As the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan, people connected to the West and trapped in the country describe scenes of fear and violent retribution. By Karen Middleton.
Exit Afghanistan: fear and retribution as Taliban takes control
A Canadian soldier is calling for help. He is at the Abby Gate, airside near the NATO compound, on the city side of Kabul Airport. It’s Thursday, and thousands of people are scaling the perimeter wall, trying to get in. Somebody throws a baby girl at him and then an American passport. He is pleading for assistance.
“Emergency, emergency, emergency!” the soldier calls, in a recording obtained by The Saturday Paper. “…It is of epic concern. I just had a small baby, US passport, thrown at us. They ran away. They don’t have a chance. They threw her over the wire. I have now a US citizen in my hands. Please, send someone ASAP to come and assist me!”
The Canadian says he has Americans and Germans at his gate and needs urgent diplomatic support.
Across town, Ahmad Shah is in hiding with his family. His voice is calm and steady, but he is describing horror. A colleague’s car torn apart by a bomb. Another’s boss dying in front of him in a vehicle ambush. These incidents in and near Kabul just months ago were targeting Afghan government employees who had studied in Australia, he explains. Now those responsible for this terror are running his country.
“Everyone is very worried about what will come to them,” Ahmad says quietly from the Afghan capital, after its fall to the Taliban this week. “There’s mental pressure on everybody, bearing in mind some of the threats they have received.”
Ahmad Shah is one of about 40 alumni of Australian universities now trying to flee Afghanistan, and among many thousands frightened by the return of the brutal Islamist regime.
“We don’t know what’s ahead, that’s the worrying point…” he tells The Saturday Paper. “If we come to Australia, that would be a great and a big relief. Because we might survive if we stay – if we don’t come – but that survival would be full of grief and of pain. And there are chances that we might not survive.”
Ahmad asks not to use his real name. Identifying him will put his life at greater risk. For more than five years, since long before the government fell, he has taken steps to evade harm, varying the times he goes to and from the office, dressing casually, not in business clothing. “There was evidence that I was followed,” he says.
Ahmad’s family is at a house in Kabul. He is staying inside as much as possible. With the Taliban back in power, those who were educated overseas are among the most vulnerable. “Definitely, they will be working to remove those people from the picture,” he says. “Slowly, slowly.”
Like many other Afghans with ties to “infidel” nations, Ahmad is waiting and hoping for a call that will carry him and his family through the Taliban roadblocks and bedlam at Hamid Karzai International Airport and onto a military plane back to Australia. He doesn’t know yet if the call will come.
After months of pleading from Australian Defence Force veterans and others for a military evacuation, the dramatic collapse of Afghanistan’s government and security forces has meant Australia has finally begun an evacuation. It aims to rescue Australian citizens, Afghans who worked for Australia during the war and have applied for asylum, people who have already secured a humanitarian visa and some others who will be at risk if they stay.
The various national evacuation operations are weighing the urgent Taliban threat against one that could be posed by taking people whose backgrounds have not been assessed. These calculations have resulted in extremes, from an anyone-goes rush to a painstakingly slow selection process. The chaos at the airport has influenced those judgements.
On Sunday night, August 15, guards at some airport gates abandoned their posts, allowing crowds to pour into normally secure areas and inundate the runway and commercial terminal. Elite United States military personnel were deployed, some holding back crowds at the perimeter, with shots allegedly fired in both directions. US Apache attack helicopters made low-flying sweeps to force people off the runway and allow transporting aircraft to move.
On Monday, a US C-17 Globemaster took off carrying 640 people, so far beyond its recommended maximum load that air-traffic controllers were alarmed. An eyewitness has told The Saturday Paper the pilot boarded about 200 people and was preparing for takeoff but was forced to reopen the door and let hundreds more scramble in because so many were clinging dangerously to the undercarriage as it began to move. It seems the US air crew had no idea who they had on board but appeared to have made the move because the desperate crowds were putting themselves – and the aircraft – in jeopardy.
The US Office of Special Investigations has begun an inquiry after human remains were found in the wheel well of one aircraft when it landed in Qatar. Videos later posted to social media showed bodies falling from a C-17 as it rose into the sky. Other photographs showed more bodies on a Kabul rooftop, described as having also fallen from the underside of a plane.
In events that now bookend the Afghan war, the scenes were appallingly reminiscent of those in New York on September 11, 2001, when desperate people jumped from the burning upper floors of the World Trade Center after terrorists attacked.
In contrast with the initial American airlift, the first Australian flight out of Kabul on Wednesday, a C-130 Hercules, took only 26 people, with another 76 Australians and visa-holders later leaving on a British flight. An early German flight took just seven passengers in total. Chaos in and around the airport, choking traffic and Taliban roadblocks stopped some from making the Australian flight.
At least one Australian–Afghan dual national made it to the airport after a call from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but couldn’t get in. Forced to either depart or miss its takeoff slot, the plane left without him.
The Australian government is defending its slower, more cautious approach to determining who can go. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australia is committed to evacuating “those who’ve helped our cause” – although he has acknowledged the frantic and dangerous circumstances mean not all will make it. The security situation means those in other provinces are unlikely to be reached.
“It’s not a simple process,” Morrison said on Wednesday, confirming that the first flight had landed at Australia’s military base in Dubai. “It takes months and months and months to go through that proper process of identifying individuals - the security issues that need to be considered in terms of people who are coming from such an area of the world … Australians would expect me and the government to take all the necessary steps as we process those claims.”
His Defence minister, Peter Dutton, leans towards suspicion. “There are some wonderful people who supported us at a point in time 10 years ago and they have now gone on to work for the Taliban,” Dutton told ABC TV on Wednesday. “They’re working for al-Qaeda. They’re acting out against our allies and their allegiances have shifted. Now they’ve done that for survival or for their own purposes, their own intents. But we’re not bringing those people to our country.”
That message has shocked many in the Afghan–Australian community and those advocating for former interpreters, security guards and other vulnerable Afghans pleading for assistance. The government has also stated clearly that while Afghan asylum seekers already in Australia will remain for now, they cannot stay permanently. Its policy remains: no residency for anyone who came by boat.
“We call this punishment, that we are being punished for no reason” says Sajjad Askary, a former refugee from the persecuted Hazara Afghan minority, who works with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and is studying law at Monash University. “Seeking asylum is a human right.”
Askary and others in the Afghan–Australian community are urging the government to follow the US and Canada and increase its humanitarian intake of Afghans by 20,000 places, not the 3000 announced this week. They want temporary visa-holders to be given permanent residency and to be able to sponsor family members to join them.
“The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and devastating for people,” Askary tells The Saturday Paper. “The situation is extremely dire.”
He fears especially for the central provinces known as Hazarajat. They are home to the largest Hazara population, whose Mongolian features are easily distinguishable and who face threats of genocide after past mass killings.
“Hazarajat is the most underdeveloped part of Afghanistan,” Askary says. “There is no internet, no electricity, no media. So, any mass atrocities there will go unnoticed.”
Afghan community leader Nasiba Akram says there are 825 Afghans on temporary visas in Australia, now living in limbo. Akram heads Project Humanity Australia for aid organisation Host International and is working with the Refugee Communities Association to distribute ground-level aid in Afghanistan amid real fears of famine. She urges the government to increase its own aid, a move she predicts wouldn’t meet resistance from the Taliban.
“The hunger would be one big thing that the government has to look to,” she says. “Mainstream Australia can hear me. And they should roll up their [sleeves] to donate to this cause, this great, human loss, this sad event.”
But with Russia, China and Pakistan likely to recognise the new regime, some analysts warn against any hasty Australian move that legitimises it. University of Western Australia professor and Afghan Australian Amin Saikal says the Afghan people have already been “betrayed by their leaders, as they also felt they were betrayed by outside powers”. He says, “It is just so shocking.”
Saikal says those Western powers protesting that they did not anticipate the speed of the country’s capitulation to the Taliban had plenty of warning. In January 2018, then Afghan president Ashraf Ghani told the US CBS network that if the US withdrew its financial and logistical support his government would collapse.
“We will not be able to support our army for six months without US support,” Ghani said at the time.
In the end, its demise came faster. “It didn’t last even three months,” Saikal says.
But Saikal insists significant blame also lies with Ghani himself, who fled the country on Sunday with other senior government figures, to be granted asylum in the United Arab Emirates. “He was a very divisive, very polarising figure,” Saikal says. “He ethnicised Afghan politics very heavily in favour of his own Ghilzai tribe.” The Ghilzai is a Pashtun tribe, as are most of the Taliban, a factor which may not have featured in the American analysis.
Facing condemnation for the catastrophic nature of the allies’ withdrawal, US President Joe Biden turned the blame on the Afghans. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”
Analysts point out that when the US withdrew its resources, including contractors who maintained the aircraft and other equipment it was leaving to the Afghans, it rendered sections of the country’s defence force inoperable.
Australian National University emeritus professor William Maley, a renowned expert on Afghanistan, says the US also capitulated too easily in its negotiations with the Taliban. Maley says it should never have made the agreement signed under then president Donald Trump in February 2020, which endorsed the release of up to 5000 insurgent prisoners and set a withdrawal timetable.
“It’s not surprising that having got all of that, they were not interested in negotiating seriously with the Afghan government after that,” Maley says. “The agreement in itself was an unmitigated disaster and one would have to go back probably to Munich in 1938 to find such a bad agreement.”
He says Biden’s decision to stick with it, despite willingly jettisoning other Trump political commitments, effectively green-lighted Pakistan to back the Taliban to effectively take over the whole country.
The result is a return to Sharia and a renewed threat to anyone linked to Western culture and powers. “People who had studied in the West are actually burning their degree certificates,” Maley says.
Ahmad and his colleagues are in that fearful group. A friend in Australia is fighting to get him and the other university alumni endorsed for evacuation. The friend has sent the government lists of those who should be prioritised – university alumni, artists, musicians, journalists, and human rights activists, especially those who advocate for women. He has tried to identify those most at risk. The stress of it is reducing him to tears.
Since the Taliban seized control in Kabul on Sunday, Ahmad’s friend has phoned him every morning. The friend is safe in Australia, but that alone puts his own extended family and former colleagues back in Afghanistan at grave risk. That is why he is not using his name. The Taliban are already going door to door, seizing weapons and government vehicles and seeking details of those who served the Ghani government or have ties to the West.
Ahmad says a senior Afghan official said recently that the Afghan military forces had “enough ammunition to fight for 15 years”. But the Taliban employed a supremely effective strategy of picking off provincial capitals to create momentum and fear among the security forces, a domino strategy many allege came from Pakistan. Now all that ammunition – as well as weapons, vehicles and aircraft – is in Taliban control. This means the very thing that coalition forces went into Afghanistan to eliminate – its role as a haven for terrorists – seems in very real prospect again.
Seeing and hearing all of this from his home in Australia, Ahmad’s friend has had almost as little sleep as those he is trying to support. The images of desperation are haunting his nights. “I wake and I see the people falling from the planes,” he says.
He makes the lists and he sends them to the Australian government, hopeful that these people might be given asylum. Military veterans, aid workers and journalists are doing the same, frantically submitting the names of former interpreters, security guards, contractors, and human rights campaigners. Some are pressing the cases of people they’ve known for years. Others are passing on the details of people they know a little or not at all, feeling a humane obligation towards those who have contacted them over social media begging for help. The names go onto lists, so many lists, of all the people desperate to escape.
Australian Robert Davis is among the lucky few, so far, to have made it out. A former ADF officer, Davis has lived in Kabul for nine years, working for a local company that has foreign contracts. He spoke to The Saturday Paper in the early hours of Thursday, Australian time, after a nightmarish three days that eventually landed him in Doha, Qatar, on a US evacuation flight.
Watching the Taliban advance through the provinces over the past two weeks, Davis had booked to leave on a flight to Istanbul on Tuesday this week. On Sunday morning he received a message from an Australian journalist warning him that things were deteriorating fast and he might not have that long.
Already packed, he went straight to the airport and paid cash for a flight leaving that night. Everything seemed normal, so he went home again to bide the many hours until departure. “Then I got a text message from a friend,” he recalls. “He said: ‘Go, go! Run, run!’”
Still dubious, Davis went back to the airport, which wasn’t far. Again, everything seemed calm. He went back home. About 3pm, he decided it was time to go for real, early for his 8pm flight. It was pandemonium. “There were no lines. It was just mass chaos, people throwing their bags over the counter.”
The flight was cancelled, along with all others. Two Afghan friends who’d come to farewell Davis bundled him out. One grabbed his main bags and took them back to his house. Clinging to his hand luggage, Davis and the other friend made their way to what should have been a security gate that led airside. It was wide open. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “There were just hundreds of people already there, on the apron.”
The friend, who had a security pass and access to a van, drove them through the crowds across to the NATO compound. “He was driving and praying at the same time.”
But the compound was in lockdown. He was refused entry at gunpoint. “I was holding my passport up,” Davis says. “I said ‘I’m an Australian citizen, let me in.’”
His friend fronted the Azerbaijani guards. He “started crying and said ‘I love this man, I don’t want him to die here’,” Davis recalls. “He was fearful for my safety ahead of his. They are wonderful guys. I had to convince him I would be okay. He was in tears. We had a big hug and then he left.”
Davis and a dozen other foreign nationals spent about 18 hours standing at the NATO compound gate. They were secure there, on the south side of the runway inside the airport’s outer perimeter, until early Monday morning, when hundreds of Afghans – including some brandishing weapons – began scaling the perimeter wall.
The guards at the wire fence that ringed the inner NATO compound, who helped the group with food and water through the night, feared they would be overwhelmed and called Marines for back-up. “They kept them at bay for about half an hour,” Davis says. “Then everything turned to custard.”
Suddenly in danger, he and the others were rushed through the gate and into an airconditioned demountable container where they spent the next six hours being pelted by rocks. “You could hear them screaming: ‘Hold the line! Hold the line!’” Davis says. “And there were shots. Some of them were lethal shots.”
About 5pm on Monday, they were driven across to the military passenger terminal. US aircraft began arriving in the early hours of Tuesday and Davis got on the third one, a C-17, with about 250 others. He sat on the floor of the massive transport plane, skidding backwards into those behind as it made the steep ascent reserved for dangerous surroundings.
Offloaded at the US base in Qatar, he was expecting to fly on to Kuwait late this week and then to the United States. “Pretty elated at the moment,” was how he described his condition. “You know you’re safe. There’s nothing to worry about behind the fence.”
For many still in Afghanistan, what exists now is an existential crisis. Like Ahmad, Shafiq Rahini is hiding from the Taliban and hoping Australia can save him. Speaking out on behalf of a group of more than 100, he is choosing to use his real name. A former interpreter and security guard, Rahini worked at the Australian embassy in Kabul for a decade.
Rahini describes a chilling conversation a friend overheard on the street after the government’s collapse. “The Taliban were asking from the people … ‘Show us those houses of the people who had worked with foreigners. We have some investigation with them,’” he recounts. “In Afghanistan, you don’t know who is enemy and who are our friend – who likes us and who hates us.”
Over the decade he worked as a guard and interpreter, he says he moved house at least 16 times, out of fear. “Maybe they will follow us, they will find our house.”
Three months ago, he applied for a Locally Engaged Employee (LEE) special visa for himself and his family. He received only an acknowledgement. Finally, a few days ago, he was sent two immigration forms. “But it’s so difficult,” Rahini says, “because we have to take them to an internet cafe.”
That involves going out. It’s a terrible choice. Then, late on Tuesday night, he received a single-page biometric registration form – a sign his application was being expedited. He was told not to worry about the other forms. He and some colleagues, about 15 in all, have now been approved. “Now I worry about my friends,” he says, “who didn’t get anything.”
Late this week, Taliban officials announced members of the former government – and some women – would be invited to join the new non-democratic regime. In an unprecedented news conference, spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid insisted the Taliban had forgiven everyone and Afghans had nothing to fear.
Like so many others, Rahini does not believe them. Stories from the provinces already say something different, especially those coming from the Taliban’s spiritual home in Kandahar.
None can be easily confirmed but they form a pattern, and some have video to go with them. In one video, two bodies swing from Kandahar’s city gate. Another from a local news outlet shows crowds pouring into a stadium and reports that soldiers are being executed inside.
Rahini describes what he says happened to a Kandahar television personality who had once worked for the Afghan police. “They took him from his home, and they killed him. Just by punch, by kicks, they killed him.”
It sounds eerily like another unverifiable video circulated this week, from Jalalabad, purporting to show Taliban sympathisers kicking and stomping on men said to be journalists who had worked for foreign media.
Rahini recounts his own encounters with the Taliban, from before he worked at the embassy. Visiting family away from the city, he was stopped and berated because he had cut his beard and wore his hair in an unapproved style. A search unearthed two music cassettes in his pocket. “They put me in jail for three days and nights.”
He predicts such an incident now would be much worse. People are deleting music and the numbers of foreigners from their mobile phones. If Rahini goes out, which like Ahmad he tries to avoid, he carries a phone that contains none of these. If he and his colleagues get the call to go to the airport, they plan to go together in a bus. “We have to, because it’s not secure if we go alone,” he says. “We will try to go together.”
Then he turns to black humour. “If they shoot us, maybe they will shoot one or two and the rest can go.” He says he looks forward to reaching Australia and seeing the former colleagues who’ve been advocating for him, and those of us he has met over the phone. “I will be jobless so I will disturb all of you guys,” he says. “We will have lunch and dinner. And tea.”
His conversation is fear mixed with hope. For all looking to escape, it’s a mix that is harder to maintain with every departing flight that doesn’t have them on it.
Karen Middleton is the author of An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "‘They took him from his home, and killed him…’".
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