The People We Leave Behind in Afghanistan

The People We Leave Behind in Afghanistan
Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

The message popped up on my cellphone last week, just as I was about to drive my daughter to a play date: “The situation here in Afghanistan is getting worse day by day,” it read. “The Taliban know that i was cooperating with you people, so if its possible to talk with your respected organization to take me to USA.”

I hadn’t heard from Fareed in years. I’d hired him in 2007 to take me to the Afghan city of Gardez for a story about a warlord there. He loved hip-hop — “Do you know 50 Cents?” he’d asked me. We’d gotten caught in a hailstorm. He’d stayed calm as his car fishtailed on a mountain pass. Outside the car window, nomads in colorful clothing huddled with their camels in the storm. His message brought back other memories: The old farmhouse we visited with salty meat hanging from the rafters. Little boys in vests hawking bicycle tires. I’d worn a burqa to the market but a crowd had formed around me anyway. Fareed had covered his face with a T-shirt so that nobody would recognize him as the one who’d brought the American. He must have known, even then, that the Taliban could come back.

As U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, and the Taliban surges in their wake, I’m worried about Fareed and everyone else who risked their lives to show outsiders around that beautiful, traumatized country.

Hundreds of interpreters have been killed over the years in Afghanistan and Iraq, including those who were waiting in agonizingly long visa-processing backlogs. The stories of loyal allies left in danger has rightly stoked public empathy. Countless articles, books and organizations have rallied support for their safe passage to the United States. The special place interpreters have in the American psyche after two decades of war has even surfaced in popular culture, with a sitcom about a relocated Afghan interpreter on CBS, “United States of Al.”

On Thursday, President Biden promised to evacuate as many as 16,000 Afghans who assisted the American effort to third countries, where they will await special visas to relocate to the United States. Last week the House passed a bill, one of several written over the years, to speed relocation of interpreters who worked with the military. But it’s unclear whether interpreters like Fareed, who worked for foreign media companies or nonprofit groups, will qualify for a special visa. It’s also unclear what will happen to Afghanistan if its most educated and Western-leaning citizens flee.

Interpreters were among the most influential people in the country. Nearly everything foreign journalists knew about Afghanistan was filtered through guys like Fareed who ferried us around and explained, between drags on their cigarettes, what was really going on. Without them, we were helpless — blind and deaf. By definition, they were educated, pro-American, hungry for modernity. Their aspirations and can-do personalities filled us with the hope that this war would end differently than Vietnam. In turn, our presence filled them with hope that, after decades of civil war, Afghanistan could chart a different path. It was an echo chamber of optimism. It’s only now that I look back and wonder how representative they were of the country as a whole.

But even back then, I noticed something unusual about my interpreters: Nearly every single one of them had a story about choosing his own wife in a country where arranged marriages were the norm. Their love stories were tales of intimate rebellion against tradition. The first interpreter I hired fell in love with the girl next door — the only girl he knew. His parents refused, out of principle. What kind of family lets their son choose his own wife? Only after he staged a hunger strike for two weeks did his parents relent. Another interpreter fell in love with a girl in a college class. He summoned her and abruptly asked her to marry him — a crime for which he could have been killed. She agreed immediately — a crime just as potentially deadly. They spent the next three years pretending not to know one another and concocting an elaborate plan to get their families to set up the match. They were still pretending to be strangers when the would-be bride showed up at my hotel in Kabul the night before I was to fly with my interpreter to a faraway city. She wanted me to know that he was spoken for.

As the war dragged on, the love stories seemed to grow more audacious. During Taliban times, my interpreters had all been students with shaky job prospects, living with their parents. But after the U.S.-led invasion, anyone with a halting command of English had an opportunity to make an awful lot of money. That meant they had the means to build a house of their own and to dream of love, upending the social order. One interpreter told me that the day he received his first paycheck, he dashed through the streets, determined to pick his own wife. He didn’t know any women, so he just stood in the street, trying to catch a glimpse of the eyes of passing women in hijab.

In Afghanistan, a young man must marry to get any amount of female affection. And to marry, his family must pay a bride price, often an impossibly large sum. In the countryside, this predicament drove penniless young men into the arms of the Taliban, which was said to pay twice the salary of the Afghan security forces. But in Kabul, a young man had other ways of making money — selling concrete blocks to foreign military bases, working private security, toiling as cooks or waiters at the Gandamack Lodge, a charming fortress filled with diplomats and journalists who dined next to rows of old muskets and caged parrots.

The euphoria that accompanied the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 quickly gave way to the pursuit of money. The country was awash with cash. Everything seemed to be for sale. Need a private security detail? No problem. A bulletproof stretch Hummer? That could be arranged. Want to become a judge? That could cost you maybe $10,000. But that borrowed sum could be repaid by taking bribes from defendants in court. Mansions, malls and an expensive French restaurant popped up in Kabul. The city ached with the unbearable knowledge that somebody somewhere was making far more money.

Each time I returned to Afghanistan, I had to find a new interpreter because the old one had gotten a better job. Afghan civil servants who once earned $80 a month flocked to work with foreign N.G.O.s that paid $1,000 a month. Meanwhile, employees of foreign N.G.O.s jockeyed for positions at the United Nations or U.S.A.I.D., which paid thousands of dollars a month. The scheme came full circle when an American company called Bearing Point reaped millions staffing the hollowed-out Afghan ministries with American advisers.

Ashraf Ghani, the unfortunate soul who happens to be the current president of Afghanistan, complained that it was no way to run a country. A policy wonk who’d worked for the World Bank and written a book called “Fixing Failed States,” he seemed out of place in a country of warlords. But he rails about the hubris of Americans more eloquently than the Taliban. Before he became president, I had lunch in his wood-paneled home in Kabul, which was filled with books and Persian rugs. He complained that foreigners were stealing Afghanistan’s best civil servants, cannibalizing the government they claimed to support. Why couldn’t Americans buy wheat locally, instead of dumping cheap American wheat and putting Afghan farmers out of business? Why did they pay expensive American “advisers” who reported back to Washington like spies, instead of helping the Afghan government hire Afghans directly? Afghans knew better what their country needed, he said.

But even under President Ghani, the man who seemed to have the answers, the situation in the country kept getting worse. The last time I was there, in 2011, I had a hard time finding an interpreter who was willing to take me outside Kabul. A few turned me down flat. They didn’t want to get beheaded. I was warned that the ones who agreed might be in cahoots with kidnappers.

Still, I managed to hire a trusted fellow to help me report inside Kabul. We spent hours in the garden at the Gandamack, reporting stories over the phone. One night, his wife kept calling his cellphone, but he refused to answer. He’d been in love once, he told me gloomily, with a glamorous and worldly distant cousin who lived in Pakistan. But his parents deemed her family too rich to approach. They arranged for him to marry a simple girl instead. Now they all lived together, under one miserable roof. But after years of working for Americans, he’d grown rich himself. He was finally building his own house, and he’d recently heard that the love of his life was still single. Was it too late for him to find happiness? Could he take a second wife? Or would his first wife really set herself on fire, as she’d threatened? He agonized over what to do, late into the night.

Fareed’s panicked message made me wonder what had become of that unhappy, lovesick man? What would become of them all, seduced by the wild promises of love, of money and the chance to become a “modern” country?

Farah Stockman joined the Times editorial board in 2020. For four years, she was a reporter for The Times, covering politics, social movements and race. She previously worked at The Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2016.

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