The family, on the run from Taliban fighters Mike once helped the Americans battle, spent 36 hours at the Kabul airport earlier this week, desperately trying to get on a plane out of the country. Zach Disbrow, a former Army captain and his company commander in 2012, had arranged passage on a U.S. military flight, but the family never made it through the crowds before the last flights left early Tuesday.
“There is really no way out,” said Disbrow, who said Mike had returned to Afghanistan to help his family escape. “We should absolutely celebrate every single human being we got out of Afghanistan as an incredible victory, but the mission’s only halfway over. We’ve still got a moral responsibility to get these people out.”
More than 122,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan in the frenzied final days of the longest war in U.S. history. Despite promises from President Biden, and a U.S. military doctrine of never leaving anyone behind, between 100 and 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan, the president said Tuesday.
Those people are U.S. citizens who want to leave but have been unable to get out. Officials have said they are distinct from a number of U.S. citizens who have chosen to remain in Afghanistan, often because they do not want to leave non-U.S. citizen family members behind. Thousands more, Afghans like Mike who may be targets for Taliban retribution, are also stranded.
The Biden administration has come under intense criticism from Republicans, veterans and even some Democratic allies for its handling of Afghanistan. Many argued Biden should have extended the Aug. 31 deadline for leaving when it became clear that not all Americans who wanted to flee would be able to get out.
Mark Jacobson, a former member of the Obama administration and Afghanistan war veteran who has been assisting families to get out, said the Biden administration had been “disingenuous” about some of the Americans left behind.
He said officials often fail to note that some American citizens do not want to leave because it could mean leaving close family members behind.
“If we made it a decision that we can’t take that many, then what was the backup plan for the others, especially in families that we knew were high risk?” Jacobson said.
Biden, in a televised address Tuesday, said the administration had been working since March to help Americans leave the country and had evacuated about 5,500. He said the United States also evacuated “thousands of citizens and diplomats from those countries that went to Afghanistan with us to get [Osama] bin Laden,” thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters and 2,500 Afghans who worked at the United States embassy and their families.
“We believe that about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave,” he said. “Most of those who remain are dual citizens, longtime residents, who had earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan. The bottom line, 90 percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave.”
The White House later clarified that 98 percent of Americans wishing to leave had been evacuated.
Biden stressed that for Americans still in Afghanistan: “There is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.”
Three U.S. passport holders from the same family are counting on that promise. The three flew to Afghanistan in July to help pack and bring back a grandmother, who just had her U.S. visa approved. They’ve tried repeatedly over the last several weeks to board a flight out, with no luck. “I thought it would be good there because everything that Biden was saying, — especially like July, May, June — when he was saying that it’s impossible for [the Taliban] to take over so quickly,” said Mohsen, a family member who asked to be identified only by his first name because of concerns for his relatives.
Disbrow, who spends his days trying to figure out a solution for Mike and his family, said assigning blame for those left behind is not useful to the people who need help.
“I think we should measure success not by the people we get out, but by the people we leave behind,” he said, “and getting that number to zero.”
The situation looks so difficult for Mike and his family that Disbrow, from Chicago, and his fellow grass-roots volunteers are discussing whether to advise him to destroy his green card and wipe the call log and contacts from his phone. That might make it harder to leave, but it could give him a better chance of surviving if he is caught by the Taliban.
There is no exact count of people like Mike — Afghans with connections to the United States — but they are believed to number in the thousands. Many are green-card holders, or permanent U.S. residents. Others have entry visas for the United States, and many are applicants for the special immigrant visa (SIV) available to many who worked as translators and interpreters for U.S. soldiers and diplomats.
Many more are Afghans who worked for nongovernmental organizations, teachers, contractors and some who had worked for U.S.-funded development projects.
John, a former Army interpreter who asked to be identified by only his middle name, watched with alarm as Taliban fighters pressed toward Kabul, where he lived with his wife and 1-year-old. He knew his U.S. affiliation put him at risk.
A few days later, the Americans dangled salvation. John, who holds a special immigrant visa, got an email.
“They said to come to Hamid Karzai airport,” he said by phone from Afghanistan. “They said we could get on a plane.”
But getting on a plane meant getting into the airport, something he tried and failed to do day after day. Even after 12 hours of pressing, pushing and waiting the crowds were too great for him to reach the gate where he might show his email.
On Aug. 26, John and his family gave up and went home just hours before a suicide bomber at the airport entrance killed 170, including 13 U.S. service members.
After that attack, the flights stopped. John waited for a rescue mission that never came.
“They say they evacuated thousands of people,” John said, with clear bitterness in his voice. “Who were those people? I can tell you there are still people left behind.”
Now he lives in fear of the moment that Taliban fighters arrive at his three-room apartment.
“I’m staying 24 hours a day inside; it’s very hard,” he said, still hoping the Americans would help him. “I don’t think they had any program to get us out.”
Efforts to reach those remaining in Afghanistan have also been hampered by fear of endangering them further by making calls that the Taliban could track to locate them.
A young woman working in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of the Taliban, said: “Our dreams were tearing into pieces, the 20 years achievements were reversed in days. Thousands of Afghans, who worked with the Americans, were left behind helplessly. The evacuation process has further added salt to the injuries of innocent people,” she said. “It was [a disorganized] and disrespectful way of evacuating people. . . . Many Afghans feel betrayed. There is anger and disappointment in Kabul. I am shattered.”
Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, a California-based volunteer with the Female and Free Speech Airlift, which is trying to relocate outspoken women, journalists, artists and scholars at risk, said her organization was aware of more than two dozen U.S. citizens and green-card holders who had tried to leave in the final days before the U.S. withdrawal but were blocked at the Kabul airport by U.S. and Taliban forces.
Pistey-Lyhne said American troops at the airport were prioritizing travelers with U.S. passports over green-card holders.
“In the final hours of the gate being open they said they wouldn’t let green-card holders and only blue passports could get through,” she said. “They’ve been very much differentiating between the two.”
“For now, at least, it has seemed that they are treating Americans okay,” she said.
Karoun Demirjian, Missy Ryan and Sammy Westfall in Washington, Steve Hendrix in Doha, Qatar, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Jonathan Baran and Elizabeth Dwoskin in San Francisco contributed to this report.