Hopes and regrets for Afghanistan
American veterans, aid workers, and others who worked or fought in Afghanistan are trying to dodge despair and brace for the country’s future under Taliban rule
Army Major Brad Lovin oversaw defense operations at Camp Clark in eastern Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. During his deployment, coming a decade into the long U.S. campaign to defeat Islamist terrorism there and build a democratic nation, he remembers asking senior Afghan army soldiers what they thought the nation would be like when Americans left. ¶ The old soldiers told him the United States would never leave. ¶ “I said, ‘No, we’re gonna leave one day,’” Lovin recalled. “And they say, ‘Well, if you’re leaving, we’re leaving, because the Taliban are coming back.’” ¶ Another decade later, the United States left, and the Taliban came back. ¶ After the events of August 2021—the collapse of the Afghan government and the bloody and bumbled U.S. exit—many American aid workers and veterans like Lovin say they are immensely discouraged by the situation in Afghanistan. Some spent years attempting to bring peace, democracy, and social progress to the country, only to see their efforts crumble under a Taliban takeover. ¶ “It’s lost opportunities,” said Dr. Dilip Joseph, the medical director of Morning Star Development, an American community development organization working in Afghanistan since 1997. Joseph said Morning Star’s work in the country is on “pause,” with the group unable to pay staffers as wire services and banks were no longer functioning, although wire services were working to resume by early September.
Joseph and other aid workers predict a harsh winter ahead for Afghans needing basic services as the Taliban struggles to organize a stable government and functioning society. Veterans criticize the manner of the U.S. pullout and the abandonment of Afghan allies who did not make it out. And all are trying to imagine Afghanistan’s new future under Taliban rule. Those who have already experienced past Taliban persecution see sorrow ahead—but also work to do.
ON AUG. 15, James, an Afghan and a longtime translator for the U.S. military, knew something was wrong when he saw people in Kabul had changed out of government uniforms and into traditional Afghan outfits. (WORLD has given the translator a pseudonym for security reasons.)
As James was taking his brother-in-law Ali, a U.S. citizen, to the Kabul airport, the capital city began falling to a Taliban invasion. With their flight now canceled, Ali’s family returned home and saw on the way that the Taliban was already establishing checkpoints.
Driving past a prison abandoned by guards, James saw thousands of prisoners streaming out. One tried to steal a long-range cannon from outside the prison, James said, while others had jumped in stolen Humvees and were hauling rocket-propelled grenades and M4 rifles.
“Everyone was shooting, saying, ‘Get away from the road,’” James recalled. “They didn’t know how to drive. Some of them hit cars, some of them hit shops. You can’t imagine the scene.”
His family and others had experienced Taliban rule before and feared the group’s brutality. James said his brother was among the Afghan soldiers who surrendered to the Taliban’s advance. His brother, James said, had wanted to fight, but his commanders told the soldiers they had orders to stand down. They gathered their weapons and gave them to the Taliban. In return, the Taliban gave the soldiers a paper promising their safety.
After the last American evacuation flight left on Aug. 30 just before midnight, James and his family listened as loud celebratory gunfire erupted around them.
James thought 20 years was “enough” for the American mission in Afghanistan—“You can’t get killed for somebody else forever”—but its objective failed. The Americans “wanted to clean out al-Qaeda, but they didn’t clean it,” said James. “Taliban and al-Qaeda, they came back stronger.”
In his village, James said, Taliban loyalists had revealed themselves, and now 18- and 19-year-olds are the village district governors and commanders. No one knows what the future holds. Afghans told me they expect to be blacklisted from travel. People have money from their last paychecks, but what will happen when they—and the new rulers—run out?
“We have done a lot in the last 20 years. And everything is gone in one week,” said Ali, who eventually made it on an evacuation flight with his family. “All the jobs are gone. People live by robbing people, killing people. This is how life gets when people like Taliban come.”
JOSEPH, THE MORNING STAR medical director, calls the new regime “Taliban 2.0.” He experienced the harshness of Taliban 1.0.
In 2010, the Taliban ambushed and killed 10 Christian medical workers, including a friend of Joseph’s, Cheryl Beckett. Later, in 2012, Joseph and two of his Afghan co-workers were leaving a rural medical clinic when Taliban soldiers surrounded their vehicle and took them hostage, forcing them to hike for hours through mountains and across cliffs as they changed bases regularly.
The Taliban said they would kill the hostages unless Morning Star paid a ransom of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Joseph explained to them his organization was small and had little money. Morning Star’s negotiators eventually offered $9,000 for the trio’s ransom.
Negotiations continued. The Taliban didn’t harm Joseph, aside from a blow from a rifle butt and incessant threats of execution. Given the paltry offer for his ransom, Joseph prayed for a quick death.
The Taliban eventually released Joseph’s Afghan co-workers, including Muhammad Rafiq, a doctor. Shortly after, a Navy SEAL team rescued Joseph, killing his captors. One SEAL died in the operation. Joseph returned to his work at Morning Star, although he was unable to return to Afghanistan in person for visa and security reasons.
Then in 2019, Dr. Rafiq was killed in what Morning Star reported was an assassination, although no one could conclusively establish who was responsible.
As Afghanistan fell this summer, Joseph thought about American talking points blaming Afghans for not fighting for their own country—and he thought about Rafiq.
“He had a great vision for the nation; he wanted to be one of the leaders,” Joseph said. “There were folks who were not given that option to lead this country.”
Although Morning Star’s development work is paused, many of its programs were Afghan-run, and Joseph is hopeful some programs could restart under Taliban 2.0. The Afghan Ministry of Health had already taken over most of Morning Star’s medical work, so the future of such operations is unclear. But Morning Star did still have some private medical work through Kabul University that Joseph hopes can restart in some form.
Joseph urged Christians to remain attentive to the situation. After the Taliban took over the country in 1996, he recalled, Afghans endured a hard winter and many children died. He expects this winter to be hard as well and noted internally displaced people will need help from aid groups.
Another aid worker, Travis Yates, spent two years in Afghanistan with Samaritan’s Purse until 2008, then worked there again from 2010 to 2012 with Medair, a Christian nonprofit based in Switzerland.
Yates primarily worries about the safety of Afghan staff members who worked for Christian organizations. He’s also worried about the effect of nonprofit work coming to a halt: “People are likely going to die.” Afghanistan has a history of severe malnutrition among children during its cycles of conflicts, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further disrupted supply chains of medicines and other essentials.
“It’s going to be really hard for a long time,” Yates said.
Logistics and security were already difficult in Afghanistan, making it expensive for foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate there, Yates said. Without funding from the U.S. government or other governments, it will be hard to find private funding.
Meanwhile, no Afghan systems for air travel, let alone visas, existed for foreign aid workers as of early September.
“There’s going to have to be a lot of dust settling in Afghanistan before any NGO of any size goes back in there,” said Col. Hobie Smith, a retired Marine who has served in Afghanistan and also now works as a security contractor for groups like Samaritan’s Purse.
From a security standpoint, which affects the ability of NGOs to operate, many veterans of the war in Afghanistan are livid about the manner in which the United States exited the country, even if they think leaving was the right decision. The lack of preparation for the Aug. 15 scenario clearly created a nightmare for Afghans.
In 2008 Smith served on a team that developed an emergency evacuation plan for American troops in Iraq in case the U.S. military needed to make a sudden exit from the country. By comparison, he called the evacuation plan he saw unfold in Afghanistan—with Afghan civilians clinging to departing planes and the Taliban controlling access to the airport—“downright buffoonery.”
“Where are all these really smart people within the State Department, who went to Yale and Harvard and West Point and the Naval Academy?” he said. “With the greatest military of the world, the greatest planners, and this is our best effort?”
Smith thinks the American soldiers on the ground did their best at great sacrifice, and he called it a “good deployment” to rescue Americans and Afghan allies in need, even though he thought the airport in Kabul was a terrible defensive position.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Fred Hixson deployed to Afghanistan in 2013-2014 and commanded a squadron at the Kabul airport. He recalled how difficult the airport was to defend due to its layout, with gates right alongside major roads.
Meanwhile, Bagram Airfield, a large base several miles north of Kabul, would require a large number of troops to defend, but it seemed to Hixson like the one place the Americans should have held on to for an evacuation.
Department of Defense officials plan for noncombatant evacuation operations “in their sleep,” he said. “I’m just left with questions about this whole thing. It doesn’t align with any of our capabilities that we know we have.”
SMITH, WHO HAS A SON in the Marine Corps, is glad that “in all likelihood” his son won’t be deployed to Afghanistan in the future.
Smith deployed to Afghanistan for a year in 2002, and again later as a defense contractor. When he greeted his wife after getting off the plane in San Diego, Calif., in 2003, he told her the United States needed to get out of the country. The government graft he saw was horrible, and the attempt to impose a centralized government on a “tribal, family-centric culture” was futile, he thought.
“At the end of the day, it’s just sad,” Smith said.
Joseph, the American doctor, believes Afghanistan’s future hinges on the Taliban. Only three countries recognized the last Taliban regime, and Joseph hopes this Taliban government might try to gain wider recognition and bring on workers from the previous government.
Differences from Taliban 1.0 that he noted were that Kabul has “advanced leaps and bounds” as a city, creating a class of urbanites. And he also said “the spiritual atmosphere is very different” today, with the number of Christians growing from hundreds to perhaps tens of thousands.
He is hopeful that the Taliban can change—and that therefore the country can change. During his captivity, he had multiple conversations with his Taliban captors, and he found among them a despair over their lives of violence.
When one of his captors appeared sullen and vacant, Joseph found out his commanders had assigned him to perform a suicide bombing the following week using the stolen car from Morning Star. Joseph remembered a 19-year-old Taliban soldier telling him, “There has to be more to life than this.” Those Taliban captors were killed in the SEAL raid.
“Ever since I had that encounter with them, I’ve felt very comfortable praying for them,” Joseph said. “They need to come to some sort of revelation … that there’s more to life than this way of instilling fear for the sake of righteousness.”
Still, the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban made this normally placid doctor angry. “How do I even pray about this situation, let alone have some hope?” he asked.
Then he answered his own question. “Even that made me realize that I need to actually pray for exactly that—for hope.”