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Featured Photo: An aerial view of Kabul, Afghanistan photographed in March 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
UPDATE: Mohammad and his family arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on Sunday, Aug. 29.
In an email to San Clemente Times, Mohammad said the family was set to return home to San Clemente in the early part of this week.
Below is the full story published last Thursday, Aug. 26.
By Lillian Boyd and Shawn Raymundo
For about the last three days, Mohammad has been unable to sleep. He’s been glued to his phone, anxiously waiting for any embassy in Afghanistan to call him with instructions for he and his family to prepare for pickup and evacuation back to the U.S.
“He’s on multiple (evacuation) lists but hasn’t been able to contact any drivers to get picked up,” Nadia Kambiz, Mohammad’s cousin, tells San Clemente Times on Thursday, Aug. 26.
Kambiz, who lives in Mission Viejo, was able to speak with Mohammad that morning. She says, her cousin along with his wife and their two young kids were in a safe place in Kabul, but are considered high-risk targets because of their U.S. passports.
“If (the Taliban) catch him, his brothers and mom will fall in that same trap with him,” Kambiz explains, also noting that they’ve had to go into hiding to avoid Taliban militants who are going door-to-door, searching for those they believe to be “traitors.”
Mohammad, who is being identified only by his first name for safety reasons, emigrated to the U.S. with his family after working with the American Embassy in Afghanistan. The four of them have been living in San Clemente for about the past four years, Kambiz says.
In July, while the children were on summer break, the family traveled back to Afghanistan to visit Mohammad’s mother and brothers. That was just a few weeks before the nation’s fall to Taliban forces.
Since then, Mohammad and thousands of others have been stuck in Kabul hoping to eventually be evacuated before the end of the month—the official U.S. withdrawal date. Kambiz, however, fears that with the U.S. winding down its presence, there’s less of a guarantee Mohammad and his family can escape.
“There are people who are stuck there, what’s going to happen to them? Their lives are at risk,” she says.
In February 2020, the U.S. and Taliban signed an agreement that set the terms for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. had about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops is contingent on the “Taliban’s action against al-Qaeda and other terrorists who could threaten us,” then-President Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The pact included the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters who had been held prisoners by the Afghanistan government, which was not a party to the agreement.
When President Joe Biden took office, he initially pushed the May deadline to Sept. 11. Ultimately, his administration pushed ahead with a plan to withdraw by Aug. 31, despite signs that the Taliban wasn’t complying with the agreement.
On Aug. 15, Taliban fighters entered the Afghanistan capital Kabul. The Afghan president fled the country and U.S. diplomats were evacuated from the embassy by helicopter. Thousands of interpreters, and other who worked with the U.S., as well their relatives were left behind.
“The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said in an Aug. 16 speech. “So, what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
Thousands of people have gathered at the airport in Kabul since the city fell to the Taliban, desperate to board flights out of the country.
On Thursday morning, a deadly attack on the Kabul airport led by the Islamic State killed 13 U.S. troops and left 18 others wounded. At least 60 Afghan civilians were reported dead, according to news outlets.
According to Kambiz, Mohammad and his brother were in the vicinity but at a safe enough distance away from the blast of the two suicide bombers. She says that her cousins, just moments before the explosion, had been speaking with someone from the military at the airport.
“They were walking back to their car when it happened,” she says.
To help her cousin, Kambiz says she’s been trying to connect with anyone who can secure emergency visas for Mohammad and his family to get into Pakistan where it’s safe. That, however, has posed another problem as the Taliban has the borders surrounded.
“I’m feeling very helpless right now,” she says, adding, “There are citizens from other countries all over the world who are unable to come back. It’s devastating.”
Kambiz says she’s left messages with the offices of Reps. Mike Levin and Katie Porter, and is waiting to hear back about next steps.
SC Times has attempted to reach Mohammad through an email that his children’s school, Marblehead Elementary, provided. As of this posting, he had not yet responded.
Similar to Kambiz, Dana Point Mayor Jamey Federico, who served in the military for more than 20 years, had spent the past week trying various options through official channels to find safe passage to the U.S. for the wife of his friend, an Afghani interpreter for U.S. military officials.
The interpreter, Farid—who now lives in the U.S. and will also be referred to by his first name for his own safety—had met a woman living in Afghanistan with whom he wanted to spend his life. After notifying his mother, as is custom in Afghan culture, the families met and approved of the match.
Farid flew to Afghanistan to marry his wife in May. Following his return, the couple proceeded to fill out the necessary paperwork to allow his wife to immigrate to the U.S.
A citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States may file a Form I-130, (or what is known as a Petition for Alien Relative) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to establish the existence of a relationship to certain relatives who wish to immigrate to the United States.
“The process can take up to two years,” Federico said. “The idea was that if we could expedite the process, she would have the appropriate visa to get through Taliban checkpoints to the Kabul airport, where she would hopefully pass through gates to be flown out.”
Levin, whom Federico reached out to for help this week, submitted a formal inquiry to the State Department for a status of her visa. But a response could take up to 30 days.
“I’ve lost faith in the possibility of getting her visa expedited,” Federico said.
In a response to San Clemente Times, Levin agreed in the critical nature of evacuating as many Afghan allies as possible, particularly women and children who are most at risk from violence.
“I am encouraged by the number of evacuations of Americans and Afghans in recent days; it is clear a full investigation is needed of the withdrawal effort and the strategic decisions in the country from the Bush-Cheney Administration onward,” Levin said.
Farid and his wife still had a difficult decision to make: Should they risk an attempt for her to get to the airport without any guarantee she could get into the U.S.?
Federico and Farid gathered as much information as they could on which entry points and which gate to go to. Certain access points, they were told, were being controlled by Taliban. Farid’s wife would need to be strategic in her arrival.
“Through a really dedicated and loyal network of active duty and former Marines, we were able to get enough info on which gate she needed to get to,” Federico said. “We were also able to get Farid’s mother out, too.”
Farid’s mother and wife boarded a flight to Qatar out of Kabul on approximately Aug. 25—and while the departure brings an enormous relief to Farid and Federico, her visa status and placement remains up in the air.
Advocates such as Steven Miska, a San Clemente resident, have long been working to protect interpreters in hostile territory.
Miska, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, served 25 years in the military and served on the National Security Council for the White House. In 2007, he led a team that established an underground railroad for dozens of interpreters from Baghdad to Amman to the United States, during the height of sectarian violence in Iraq.
“I owe my life to the interpreters I’ve worked with. They risk their lives to bridge gaps in communication for us,” Miska said. “We can’t leave them behind.”
The Pacific Council has partnered with members including Miska, who is also executive director of First Amendment Voice, and Nell Cady-Kruse, risk consultant, to create the “Evacuate Our Allies” Operations Center to help evacuate U.S. allies in Afghanistan.
Miska is now helping lead a 24/7 crisis hotline for it and operating out of an office suite under the Pacific Council on International Policy in downtown Los Angeles.
Volunteers have been working eight to 12 hours per day on-site, taking phone calls and fielding emails from nonprofit partners engaged in helping to evacuate allies from the Kabul Airport to third-party countries, U.S. receiving sites, and local resettlement agencies.
“We’ve been sharing information among a coalition of networks dedicated to this rapid response,” Miska said. “It’s taken a lot of effort to network and get what each individual needs. But it’s so important that we do.”
For those interested in donating to support the “Evacuate Our Allies” Operations, visit pacificcouncil.org/content/rapid-response-afghanistan.
“The involved organizations don’t normally combine together for humanitarian issues, but this is a big deal in the veteran community, and we stand by our partners,” Miska said. “This is not a Biden issue. This is an American issue.”
Lillian Boyd is the senior editor for Picket Fence Media and city editor for Dana Point Times. She graduated with a degree in journalism from Humboldt State University. Her work experience includes interviewing incarcerated individuals in the Los Angeles County jails, an internship at the Pentagon covering U.S. Army news as well as reporting and anchoring for a local news radio station in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @Lillianmboyd and follow Dana Point Times at @danapointtimes.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.