seattle, Joshua Rodriguez, on Aug. 15. He had a deadline from the Taliban fighters who’d taken over parts of the airfield to surrender by midnight, and no ammunition left to fight with or water to drink. His choices: Give up and potentially save the lives of his men, or die fighting. “If it was just me, I know my decision, but it’s a hundred soldiers’ lives,” he said. “I don’t want to make a hundred women widows and a hundred kids orphans.”

Iqbal shared the names and phone numbers of his wife, mother and some of his 18 siblings, for us to contact and try to help in case he died. “Rodriguez, if I make it, fine. If I don’t make it, thanks for everything,” he said. “Thank you, brother. It was an honor working side-by-side with the U.S.”

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Why, Rodriguez couldn’t help but wonder, was Iqbal — an applicant for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because of his previous work as an interpreter for U.S. troops — still there? Why hadn’t the Pentagon airlift of such applicants started much earlier — not just before the Taliban’s lightning-quick summer offensive, but in the spring, when U.S. troops and aircraft were still stationed at the very airfield where Iqbal was now stuck, awaiting rescue or death? President Biden’s administration announced the program in mid-July and, by the time of Kabul’s fall, had relocated only about 2,500 former interpreters and their families,

Iqbal heads an elite, U.S.-trained paramilitary unit of Afghanistan’s intelligence service called Unit 03. His men had been the last ones fighting in downtown Kandahar on Thursday when the governor called to say he’d made a deal with the Taliban to surrender the city. Retreating to the desert airfield that U.S. troops had occupied until a few weeks earlier, Iqbal had hunkered down and called for help — from his own collapsing government, from the CIA and from American military officers he’d worked with in what now seemed like another life, as a teenage interpreter a decade earlier in mountainous Konar province.

Among those officers was Rodriguez. Iqbal had become his interpreter when Rodriguez deployed to Konar in 2008 as a lieutenant, not long out of the U.S. Military Academy. Iqbal, then a teenager, explained to Rodriguez that he’d taught himself English. After getting hired, Iqbal went everywhere with Rodriguez, not just interpreting from Pashto to English but helping unravel local disputes that affected the U.S. troops’ operations. Iqbal did the same for a succession of higher-ranking commanders for four more years.

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The two men had drifted in and out of contact in the years since, but earlier this year, Iqbal had gotten in touch with Rodriguez over Facebook about his visa application. A previous application had been denied in 2016, but essentially on a technicality: When U.S. troops had left Konar, he’d stopped working for them, but on the paperwork from the contractor who had been paying his salary, he’d been marked as fired — a black mark for the exacting SIV applications.

With the help of Rodriguez and other former U.S. military bosses who wrote letters on his behalf, he reapplied. “I am writing this email to let u guys know my life is in serious danger, ” he wrote to the State Department’s SIV desk in May, noting his job as Unit 03 commander. “I kindly request from u guys to speed up my SIV in order to secure myself and as well as my family.”

“His entire adult life has been in service of the United States,” Rodriguez wrote last month in a fresh recommendation letter.

“With the pending withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan it is only a matter of time before he and his family are found and killed by the Taliban,” wrote a retired colonel Iqbal had worked for, Dan Wilson.

The renewed SIV application made Iqbal and his family potentially eligible, until their visas could be processed, for the airlift of security-screened applicants to third countries that the Biden administration had unveiled on July 14.

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By that time, the U.S. military’s departure was well underway: U.S. troops had already pulled out of the big airfields that they and their NATO allies had long used as regional transport and logistics hubs, including Kandahar in May. That meant that Iqbal, and other applicants like him, had to get to Kabul to have any chance of being flown out.

The obstacles in Iqbal’s way were unusual ones in many respects. As the commander of elite government troops, he didn’t have much time for paperwork. “Hello sir i am sorry for late response i am busy fighting in Kandahar usually i am out on mission,” Iqbal wrote to Rodriguez on Facebook Messenger on July 7, as the Taliban closed in. And because of the toll Unit 03’s night raids had exacted on Taliban leaders in Kandahar over the years, he expected that, unlike some other government troops and former U.S. workers to whom the Taliban was promising amnesty, he was probably marked for death if he surrendered.

But the biggest problem was one that SIV applicants all around Afghanistan faced: distance. Iqbal was stuck in a part of the country where travel to Kabul seemed herculean, if not impossible, as district after district fell under Taliban control in June and July. By the time cities began to fall on Aug. 6, Highway 1 — the paved road that connects Afghanistan’s largest urban centers — was already severed in multiple places between Kabul and Kandahar, meaning anyone trying to reach the capital on it would have to pass through checkpoints manned by the very militants they were trying to escape.

“We squandered all of this time, when we could’ve been getting people out,” said Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel whom Iqbal also worked for during his years as an interpreter. He noted that an earlier start to the airlift effort could have taken advantage of not only Kandahar Airfield but other large regional air hubs that applicants in far-flung parts of the country could have reached more easily.

Late on Aug. 12, as Iqbal was setting a perimeter at the airfield after his forced retreat from the city, he called Rodriguez on Facebook Messenger to fill him in. Rodriguez, whom I’d met during a reporting trip to Kandahar in 2013, called me and patched me onto the call.

In that conversation and others since then, Iqbal has mostly sounded tired but calm, including as he explained the grim calculus he faced to save his men. “It is what it is,” he would say — a fatalistic motto of sorts he’d picked up from American combat soldiers.

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On Aug. 14, after a day spent enduring rocket and mortar attacks, C-130 transport planes from the Afghan air force flew in and started evacuating Unit 03. There wasn’t enough time or space for everybody. Iqbal wound up on the first flight, but instead of getting off the plane in Kabul, he flew back and joined the last group, unwilling to leave while any of his soldiers were still in danger. “My men looked at me like I was crazy to come back,” he told me by phone. They would have to last another day before more planes could come. They were down to three or four magazines of ammunition apiece, and were almost out of water.

When Iqbal picked up the phone again the following evening, the excitement that had been in his voice after getting part of his unit to safety was gone, sapped by the entrance of Taliban forces into Kabul and the collapse of the government. His men had used the last of their ammunition during the day’s fighting. “Since I was a child, all I have known is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” he said, referencing the formal name of the country since the Taliban’s fall from power in 2001. “I can’t believe it. Everything is gone.”

Only when one of his other phones buzzed again did his voice start to break. “My wife is calling,” he said. “What the f--- do I tell her? What should I tell her, Rodriguez?” There were three hours left until the midnight surrender deadline the Taliban had given him.

Midnight Afghanistan time came and went with no word from Iqbal. It seemed possible, if not likely — as it had during every extended silence between his calls — that he was dead.

Then Iqbal was on the phone again, telling us that a plane was coming. Amid the chaos at Kabul airport, some of his own men who’d arrived there the night before had driven over to the parked Afghan air force planes that had evacuated them the previous night and persuaded a pilot to risk the trip again. An American AC-130 gunship was coming, too, he was told, not to land but to provide backup if it was needed.

When Facebook Messenger buzzed next, in the wee hours of the morning Kabul time, Iqbal was talking to us from the plane — he had made it to Kabul, and was inside the perimeter that thousands of U.S. and British troops have formed around the airport to protect the frantic evacuation from the country. What came next, he didn’t know. As of Monday morning, the Pentagon said no more flights were arriving or leaving from the airport, which had descended into chaos.

He had gotten his men out of what seemed like the closing jaws of death; it seemed possible, now, that they might evade Taliban retribution. He resolved to leave the country if the Pentagon’s SIV airlift permitted him to; the Americans he was with told him they were trying to find a way to get his soldiers out, too, but that seemed far from assured.

“I have done enough now; now I need to do something for my family,” Iqbal reassured an anxious Rodriguez. “God has given us all another life.”

Rodriguez was overcome by a mixture of relief that Iqbal was out of Kandahar, dread thinking about the other interpreters from his deployments who might not be as lucky, and anger that the United States had taken so long to act on their behalf and denied so many visa applications for what seemed like inconsequential reasons. “I feel used,” he told me. “We were the tools to convince these interpreters to believe in and trust us, and veterans like me looked them in the eyes and said we had their backs. It’s heartbreaking.”

Military evacuation flights resumed this past week, including for SIV applicants, as U.S. reinforcements poured into the airport. But with the American forces unable to venture outside their perimeter to provide escorts through Taliban lines, travel to the airport has become a harrowing gauntlet for Afghans to run — first through desperate, often violent crowds, then through Taliban checkpoints. On voice messages Friday, Iqbal explained that he and Unit 03 were still at the airport, waiting to be evacuated along with the remnants of other Afghan special operations units and trying to help other Afghans the U.S. military deemed eligible to enter the protected enclave. In the meantime, still in uniform and carrying the weapons they’d fought with in Kandahar, they were helping secure the perimeter alongside U.S. and British troops — one last duty before they could leave.

Update, Aug. 26: After this story was published, the U.S. military flew Iqbal, his immediate family and the remaining members of Unit 03 out of Afghanistan to other countries.

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