In “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan” (published by Penguin Press on August 9), Elliott Ackerman, who served four combat tours in Afghanistan with the Marines and the CIA, writes about how his mission continued, seeking to save an Afghan man and his family from fall of the country to the Taliban.
Read the passage below and don’t miss David Martin’s interview with Elliot Ackerman on “CBS Sunday Morning” August 7!
The US Naval Academy
Twenty years have passed since 9/11. As planned, Josh flew in with his son, six-year-old Weston, and we’re up early getting ready to take our boys to the Navy vs. Air Force football game. Josh had arrived the night before, from Wilmington—not far from Camp Lejeune—where he was stationed after being medically discharged from the Marine Corps. If it wasn’t for his leg wound, I always imagined Josh would have stuck around the Corps and run the organization. he would make a good general. Instead, he has become a successful businessman. He once joked with me that he had done every essential thing an American could do: he had gone to war. had started a family. he had built and taken a business audience. He laughed telling me this, but also admitted he wasn’t sure what was coming next.
The night he arrived, after putting the boys to bed, we stayed up late talking over drinks about the same thing. Specifically, we were discussing the future of Afghanistan, but this discussion had a subtext. it was intertwined with what would come next for each of us now that our war was finally over. This summer, about a week before Kabul fell, Josh had sent me a video. He was with a battalion of Afghan commandos as they prepared for one of their last attacks, a desperate helicopter assault on Lashkar Gah, the then-besieged capital of Helmand province. The video was shot in dark, midnight tones. The heavily armed commandos marched in formation towards the helicopters waiting for them on the tarmac. In Dari they shouted: “God is great!” followed by “Long live Afghanistan!” It had been years since Josh had been in Afghanistan, but he confessed that watching this video made him yearn to go back. He felt he had to load into those helicopters. Watching this video made me want to go back too. Or, in other words, it reminded me that no matter how much my life moved beyond war—in family, in work, in friendship—war always held me back and called me back. Josh was, as we were sitting at my table, giving me some s*** for the video I had sent him in response, which was a favorite scene from The Princess Bride. It’s from the end of the movie, after the Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya killed the man with six fingers and avenged his father’s death. He turns to his good friend Westley, the stable boy turned pirate, and says sadly, “You know, it’s very strange. I’ve been in the revenge business for so long, now that it’s over I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life. ” To which Westley replies, “Have you ever thought about piracy? You’d make a great Dread Pirate Roberts.” Josh was a class of 2001 from the Naval Academy. He was in the revenge business for a long time.
After the Abbey Gate bombing, our ability to bring Afghans to the airport stopped. However, the number of Afghans trying to leave only seemed to increase. As it became clear that the window for departures had been narrowed to a minimum, those Afghans who had considered biding their time until conditions at the airport improved now seemed willing to take risks they would not have considered a week ago. Josh was curious how the last few days of the evacuation had gone from my perspective. Most of my efforts, I explained, were now focused on helping a family that Admiral Mullen was trying to escape. There were nine in all, to include four small children. The patriarch of the family, whom I will call Aziz, worked at the US embassy. His brother, who was working as a driver for a senior government minister, had already been killed by the Taliban, while the minister himself had moved away, boarding a plane from HKIA in the first days of the evacuation.
Aziz sends me mostly voice notes. I play a few of them for Josh, starting with one that Aziz recorded on Abbey Gate night. He was nearby, like so many others trying to get into the airport, when the bomb went off. “Hello sir, I hope you are doing well,” Aziz begins with a quiver in his voice. “We just turned back and we’re trying to go somewhere else. We don’t want the Taliban to catch us, because they’re looking everywhere, place by place, house by house, street by street, they’re not looking for us. I want to be recognized. I was so close to that explosion and the blood mark is all over my clothes. The whole family is so scared. Sir, I am waiting for your next call. If possible, sir, it would be so good, um, uh…” Aziz stumbles on words for a moment before regaining enough composure to say, “I’m not able to speak clearly. I can get close or close to the airport. If it’s possible to pick us up, that would be good. For now, the whole family is in very bad situation. They are so scared. The children are so scared. Everyone is in a bad situation.”
I play Josh another message from Aziz, this one just a few days ago. After the last American flight left Kabul airport, Aziz traveled north, with all nine members of his family crammed into a taxi, to Mazar-i-Sharif, where his family and others are hiding in a safe house , waiting for a flight that may or may not come. The safe house is not really a house, but a wedding hall rented at exorbitant rates by private donors who foot the bill for this evacuation. He’s been there about a week. About a week of funding left to pay for the safe house. The Taliban have gone to his home in Kabul. Once that funding runs out, if it hasn’t flown out, it won’t have anywhere to go. Aziz’s message is accompanied by a video as he films the wretchedness of the wedding hall, children wandering around aimlessly, families sleeping under the stairs and others sleeping in the open hall itself, on dirty carpets, with empty water bottles and other bits of junk strewn about. “Please, sir, please,” she says, “I want you to help me, my family, my children. It’s not a safe place. I’m going to turn off my cell phone and put it somewhere. It’s just completely lost. I don’t know what to do I am doing”.
Josh asks if I think Aziz will come out. I describe some recent complications. Kam Air, the largest private airline based in Afghanistan, is the only one the Taliban will allow to fly. A few nights before, Aziz’s flight had been cleared. But in a corrupt scheme, Kam Air pilots had offered their seats to the highest bidder, effectively selling the flight for millions in profit. This caused a delay. Then, once that problem was resolved, the flight was cleared again, but at the last minute a local Taliban commander blocked its departure because payment had not been received. The next day, it was an issue with Qatar’s landing permit in Doha. Currently, the US State Department has suspended the flight requiring every Afghan aboard the aircraft to have a passport, to include children over one year old. Aziz’s children do not have passports. After listing these difficulties, Josh asks how often I get such messages from Aziz.
I tell him about every day.
From “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan” by Elliot Ackerman, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Elliot Ackerman.
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