It’s been a year since the chaotic end of America’s war in Afghanistan, and it doesn’t look any better in hindsight for Eliot Ackerman: “This was a breakdown of American morals and the way we treat our allies,” he said. “It was a breakdown of American competence, of our ability to carry out this mission.”
For Ackerman, who served four combat tours in Afghanistan (with both the Marines and the CIA), the collapse was also personal. “All of a sudden, I’m right back in the war. I thought I was out of the war.”
He had stayed away from the war for a decade making a living as a writer. Now he has written a book about America’s greatest war called “The Fifth Act” (published by Penguin Press on August 9).
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked, “Five acts. Shakespeare’s tragedies?”
“You have Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden, and the fifth act, withdrawal, is the Taliban,” Ackerman said.
The Taliban had overcome the world’s greatest superpower and were seeking revenge on the Afghans who had sided with the Americans. A war that started before the existence of the iPhone boils down to an endless stream of viral videos. “Through your phone you could hear the collective voices of all these Afghans who had believed what we told them, screaming for help,” Ackerman said.
So he became part of a digital network of veterans working to get the Afghans out. “I was involved in efforts that brought out, you know, probably over 200 people.”
American troops had taken control of Kabul airport, and Afghans were flocking to the gates, looking for a way, any way, to get past security and onto a plane.
“It would be the equivalent of going to a Rolling Stones concert and walking back and having the band call you on stage,” Ackerman said. “You had to know someone in the band.”
Or one of the Marines guarding the gates. Ackerman’s network sent them photos of arrows showing where to look for specific Afghans with handmade signs. Most were foreigners. All of them were desperate.
Like the man Ackerman calls “Aziz.” He had once worked for the US government and was now sending anguished voicemails about his terror of the Taliban:
“Bless you sir… please do something for us. Save my children… We don’t want the Taliban to catch us because they are searching everywhere, this place after this place, house after house, street after street road, they are looking for us.
“The whole family is in a really bad situation. They’re so scared. The kids are so scared.”
Ackerman said, “How do you ignore something like that?”
Martin asked, “What did you think the odds were?”
“Lou, that we could help him. And then the bomb at the Abbey gate happened, and that shut everything down.”
A suicide bomber slipped into the crowd and.
Four days later the last American soldier flew out of Afghanistan. Ackerman could do nothing more than tell Aziz he was sorry.
“He sent me this text message: ‘You did your best and more. Then you are the super hero of our family. I think it’s our fate to die at the hands of the Taliban.”
Then, Ackerman heard of a flight departing from Mazar-i-Sharif. “It’s halfway across the country up north in the mountains, you know, a long drive.”
Sent to Aziz:
“Please go as fast as you can.”
“You have to hurry. All flights leave today. Hurry.”
Aziz sent video of the route to the north. He reached Mazar-i-Sharif on time. “But then,” Ackerman said, “the flight doesn’t go that day and it doesn’t go the next day, and days and weeks go by, and he’s in a safe house that’s really just a wedding hall. … It kind of stays in that void for about a month. And then one night I knew he showed up for a flight and I went to bed” – and woke up in the morning to a video sent to him by Aziz, who had managed to flee Afghanistan with his family and to a refugee center in Qatar – safe finally from the Taliban.
“hello sir how are you?” Aziz said. “I have no idea how to thank. But I’m grateful to everyone, to every single person in America, because we never dreamed of anything like this. But their love, their mercy. Thank you, thank you for everything.”
Ackerman said, “I was amazed that after going through the ordeal he went through and seeing how disastrously it all ended, his impulse was to thank us. And he said, ‘Thank you every American.’
Aziz now lives in California with his wife and children. “Sunday Morning” is not using his real name and did not want to be interviewed on camera because he still has family in Afghanistan.
Ackerman said, “Just because we decided as Americans to turn the page, that doesn’t mean the page is turning for all the people who are still in Afghanistan or for all the Afghans who have come to America whose families are still there.”
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Mary Walsh Production Story. Editor: Mike Levine.