The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American diplomats recall 20-hour days, sleeping in Kabul airport while helping those desperate to flee

Foreign Service officer John Johnson holds a flag taken from the U.S. Embassy last month as the staff fled Kabul after the Taliban takeover. (John Johnson)
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With insurgent forces closing in quickly, Foreign Service officers John Johnson and Evan Davis fled their Kabul apartments so urgently that they left some possessions behind.

I suspect there’s a Taliban who’s wearing my suits right now” if the militants occupied the embassy compound where the diplomats lived, Johnson said.

But both also left their abbreviated tours in Afghanistan with things that they may never shed.

Johnson and Davis were among the last U.S. personnel to flee Kabul after it fell to the Taliban. Both expected to be there for one year, but the Taliban got in the way.

Right up until the end, they were surprised that the situation deteriorated so quickly. They didn’t know they would be evacuated until the day before. On Aug. 15, the day the Taliban captured Kabul, Johnson said the need to evacuate “was communicated over the P.A. system in increasingly urgent tones … as the Taliban moved closer and closer to the city and into the city.”

Johnson flew out of Kabul on a C-17 military transport en route to Brussels on Aug. 30. Davis left the day before on his way to Washington.

Along with other FSOs, as State Department diplomats are commonly called, they recalled their hectic last days in Kabul in interviews sometimes marked with heavy emotion, cracked voices and tears.

Foreign Service officers serve and work with Americans abroad and conduct diplomacy on behalf of the United States. Hundreds of FSOs were in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover, although the State Department would not provide an exact number.

President Biden, surprised by how quickly the Taliban overran the country, had promised to get all Americans out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31. In an interview with ABC News, he also said U.S. troops would stay until all Americans who wanted to leave were out. Neither promise was fulfilled.

After being evacuated by helicopter from the embassy, Johnson, Davis and other officials spent those last days at Hamid Karzai International Airport, sometimes eating “meals ready to eat,” a.k.a. MREs, the military-style, self-contained food rations not known as haute cuisine. They slept on the floor for the first few days.

That wasn’t the tough part.

Johnson and Davis are public affairs officers. But in addition to dealing with the media, duty pressed them to assist with evacuations.

Davis, 31, remembered being at the airport’s Abbey Gate on the same day that 13 American service members and close to 200 Afghans were killed by a suicide bomber. “Had I been at that gate at a different time,” he said, “that could have been me.”

The Xenia, Ohio, native has eight years of experience as an FSO. His previous posting was in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, which is calm, quiet “and a little boring.” That’s one reason Davis wanted the Afghanistan posting, “but I had no idea that I would go from zero to 60 so quickly.”

He spoke emotionally about the airport ceremony to honor the fallen service members before their final flight back home.

“That is one thing I’ll never be able to forget,” he said, his voice shaking. “My safety and protection is owed to all the service members that were on the ground at that time, but also who had served in Afghanistan previously.”

At the same time, the safety and protection of more than 120,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan are owed to Foreign Service officers like Davis and Johnson, and the service members and others who worked day and night under dangerous conditions.

This was a major humanitarian accomplishment, even though some Americans and allies were left behind. Yet Biden’s description of it as an “extraordinary success” can’t be squared with the deaths, mayhem and chaos that preceded America’s hasty retreat. Biden’s claim is rebutted by his plunging poll numbers that indicate 2-to-1 disapproval of his evacuation execution.

It wasn’t pretty. Johnson, 50, experienced things that he said he can’t talk about “in detail right now because it brings up stuff that I’m not ready to deal with yet.” He and his wife, both from Seattle, joined the Foreign Service 20 years ago.

He did talk about being “up close” to the “desperation and human misery” of the many who wanted to leave but could not. Those “that I couldn’t get out will haunt me for years,” Johnson said.

He painted a disturbing verbal picture of the agony Afghans suffered as they waited outside the airport. Their surroundings included not just items like “bottles and clothes and suitcases and things that people” left behind, but also “the smell of blood and urine and feces” from people “so desperate to leave and so afraid that any sort of semblance of decorum is gone. You know, they just wanted to get out of there.”

One of the ironies for Johnson was that the Afghans were “deathly afraid” of the Taliban fighters who were “providing security five feet from me. … You could see the fear in their eyes as the Taliban are rolling up with AK-47s and rockets pointed at them from a truck.”

On a macro level, the experience was like “watching the dissolution of the country in real time,” he said. “But on a human level, it's pulling people out of crowds and watching them break down crying, as soon as I got them out, when they realized that they were in process to leave.”

Another lasting impression for both men was the dedication of their colleagues.

Nobody ever complained about working 20-hour days, and nobody ever complained about sleeping on the floor and eating MREs,” Johnson said. “The dedication and the commitment really is impressive.”

That sense of duty was so strong, Davis added, that even when they were living at the airport, “there was still this lingering sense of hope among everyone who was there that we would somehow be able to go back to the embassy, that we wouldn’t actually have to leave the country.”

While proud of America’s work in Afghanistan, Davis has “a bag of mixed emotions” and “this lingering sense of guilt or frustration that you’re walking away,” and not only from the work of promoting democracy.

“How do you look at your predecessors in the face with regard to the years of blood, sweat and tears that they put into building a better Afghanistan?” he asked. “How do you talk to Afghans about the work and the sense of hope and inspiration and dedication that they felt not only to their own country but to supporting the American cause over the last 20 years?”

If the U.S. Embassy in Kabul ever reopens, Davis would like to return.

“I think that the sense of commitment and dedication after that experience would really push me to go back to Afghanistan,” he said, “because I feel like our mission is not yet finished.”

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