Inspired by the experiences of Matt Stevens
by Matt Stevens
Loneliness and dread begin weighing on me as the doorbell rings incessantly, unanswered. What fleeting bit of hope I had marching into the federal building evaporates. The little fish-eye camera lens stares at me with as much empathy and compassion as I’ve gotten from the State Department in the past two weeks. In between rings, the fluorescent lights buzz overhead. I pound the door as a last-ditch effort, thinking that maybe someone in the office is ignoring the doorbell and isn’t doing their job as a public servant. They must be there. We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, the department must be firing on all cylinders, right?
The door to the law office behind me opens and a short older woman with coiffed grey curls pokes her head out. We stare at each other for a moment before she says, “I haven’t seen anyone come in or out of there in weeks…not sure where they’ve been.”
“Oh…thank you ma’am,” I say. “I’m an Afghanistan vet and I have people still in the country trying to get out.”
She shakes her head and looks down. “I’m so sorry sweetheart.”
I’ve been getting a lot of that lately. On the phone with my mom a few days prior it was all she could say. Talked to dad the following afternoon while pacing around my backyard, and his sentiment was much the same. “I’m so sorry.” What more could they say?
“I’ve been trying to get some help from these guys for two weeks, but it’s been useless. Called yesterday to try making an appointment, no answer, and drove up from Charlotte today to hopefully talk to someone in person.” The ringing stops and I listen for a voice coming through the small speaker beneath the camera. Nothing. “Doesn’t look good, does it?”
“I’m afraid not, honey” she replies.
I glance back at the “U.S. Department of State” sign on the door and rattle the handle. Not sure what I was expecting.
“I guess I’ll hang out here for another fifteen or twenty minutes and see if someone comes back. Maybe they stepped out for lunch.” It was 10:15 in the morning.
“Sure doll. You just take care of yourself.”
For a moment, the little terms of endearment from a stranger make me feel the slightest bit better. Then the realization that I’d driven three hours on a workday during the second week of my brand-new job as a final Hail Mary to get some help for a linguist and his family, and failed, begins to set in. The woman begins to close the door but re-emerges to say, “I just can’t imagine what y’all must be going through. It feels like Saigon all over again.” She retreats into the law office, and I’m left with the buzzing of the lights overhead.
I don’t want to sit on the floor in case someone from the Department of State steps off the elevator and I risk looking unprofessional, but after about two minutes I realize no one is coming. I ease myself down onto the rough industrial carpeting and lean my head back against the cold wall. I begin to count the holes in the drop ceiling – a game I used to play as a kid in detention to pass the time. It was so effective, in fact, that detention proctors were instructed to not let me look at the ceiling because I wasn’t “getting anything from the detention experience,” as Father Ford once told me.
That’s when I remember that when I called to make an appointment yesterday, there was an “if this is an emergency” phone number at the end of the answering machine, which directed the caller to a Department of State task force in Virginia. I dial the office again and hear the muffled ring of a desk line through the door. After the line falls silent, I listen to the answering machine and dial the number instructed. Normally I don’t use these lines, but this IS an emergency…right?
“DepartmentofStateTaskForcethisis-TrevorhowcanIhelpyou.” It’s not framed as a question, and it’s spit out so fast I can barely understand him. Indicates how many times he’s had to answer the line in recent weeks. No way am I the first person to call in.
“Yeah, hey Trevor, my name is Matt Stevens. I’m a Captain in the Army and I drove an hour and a half one-way from Charlotte, North Carolina to a field office in Greensboro to talk to someone, and the door is locked and the lights are off” – I had noticed that there was no light coming under the door earlier, which confirmed I wasn’t simply being ignored – “and I’m trying to get some help—”
“Yeah, hey sir, I’m sorry to interrupt you but there’s kind of a situation going on in Afghanistan at the moment.”
“No fucking shit dude, there’s been a situation going on for weeks. I have people stuck there, that’s why I’m trying to get some god damn help.”
“Sir, I mean there’s a situation in Kabul. I’m not at liberty to discuss it yet, but we are not currently taking any impertinent calls. Please call back tomorrow.”
The line goes dead, and I can’t imagine how the situation out there could be any worse than it’s already been. For god’s sake, we watched people cling to the landing gear of departing aircraft until they couldn’t hold on any longer and plummeted to the asphalt the other day. What’s worse than that?
That’s when my phone buzzes with alerts from AP and Reuters, the only two news sources I feel I can trust any more, and even then, “trust” is a stretch.
Two Explosions Rock Hamid Karzai International Airport.
It clicks. Trevor couldn’t take my call because there was a bombing at the evacuation site where thousands of people clamored to get onto airplanes out of the country. Unknown number of casualties, likely some American ones. I immediately feel a pang of shame when I think of how aggressive I was earlier in my ignorance.
I make my way downstairs and out to the truck, tapping frantically on my phone, looking for new information on the blast, but details are coming out slowly and I still need to get back to my new job in Charlotte. Once I’m on the thruway, I listen to some daily news podcasts. Each one seems to be about the linguists, employees, and allies we are leaving behind in this clusterfuck of an evacuation.
That’s when I think of Abid and his family stuck in Nangarhar, and I begin to tear up. How does a guy lose his leg on a combat patrol, work as a linguist for another two years to fulfill his obligation for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), submit the application, and not get an answer for six years? Now, during a humanitarian crisis in the face of a governing body that will surely execute him and his family, we can’t get him out. I punch the steering wheel in frustration, and my mind begins to spiral again with the realization that 20 years of violence and patience, over 2,000 dead, and the most important work of my life had been undone in a matter of days by a bunch of eighth-century cavemen.
I worked with Abid’s brother, Sabib from 2017-2018. Sabib was quiet and reserved, with the quiet confidence of a man well beyond his late twenties. He was a linguist for years at that point and saw some of the ugliest days of the war while working for the US in Kunar Province. Most major combat operations had ceased by the time I got there, and to this day I thank the ones who came before me to set the conditions so I could enjoy a relatively safe deployment. Our mission was to Train, Advise, and Assist the Afghan National Army (ANA) to prepare them for the day when we would ultimately leave.
I had one main Afghan counterpart to begin with: Colonel Tahir. This guy was a scumbag from day one. Zero accountability of his men or equipment, a nepotistic jackass who took advantage of the Afghan custom of being interested in one’s family to leer at pictures of my (now) wife on my phone. On three separate occasions, he asked me to bring him pornography as a bargaining chip (as if I kept hard copies under my mattress…what am I, thirteen?).
It was the horror story we were all told during advisor training, the comedic crutch we all leaned on to ease the discomfort of being in a new cultural situation and this changing conflict: old Afghan men are gross, horny morons. We all prayed we wouldn’t have to deal with this guy, and there I was. Fortunately, Sabib was with me.
Every day, Sabib and I would take a team of Guardian Angels (junior enlisted soldiers and young NCOs assigned to bodyguard duty for the advisors) and walk a mile over to the Military Intelligence battalion on the Afghan side of our “FOB in a FOB,” as we called it. Tactical Base Gamberi was our highly protected facility, just over 4 square acres^^ inside of the much larger 201st Corps headquarters of the ANA. It sat on an open plateau in rural Qarghah’i district – a great target for rocket attacks from the mountains to the east. We had our own perimeter, guarded by our own people and Ugandan security contractors. The ANA wasn’t allowed in unless strict security measures were taken – vetting of all personnel, removal of weapons, inspections for explosives, the usual things you do when you want to say, “I trust you and this is a partnership.” Yes, it needed to be done, but like a lot of things in those 20 years, it was a bit contradictory, and it made our job a little more difficult.
To be fair, the ANA wasn’t worried about “green-on-blue” attacks like we were. As US combat and patrol operations became rare in the late 2010s, opportunities to kill Americans in firefights or bombings also became sparse. Terrorist organizations had taken to directly infiltrating ANA units or persuading ANA soldiers through bribery or threats to murder American advisors. My first platoon dealt with a green-on-blue incident during our first month in country. Fortunately, everyone made it out, but it still set a precedent that made it difficult to force a smile and shake a hand knowing that the old man sitting across from you – or one of his assistants for that matter – may have a plan to take you out.
While I tried to stay focused on dragging information about operations out of Colonel Tahir, get an idea of his pain points and goals for our time together, Sabib listened with a trained ear for any nuances I might miss that could indicate a dangerous situation. Like a dog who senses higher stress levels in their owner, Sabib could tell when a conversation was going sour. Several times he advised me that he shouldn’t translate what I said or asked because it could be perceived as offensive. He once noticed the print of a handgun under the jacket of one of Colonel Tahir’s aides and abruptly suggested we leave and report it to our investigations team. After several high-profile green-on-blue attacks, the US demanded that the ANA strictly control weapons access to the advisor-facing soldiers, and all violations had to be reported to determine if the individual had ties to a terrorist organization.
Time spent with Colonel Tahir became more and more of a waste. He knew nothing about intelligence operations, had no interest in learning about the tools and technology at his disposal, and only asked about promotion opportunities and if I had any copies of “Juggs.” Two months into our mission I got the approval from our team commander to get him fired by the ANA. I submitted my report (translated by Sabib), stopped going to see him, and shifted my focus to other parts of the intelligence enterprise – utilizing signal interceptors to pick up Taliban phone calls, making good use of the ANA’s massive human intelligence network, and working directly with younger officers and NCOs to directly improve the ANA’s performance. This was when my experience started to shift.
I had been made so bitter by my ordeal with Colonel Tahir that I forgot there was an entire staff of young ANA guys who spent their whole lives under American occupation, being exposed to the promise of America, and aiding in the pursuit of that promise by forming the backbone of the country’s western-style military. Officers like Lieutenant Nabi – who worked tirelessly through the nights to compile intelligence reports into usable data and factor it into Corps-level operations planning – would have made incredible Colonels and Generals someday. Of course, it would have taken another 20 years for Nabi to get to that point, and who knows if even that would have been enough?
I wonder if he’s even alive right now.
It took five months for Colonel Tahir to be removed, and his replacement wasn’t much better. Not a scumbag – just fat, lazy, and incompetent. Around that time, I was assigned more counterparts as members of our team from the 3rd Infantry Division cycled back to the US. My chief assignment became helping the Afghans add a 3.2-million-dollar Scan Eagle drone system into their intelligence network.
Sabib and I had our work cut out for us. Afghan culture eschews change. They still use a calendar set in the 14th century, for god’s sake. I began to wonder if we were doing exactly what we were told not to do during training: force American solutions onto Afghan problems. Still, Sabib and I walked over to the ANA side of the base every day and tried to persuade the Pashtuns and Tajiks (first and second largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, respectively) to work together to run cables from the launch site to the operations center at the Corps headquarters. We tried to appease longstanding political pissing matches between Colonels in different functional areas by acting as middlemen in materials requests. We leaned on our star performers like Lieutenant Nabi to make things happen in our absence.
Ten days before I left Afghanistan, Sabib got a call from our counterpart, Colonel Rahim, a fine man and a refreshingly good high-ranking officer. He said the Scan Eagle was flying, the feed was pumping into the operations center, and they could see a Taliban weapons cache in Nangarhar. They had already submitted a request to the Afghan Air Force to bomb it the next morning, and he wanted to invite us to watch over tea.
It was glorious. The system had come together. We had taught the Afghans to fish, and they were doing it in the summer of 2018.
Now here we are.
About two weeks ago, as it became clear that the Taliban were going to roll right back into power, Sabib reached out to me. He’s been living in Boston since 2019 – his SIV went through with no problem – and he informed me of Abid’s situation. I called senators, congressmen, the State Department, submitted requests to non-profits and NGOs, and even briefly looked into clandestine ways of getting myself into the country.
Today, two suicide bombs detonated by ISIS-K killed 13 US servicemembers and 169 Afghans. HKIA is going on lockdown. Abid, his wife, and four little kids are not getting out. A merciless regime is in control. Their lives – and the lives of hundreds other friends and allies – are in jeopardy, and I’m helpless to do anything.
We call our linguists “brother.” We mean it. They are the only people in the world who can show up to a group of soldiers and be welcomed immediately, with little in the way of rites of passage or proving themselves. We mean it because without them, we are inherently less effective, less efficient, and less safe. We tell our linguists that we will take care of them. They put themselves and their families at great personal risk because they believe in us, and they believe in the promise of America. They trust that if they hold up their end of the bargain, we will too. Well, my government has made a liar out of me.
As the Carolina pines rush past me on I-85, I slump back in my seat and shake my head at the absurdity of the fact that 99.99% of born Americans have not bled in service to their home, but Abid loses a limb and can’t be admitted due to sheer bureaucratic bullshit. I have to laugh at the thought of the 3.2-million-dollar drone being flown and utilized by the Taliban. I have to sigh at the thought of my enemies sitting around the conference table at TB Gamberi where I shared meals, laughs, and holidays with my teammates.
It’s not the fact that we’re leaving that upsets me. Frankly, I still don’t know if we should have stayed or gone. I know that if we even hoped to see real change within the corrupt, nepotistic Afghan government, we would have had to stick around for another 20 years to give guys like Nabi a chance to lead. I’m more upset by the way in which it’s all going down.
It didn’t have to be like this. We had two massive, easily defendable airfields at our disposal. We could have expanded the evacuation three-fold while still supporting Afghan ground forces (since we taught them to fight with air support anyways). We could have slowed down the extraction process and sped up SIV adjudications.
As I take the various turns through my suburban neighborhood to get to my street, guilt rushes over me. Tiny little boxes in a row. Healthy, manicured lawns. Kids riding bikes. All of them blissfully sheltered from the agony of the people we spent 20 years with. The people we abandoned.
Parking in my driveway, I stop to try and find something to hold on to. When an entire chapter of your life is wiped away, two decades of work and lives lost vanishes, and your integrity and dependability in the eyes of your brothers is shot, what do you have left?
I take solace in the fact that for 20 years, Afghans got a little bit of a break. Women and girls could leave their homes and go to school. Citizens got to exercise a right to vote. We showed a generation of people what they could have.
I take solace in the fact that I went and did my job to the best of my ability, and I think I did it damn well. The consulting experience helped me attain this new role at a fantastic company, who were gracious enough to let me take the morning to drive three hours in a futile attempt to do the right thing.
I take solace in the fact that this isn’t over, that my government’s actions don’t have to define mine, and that Abid still has a chance if he can just stay alive.
I open my door and step out onto the lawn. As I walk up to the front step, a cardinal lands on the dogwood tree in the yard. My mom always loved cardinals because they represent hope and a belief that things can get better. His bright red crown contrasts with the cloudless blue sky, and I take a deep breath before opening the front door. Depression turns to action as I fire up the computer in my home office.
It’s time to get back to work.
“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…
…and then we fucked up the end game.”