The US government is marching toward its goal of pulling most military forces out of Afghanistan by the end of August. The abrupt departure from Bagram Airfield—according to Afghan officials, the Americans gave no warning and simply shut off the lights and water, leading to looting of the longtime military stronghold—was symbolic of what some see as an abandonment of Afghans to an uncertain future. Afghans who worked with Western militaries or companies face particular danger.
Jawad Sukhanyar is among them. Sukhanyar, who was born in Afghanistan and has spent most of his life there, and I became friends when we were part of the same Knight-Wallace Fellowship group in 2018 and 2019 at the University of Michigan. He came to the fellowship near the end of his eight-year tenure as a Kabul-based reporter for the New York Times, a role that had given him expertise on the military and political situation in his country.
Sukhanyar left the Times in late 2019 and worked for various Afghan government offices before leaving the government amid the deteriorating security situation. Speaking by phone outside his house in Kabul on Wednesday, he told me what he’s seeing, how he’s feeling, and what might come next for himself, his wife, and their four children ranging in age from 3 to 12.
On Thursday, President Biden defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and said the United States will work to relocate translators and others who helped the US military, and their families. What that means for Sukhanyar is unclear, but he’s not confident the US government will help him. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
How are things going for you right now?
I’m thinking of leaving the country with my family because things could turn the other way in a day, overnight. I could get stuck in Kabul with my family. In the last two weeks, the situation is changing dramatically. Things get worse day by day. The government is losing territory to the Taliban.
What are you and your family going to do?
I don’t know. This is a question for me and for my family and for all those who had worked with Westerners. They have difficulty applying for visas, and some countries are not really willing to offer them visas. I feel if the Taliban come, my life will be in danger just because I worked with Americans. And now I don’t know if the Americans will help me leave the country. I’m worried if the New York Times does not help me to get a visa for me and for my family, I will get stuck here and I won’t have another option other than to just live in Kabul and wait for the Taliban to come after me.
I’ve been in touch with a couple of my former colleagues but not with the New York Times directly. And so I’m planning to do that after I get a reply from a couple of lawyers that I reached out by email today. I need to talk to my editors. But I’m not confident, since I quit the New York Times about two years ago. I don’t know if they would help me to apply for a visa.
I think they should. Because of the work I did for them, I’ll be in danger. Other than that I would have been a civilian, not attributed to Americans and Westerners. I wouldn’t have this problem. This is not just me. Many, many Afghans who had worked with Americans and with the Canadians, the British, the Europeans, they’re all stuck in Afghanistan. I know some of them could manage to leave, but most of them are still here. It’s a life-threatening thing for those who have risked their lives to work with Americans, and now it looks like they’re turning their back.
Every day, I talk to people, to relatives and to colleagues—they’re all concerned about their futures. But people like me, we are even more worried. I wish Americans never came here and we didn’t work with them. And I wouldn’t be this worried right now.
What are you seeing right now?
I see a lot of IDPs [internally displaced people] coming from the provinces that are being attacked by the Taliban. Some of them live in shelters, some of them who could afford it rent apartments, some live with relatives. This is one sign of this unfolding situation.
I see the price of oil going up, I see the price of food going up, because some of the roads that lead to Kabul, the transit roads are blocked. And I see people panic in the city.
Yesterday, a relative of mine came to my home. They’re leaving for England tomorrow. He and his wife have two daughters, and they had worked with the British military in the past. Last week, the British Embassy in Kabul called them and told them to get ready to leave for the UK. When you get a relative to come to your home to say goodbye, that they are leaving because of what’s happening, it makes you feel scared. It makes your kids, your wife, your mother get scared, because this is a sign that things are not moving well.
People who could afford it just apply for visas and go to Pakistan, Iran, India. The passport department that’s issuing passports for Afghan citizens, if you go there, you’ll see quite a scene: thousands and thousands of applicants queuing for passports. This was something you wouldn’t see two months ago, six months ago, one year ago. It was different. Now it’s rushed. It’s crowded.
The gossip over dinner is all about how to find a way to leave the country. Whether you’re poor, whether you’re rich, whether you work for the government or work with foreigners, you just want to make a way to leave the country.
How are people feeling toward the Americans?
The people are not happy. They see the Americans sort of turning their backs on Afghans. It means that they were here just for their interests. Their interests drove them to come in the first place, and now that they feel they don’t need to be here anymore, they’re leaving.
People are not happy with the way the Americans are leaving. When the Americans came here in 2001, they had promised to bring democracy, they had promised to help Afghans stand on their feet and have a functional government. They were here to support women, to defend women’s rights and human rights, and now they are leaving.
It means they were defeated and they were fighting an unnecessary war. And they don’t really care about Afghans.
And now with the Taliban making gains on the battlefield, this is more worrisome for the general public. The Taliban will not let people live the way they used to the past 20 years. The current Afghan government is dysfunctional, it’s weak, it’s unpredictable, and helpless. The army is sort of paralyzed and in a defensive mode, and every day you hear of bases being overrun by the Taliban.
Some people say, well, we wanted [the Americans] to stay, but the way they dealt with Afghanistan wasn’t fair. They didn’t bring peace, they couldn’t defeat the Taliban, they promised to give us a hand in building a strong state, now there’s no sign of that. So now, let them leave.
But still, they could live in a responsible manner, not the way they left, for example, Bagram Air Base. They didn’t even hand over their base to the Afghans. They just turned off the lights, and hours later the Afghan army found out that the Americans left. This is a very irresponsible way of leaving the country you have invested and you had goodwill in the past 20 years.
Afghans had high expectations for the Americans especially. But people are really disappointed. They thought the Americans would be different. Afghanistan was invaded before. The Russians were here, the British came here in the 19th century. They were defeated, but with Americans the people had hope. They thought that they were here to help, they were here to give us a hand in standing on our feet. But now there’s no sign of that.
How do you see the next few weeks and months?
I’m expecting things will get even more difficult and dangerous for me if I can’t manage to get visas to leave the country. Everyone is preparing for bad days to come. There’s no guarantee that the Taliban won’t enter Kabul. I don’t know if it will be weeks or months, so if that happens, it will be a nightmare. We used to have 24-hour electricity; we used to have good roads, fair security. Since last month, things are turning the other way around. We got the electricity disconnected.
It’s like you know about a storm, and you’re in the middle of the ocean, but you have no way to get out, you have nowhere to go so you just try your best, but also fasten your seat belts and wait for the worst to happen.
Already people had to leave their homes because of the fighting. You see families who fled their homes with only the clothes they’re wearing. They’re living in parks under the trees. The good thing about this is that right now, the weather all over the country is okay. If this had happened in the winter, things would have been worse for the IDPs.
If one [provincial] capital town falls to the Taliban, there are like six or eight capital towns already surrounded by the Taliban on the verge of falling. They will fall one after another, and it will start a panic. It will add to people’s worry even more.
Do you have confidence the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) can protect the people?
No. Absolutely not. They’re not ready for that. They weren’t trained to do that. When the Americans were here, they always offered air support to the ANSF. They always helped them with their raids against the Taliban. They always helped them with logistics. Now, that option is not there, and the army is not that strong to defend the entire country. The most they could do is defend four or five major cities and a couple of airports. The attrition rate in the army is very high. Casualties are in the thousands. The morale is very low.
Militias are trying to fill the gap, but you know they’re not ready. For any resistance to be formed against the Taliban, it takes some time. The old militias were disarmed by the Americans and the Europeans. I don’t know why. They just wanted to build this new army, but now this new army is not ready in the capital to fight. The government is paying warlords to get rearmed and prepared to defend against the Taliban. It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes some time, and people need to be trained to fight.
In the midst of all these things you have going on, I just appreciate your taking this time to talk with me. I know these words don’t mean much in a moment like this, but I just hope things go okay.
Let’s hope so. Let’s see what happens. It’s not just me, it’s a country. It’s the fate of an entire nation who had had faith in the Americans and Western civilization who have come with a big promise of helping this country, but now, they’re just abandoning us, they’re just turning their back. And it’s not safe.
I’m going to ask the New York Times what it’s doing for current and former employees who are now in danger for having worked with the paper.
If they’re helping, I appreciate it. If they’re not, this is an American company. When America turned its back on Afghanistan, the New York Times can turn its back on its employees, people who worked for it. We can’t do anything. We just hope they’re going to help. I have no influence. They’ve never said no to me, but I don’t know. No one knows what happens. We hope they will do something, at least.
Here is the response of Danielle Rhodes Ha, vice president of communications for the New York Times Company:
As one of the few news organizations to have maintained a full time presence in Kabul since the start of the war in 2001, we’re especially sensitive to the risks faced by our Afghan colleagues who have helped keep the public informed over the past two decades.
We are working with other news organizations and the Committee to Protect Journalists to press Congress and the State Department to put into place visa programs that would facilitate the migration of Afghan staff to the United States. We are also investigating what programs are available in other countries. And our senior leaders have already reached out to the highest levels of the US government to personally underscore the urgency of taking action now.