A Diplomatic Assignment That Saved Lives But Caused Nightmares
Two years after Afghanistan’s collapse, a former Foreign Service officer’s memories of chaos, desperation and death still haunt him.
By MITCHELL ZUCKOFF | AUGUST 20, 2023
When Sam Aronson arrived at the U.S. Embassy’s operations center, his supervisor pulled him aside. “Hey, I have a special assignment for you. Ambassador Bass needs someone to staff him today – they are really busy.”
This was the job that Sam, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, wanted from the moment he arrived in Afghanistan earlier in August 2021, when he went upstairs to the second-floor conference room and tried to wheedle his way out of consular work and into a role as a staff aide. Despite that initial bid for office-based work, Sam had no regrets about the days he spent roaming the airport outside the capital Kabul, trying to assist Americans, Afghans and others who wanted to leave the country as the Taliban advanced on Kabul. He had altered hundreds of people’s lives by helping them escape through a secret airport back entrance known as Glory Gate.
However, a devastating suicide bombing that targeted crowds flocking to the airport on August 26 changed everything. Sam doubted Glory Gate would reopen. Even if it did, he thought it might be used exclusively for a few top-priority cases, such as American citizens, green-card holders and embassy employees with established qualifications for evacuation. Maybe there would be room for a few holders of special immigrant visas (SIVs) and special-interest cases connected to powerful people in Washington. Unsanctioned snatches of Afghans without SIVs seemed too far-fetched and hazardous to contemplate.
On August 28, with 24 hours left in the civilian airlift, Sam relished the idea of staying safe and making himself useful to the most important American diplomats still in Kabul: the men and women overseeing the last phase of a historic, if chaotic, effort that many critics thought would fail to rescue even a fraction of the number of people who had already left. Shortly after 6 a.m., Sam climbed the spiral staircase. He spotted the ambassador, John R. Bass, in the 12-by-20-foot nerve center, amid maps, a conference table covered with laptops, a whiteboard, televisions, secure communications equipment and a small green cot in the corner for sleeping. Nearby were Bass’s chief deputy, James P. DeHart, who personally chose Sam for this assignment, another staff aide and a veteran State Department Foreign Service officer named Mustafa Popal.
No one on the State Department team had more of an affinity with the people trying to flee Kabul than Mustafa. A native of Afghanistan, he escaped with his family from the same airport in 1981, when he was five years old, during the Soviet-Afghan war. After arriving in Virginia as a refugee, Mustafa graduated from Georgetown University and Tufts University. Before joining the Foreign Service, he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he was honored for his contributions to Afghanistan policy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bald and bearded, with gentle eyes and a generous smile, Mustafa now served as chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Among his multiple languages were Farsi and Dari.
Sam felt nervous as he approached Bass, another career diplomat and a calm presence whose wire-rim glasses and Vandyke beard gave him the look of a high school guidance counselor. After enduring days of gunfire, flash-bangs, sudden arrivals by Taliban fighters, the suicide explosion at the airport’s Abbey Gate, car bomb warnings and rocket alerts, now Sam’s hands trembled. If he hadn’t been so focused on calming his jitters, he might have found it funny. “Ambassador, sir, I’ll be your staffer today,” Sam told Bass. He welcomed Sam and sent him to DeHart, who asked Sam to help figure out how to help roughly 200 remaining local embassy staffers who had burned their yellow identification cards out of fear of the Taliban. Now they had no way to prove their employment to get past Taliban checkpoints aboard the last embassy staff buses still trying to reach the airport.
Sam worked on the problem, and eventually high-level negotiations between U.S. officials and Taliban leaders resulted in a deal under which the Taliban accepted a list of embassy employees and ordered its fighters at checkpoints around Kabul to grant them safe passage to the airport. Sam simultaneously managed multiple other assignments from DeHart. He fielded special-interest evacuation requests from top officials at the State Department, including one involving the rescue of 53 at-risk female Afghan leaders as part of a volunteer effort known as Operation White Scarves, as well as a group of Afghan journalists who had gathered at a fortified hotel popular with foreigners.
Sam also coordinated with U.S. Special Operations Forces and kept tabs on efforts to gain airport entry for any remaining American citizens who wanted to leave. Some of those U.S. citizens had intended to stay in Kabul, only to change their minds after the airport bombing. Most would be directed to the former Ministry of the Interior building, then brought on foot through another airport entrance called Freedom Gate, which quietly remained open. But soon even that entrance closed. Based on additional intelligence about more suicide bombings, the U.S. Embassy issued another updated security alert: “Because of security threats at the Kabul airport, we continue to advise U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates.” Then, in bold, “U.S. citizens who are at Abbey Gate, East Gate, North Gate or the New Ministry of Interior gate now should leave immediately.” Almost no entrances to the airport remained active.
Sam filled page after page of a small green notebook with scrawled briefing summaries, acronyms and updates, juggling a dozen high-priority projects as the clock wound down toward the last flight. During a morning briefing, Sam learned that evacuation priorities had tightened even more than he expected. He wrote in his notebook: “Main efforts — Amcits, LPR, LES,” meaning American citizens, green-card holders or legal permanent residents, and local embassy staff. Next came U.S. non-governmental organizations and “federal affiliates,” such as Voice of America, the U.S.-funded broadcast network. Sam’s eclectic list also included workers from Roots of Peace, a California nonprofit that helped Afghan farmers and small businesses; the Rockefeller Foundation; Johns Hopkins University; and Lincoln Learning Centers, which provided Afghan youths with educational and cultural opportunities.
Afghans of “high interest” remained technically on the list, and initially so did SIV-holders. But the SIV system, beset for years by bureaucratic delays and political interference, had grown even more muddied after the State Department issued electronic versions of the visas without individual names or document numbers. Afghans copied them as screenshots for relatives and friends. Unauthorized copies flooded the city. Sam amended his priority list with a firm note about Afghans who held SIVs: “Won’t happen. TB [Taliban] not allowing.” The Taliban had begun stopping Afghans with U.S. visas at checkpoints. Negotiations to allow legitimate SIV holders to exit proved unsuccessful, and the Americans could do nothing about it. DeHart explained that two Taliban fighters had been shot by unknown assailants, and Taliban leaders blamed the Americans and their remaining 233 Afghan Army allies. They retaliated by dragging Afghans off buses headed to South Gate and largely ending their cooperation. In DeHart’s words, “the wheels are coming off.”
As Sam worked to help arrange last-minute evacuations, he scribbled a stern note to himself: “Don’t over-promise. Most will not get in.” In addition to the groups whose entry Sam sought to arrange, DeHart forwarded him several extreme long-shot pleas for at-risk individuals. DeHart had become something of a clearinghouse for such appeals, scores of which begged for his attention every time he checked his email. He considered the requests to be the inevitable result of 20 years of relationships built between Americans and Afghans in the aftermath of 9/11.
At 7:43 a.m., DeHart forwarded Sam a long, plaintive email from someone Sam had never heard of, on behalf of someone else Sam had never heard of, mentioning a friend of DeHart’s of whom Sam also had never heard. The writer of the email identified herself as a New York literary agent, Marly Rusoff. She was seeking help for Homeira Qaderi, a well-known author and women’s rights activist who was high on the Taliban’s hit list. Sam didn’t know it yet, but he was headed back to Glory Gate.
For months after his return from Afghanistan, Sam, who had joined the Foreign Service in 2015 and won four State Department honors, including its Heroism Award, suffered from insomnia, nightmares and flashbacks related to his experience in Kabul. Unable to negotiate a follow-on assignment with the department that enabled him to live in the same country with his spouse, he left the service and currently works as a global policy manager at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor at Boston University, is the author of nine books. A former Boston Globe reporter, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist as a member of the newspaper’s Spotlight investigative team in the 1990s.
This is an excerpt from Zuckoff’s latest book, “The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan,” published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.