Fatigue pulled me in like the undertow. I hadn’t slept in the nearly 15 days since Kabul had fallen. One, maybe two hours here or there, but not a full night’s sleep.
It was a Wednesday night at the end of August. I had been working frantically as part of a team of defense contractors and combat veterans racing against the clock to save former Afghan colleagues, most of them interpreters who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs.
However, that evening we started receiving texts from our military contacts that the U.S. was concluding operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). At that moment we knew, it was over for our interpreters. Time had run out; they were being left behind.
No more agonizing. No more wondering: Is my guy getting out? Will he be saved or hunted? The answer was clear; a conclusiveness that allowed me to fully exhale for the first time in weeks. Exhausted, I rested my head against the couch and surrendered to sleep.
At one point in a lucid dream, I saw the face of my interpreter’s child and heard the sharp sounds of a toddler’s laughter. I shot straight up, then looked at the clock. It was 2:30 am. Four hours of sleep, a record thus far.
For two weeks, we’d communicated with our Afghan counterparts around the clock. Their texts were bleak: The American won’t let us in. They say we need an US passport. No SIVs. Taliban are everywhere. We’re hiding in an abandoned car. People are shooting. I just saw a dead woman. I’m taking my family home.
We tried reassuring them but there wasn’t much to go on. Neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense would even admit that SIV interpreters were being denied entry to the airport. No one in leadership would explain the disconnect between those two federal agencies — why SIV applicants were receiving emails from U.S. Embassy staff with explicit instructions to proceed to the airport for evacuation flights, then encountering U.S. gate guards who appeared to have instructions not to allow them in.
Then, on Aug. 26, the U.S. military announced it was entering the final phase of evacuations known as “retrograde.” The word seemed quite fitting. It described all too well our fading hope as it became clear the State Department’s plan for evacuating SIVs was, in fact, not to have a plan at all.
We were stunned, left wondering if anyone in government would accept responsibility for this betrayal, for such a colossal failure to “help those who helped us.”
So many SIV interpreters had made the perilous journey to HKIA, past checkpoints, through crushing crowds only to be turned away at the airport gates — not by the Taliban, as the administration asserted, but by the U.S. military.
And not once did the government acknowledge it, apologize for it or make any attempt to correct course. Instead, they asked those interpreters to endure the prolonged indignity of standing aside, at gun point, while tens of thousands of others boarded C-17s to safety.
Ultimately, it was more than just interagency communication falling through the cracks. It was Afghan lives as well. How many of the civilians who died by stampedes, stray bullets and suicide bombs outside HKIA were furnishing emails issued by the U.S. Embassy to proceed to the airport?
On Monday, Aug. 30, U.S. CENTCOM commander, General McKenzie, briefed Americans on the end of the withdrawal. When pressed by reporters about those left behind, he replied, “You would like to bring out everybody that wanted to come out; we are not able to do that.”
For any SIV-qualified interpreter, it was a slap in the face. The truth is, they did not simply “want” to leave, they deserved to. They had risked their lives serving the US mission in Afghanistan and more than “wanting” to leave, they wanted to live. We owed them that.
In the end, we realize there may never be justice for our Afghan friends, but we will never stop fighting for accountability from those who abandoned them; and who put both our moral standing and national security at risk in the process.
It is my solemn hope that the congressional committees now tasked with investigating the withdrawal demand this same accountability. We deserve to know who made the decision to deny those interpreters access to that airfield, and why. We deserve the truth.
Joan Barker lives in Volusia County and is a defense contractor working in the field of language and culture training.