An Afghan I’ll call “Mohammed” saved my life, when he drove me into Afghanistan as Kabul was falling in 2001, after the September 11th attacks. He spirited me through a Taliban checkpoint between Jalalabad and the capital where just an hour or so later, a car full of journalists was brutally killed.
Mohammed found me, then a CBS News reporter, a safe place to stay in chaotic, post-Taliban Kabul. That’s what a “fixer” does for a foreign correspondent: part translator; part driver and part Mr. Fixit/MacGyver. Every time I returned to the country, I would check on him and his family. And if I asked, he would drive me to hell, and back.
In 2015, three men beat and stabbed Mohammed’s 18-year-old son, telling him between blows that he was being punished because his father “had worked for the Americans.” I was the only American Mohammed had ever worked for. He rushed his son to the hospital, then secreted his whole family to another part of the sprawling capital, leaving behind his home, and always fearing the tap on the shoulder that meant he’d been found.
He started applying for U.S. visas then, and was baffled to find he wasn’t eligible because he’d worked for and protected a U.S. citizen—but not a soldier. In his view, if that difference didn’t matter to the Taliban, why should it matter to the U.S. government?
As of Aug. 2, Mohammed and hundreds others like him are at last eligible for special visas similar to those the Biden Administration has created for the some 20,000 Afghans who officially worked for the U.S. government. Multiple news outlets, including my former employer CBS News, petitioned the Biden Administration to help “those Afghans who have worked with the U.S. media as journalists, interpreters, and support staff and now fear retaliation from the Taliban for having courageously associated themselves with the American press.”
But here’s the gut punch that comes with that good news: the U.S. won’t even start looking at Mohammed’s application until he gets himself and his family out of Afghanistan. Unlike hundreds of former Afghan employees of the U.S. government, there will be no special flights, and no third country set aside where his family can safely wait. Once they’re out and have applied, processing their applications can take more than a year, with no guarantee of approval.
Still, even this slim chance of a safe exit is not available to the tens of thousands of Afghans who are now fleeing their homes, ahead of what feels like an inexorable Taliban advance. President Joe Biden says this war is now up to the Afghans, though the U.S. will provide financial, humanitarian and even some air support. His military commanders insist that a Taliban takeover is not a foregone conclusion, even as Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted in late July that “strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.”
At the same time, though militants have now seized some 200 of the nation’s 419 district centers, up from 81 in June, Milley insisted the country’s 300,000 Afghan troops are simply falling back to protect the most populated areas. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says that’s the best his beleaguered troops can do because of the rapid U.S. withdrawal and what he called “an imported, hasty” peace process.
From Biden’s perspective, the calculation is simple: both political parties and the majority of the American people want out. So too do many who served there, frustrated with an endless and endlessly changing mission that has cost lives, limbs, sanity, and marriages to a two-generation war, where the sons and daughters of American troops who invaded in 2001 have themselves been deployed to fight and die.
Nearly 2,500 U.S. troops, roughly 1,150 NATO personnel and more than 3,800 U.S. private security contractors lost their lives in the war, per the Associated Press. Nearly a quarter of a million Afghans were also killed, including some 70,000 Afghan civilians, according to Brown University’s “Costs of War” project. The U.S. has spent as much as $2 trillion on the conflict.
But in Biden’s view, sunk costs are no reason to keep throwing good money after bad, especially when your key ally—the Afghan elite—has often proven loyal only to themselves, more adept at petty infighting and taking bribes than governing. If you can’t trust the Afghan leadership not to cheat their own, how can you keep pouring blood and treasure into that money pit?
Reporters tried to draw the American Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on what they would do if the Afghan government crumbles. They dodged that question, making no spoken commitment to rescue the Afghan government. They kept saying this is what the President has decided.
“It’s the most comprehensive failure in my lifetime,” one former senior Army officer told me.
“It’s a waste of everything we’ve done,” a senior European official lamented to me.
‘They stand with us. We will stand with them.’
For every Afghan, navigating the past two decades has meant near-daily choices of loyalty that could spell survival or death. Working with the Americans seemed the best long-term bet.
Was it? Those who chose the Americans and the western-backed government always knew they might be caught in a Taliban attack, but now fear bloody, country-wide payback, no matter how many times Taliban spokesmen tell reporters like me that won’t happen. Rumors fly on social media of Afghan commandos allegedly executed by Taliban forces, women forced to marry Taliban fighters, and medieval punishments like stoning and beheading in areas the Taliban control. Those reports are nearly impossible to verify, or knock down, for U.S. diplomats mostly hunkered down in Kabul. Many Afghans believe them.
Mohammed understands what, and who, is coming. On that first trip in 2001, driving from Jalalabad to Kabul (or rather, riding a taxi, because a warlord had stolen our car), he’d spotted the impromptu checkpoint of heavily armed, black-turbaned men, standing on either side of the rutted roadway. Mohammed spoke quietly to the taxi driver, who then floored past the group before they could spot me. By the time they did, shouting and raising their weapons, we’d torn past them round a mountain corner, out of sight. I only understood later what I had been saved from.
That kind of violent, random threat, from a group of Taliban locals taking matters into their own hands, is what Mohammed fears most. “Now living in Afghanistan is very dangerous,” he tells me. And now Mohammed has to figure out which country to flee to with his immediate family, before he can even start to apply for U.S. safe haven.
On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken extolled the virtues of expanding the emergency visa program to more Afghans like Mohammed. “They stand with us. We will stand with them,” he told reporters. Mohammed may make it out. But what about every other Afghan left behind, who risked their life by believing in my country?
Kimberly Dozier is a TIME Contributor and Observer Research Foundation America Visiting Fellow.