Inside the Shadow Evacuation of Kabul

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Sure enough it was too late, Parker called Essazay, who told his family to leave everything behind, not even pack a change of clothes, which might reveal they were trying to escape. Knowing that the Taliban would not be looking for women, the family taped about $13,000 in cash to Essazay’s mother’s body, hidden under her dress. Essazay instructed them to erase their phones, including the messages with his instructions. Anything that links them to US forces could get them killed. “But if you stay at home,” Essazay told his parents, “you will die.”

Over the next few hours, as the family drove the seven congested miles to the airport, Essazay and Parker shared Facebook messages. Essazay worked at a Middle Eastern cafe in Houston that stayed open until 4 a.m., sipping black tea while relaying his family’s movements. Other regulars occasionally stopped their chess and card games to huddle behind their laptops. Parker, sitting on his friend’s couch in Appalachia, kept his Marine contact in Kabul in the loop.

The family arrived at the Taliban checkpoint and told the guards that they were taking their elderly matriarch to the hospital. They were let through. At 1 am EST, two and a half hours after the original window had closed, they arrived at the door. Essazay’s brother, Omar, pushed through the crowd to get to the Marines manning the gate, insisting that his family was supposed to go through and telling the guards that his brother was a US Marine. When they tried to turn him away, he provided the name of Parker’s contact inside the airport and the password he had been given.

Waiting for an answer, Parker recognized a long-dormant feeling. It was the closest he’d come to exhaustion and combat exhaustion in the years he’d spent in reality. As the rain continued to pound the mountain cabin, Essazay sent Parker one last message.

they are inside Always Fine, sir.

19 days left

On August 12, three days before Essazay contacted Parker, Joe Saboe had just returned from a family snorkeling vacation in Hawaii. He was working out at soccer practice in Denver when his cell phone rang. It was his brother Dan in Phoenix, asking if he could help a friend and his family escape Afghanistan.

Dan explained that Abasin Hidai, a mutual friend of his and his wife, had returned to Afghanistan to help rebuild his country. Now he and his family were trapped. Worse, Hidai had worked as a water engineer in the US Army, and his brother had served on the National Security Council of Afghanistan. If they didn’t leave, they feared, the Taliban would soon kill them. Hidai, who had started the visa process years earlier, had no luck making it to the US embassy. I was desperately calling, texting and emailing everyone I knew with any connection to the US military.

Saboe, then 36, had been out of the military for a full seven years. He describes his tenure as a soldier as a full day: ROTC at Georgetown; then a 2009 deployment to Iraq as an infantry officer, where for a year he helped build schools and hunt down proto-ISIS insurgents; and eventually taught ROTC students at home before leaving in 2014. He earned his master’s degree in education from Stanford and moved to Denver, where he ran a career education startup, coached elite youth soccer, and raised two daughters with his wife.

Listening to his younger brother, Saboe recalled the end of his rotation in Mosul, where he was one of the last troops to leave the city before it fell to ISIS. He thought of the Iraqi friends he had made, many of whom had to flee the country. He feared that the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul would be even faster and more brutal, and that all the work some 800,000 US troops had done in the country over the past 20 years might have been for naught. But he thought there was nothing he could do. He hadn’t even been to Afghanistan.

Still, that night Saboe tried the closest thing to a noncombatant evacuation operations tool he had: Facebook. He posted a note to his 1,400 friends that began, “Hi, State Department, DOD, or political friends, your help is urgently needed.” Without naming him, he explained Hidai’s situation and asked anyone who might have “helpful information or a firm, solid lead” to respond.

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