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U.S. withdrawal leaves Afghan allies grappling with fear, anger and panic

“The reward of working with the USA military is this? Death by the hands of the Taliban?” one Afghan seeking to flee with his family asked.

When the last American aircraft left Afghanistan on Monday, the hopes of thousands of Afghans who believed that the United States would save them from the Taliban disappeared with it into the clouds above Kabul.

Afghan allies said their emotions vacillated from fear and anger to sadness and outright panic that the government they had spent two decades supporting had left many in the clutches of the Taliban, a group known for its violent and vengeful tendencies against those who worked with coalition forces.

Taliban fighters patrol around the civilian terminal of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, after the full U.S. military withdrawal from the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021.Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“We thought America was going to save our country,” said Shakila, an Afghan living in Washington, D.C., whose family had to remain in Afghanistan when she received a visa in 2019. “We thought America was going to make our country safe, but they are ignoring us. They are ignoring those Afghans that worked for them, and they’re going to leave them behind.”

Shakila, whose last name is not being used to protect her family, said she has gone weeks with little sleep as she thinks about her siblings and her elderly mother whom she left behind. Since the Taliban began to take control of the country, she has spent each night after she gets off work talking to other Afghan immigrants and attempting to find ways to get her family out of Afghanistan.

The hours spent on the effort are long, but they have proved fruitless for many.

A painting Shakila completed shortly after the Taliban took control of Kabul. "This is the feeling of an Afghan women who doesn't want a burqa. I want peace and freedom," she said.Shakila / via NBC News

“We know that it’s not going to happen, but we have to try,” she said. “If there is a 1 percent chance that filling out a form or making another phone call will help get my family out, I have to. I don’t want to lose them. I can’t lose my belief that I can save them.”

That feeling is shared by Americans and others still working on behalf of their Afghan allies who were unable to escape before that last U.S. aircraft left, marking the end of the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

The fact that the State Department says it has successfully evacuated more than 123,000 people, including 6,000 Americans, is little relief for those working to help the thousands who remain.

“A lot of us don't think about the numbers that we got out,” said Adam DeMarco, a military veteran who is working alongside other veterans via Allied Airlift 21, a nonprofit group they created two weeks ago to help with the evacuations and that maintains a registry of Afghans who were left behind. “We think about those people that we knew we could do nothing for. Those are the numbers and those are the faces and those are the names that stick with all of us.”

The evacuation effort is continuing among groups like Allied Airlift 21 and even some individuals, though hopes are dwindling and advice for Afghans still hoping to flee is thin.

Scott King, a former U.S. Marine, and Stephen Hull, a former member of the Australian army, both worked for the military contractor Global Strategies Group — a now defunct organization that earned millions in security contracts and helped secure Afghan elections, run counternarcotics programs, train police and secure Kabul and Kandahar airports.

While neither has worked for Global Strategies Group in years, they have fielded hundreds of requests from former Afghan colleagues in hopes that they can help them flee Afghanistan. In the absence of the organization's human resources department and employment records, King and Hull continue to write supporting letters for their former allies and help them organize visa requests and travel documents.

The work is overwhelming. Each day, they receive a flood of messages from scared Afghans who send pleas for help and even pictures of their kids.

“I’ve been a bloody mess,” Hull said, noting that he’s been receiving and responding to messages for eight weeks. “I went to weddings with these people. They had me in their homes. It’s impossible to keep up with the volume. It’s crazy.”

It’s unclear whether their work will lead to any Afghans escaping, however. King said the success stories have been few and far between.

“I’m going to keep cranking these out as long as I’m getting requests because I think it’s important, at the very least, to preserve a record that there was a request in the pipeline,” he said. “As everything has deteriorated, maybe it’s just for my benefit: I need to know that I did everything I could. I didn’t stop when the last plane lifted up. So I’ve got to keep going with this — we’ve got to keep going with this.”

Abdul, an Afghan who spoke on the condition of anonymity and who worked in security for Global Strategies Group, received a supporting letter from King.

In recent weeks, Abdul — a false name used to protect his identity — said he has frantically searched for a way to escape Afghanistan with his family. Though he submitted a special immigrant visa application to the U.S. with the help of King, there was no other recourse for him to find a way out of the country.

Land routes to Tajikistan and Pakistan are dangerous, and he did not have much money, and he has begged former employers, colleagues and any American he can contact to get in touch with the U.S. Embassy and save him, his wife and their children.

Abdul said he had received multiple messages from members of the Taliban, most recently on Sunday, telling him that they knew he and his family were hiding in Kabul and threatening to harm them. Sunday’s call had left his family in tears, he said, but he still continued to pray for a call from the U.S. that his visa application had been accepted.

“They are checking houses very fast,” he said via a WhatsApp message after receiving the call from the Taliban on Sunday. “I don’t want them to find me with my family. We don’t want to die.”

The only hope he and his family have is to get help from the U.S., Abdul said.

While he received multiple death threats from the Taliban, he said, no Americans have contacted him about evacuating. On Monday, his children told him the American military had left. They told their father they were certain to be captured and killed by the Taliban.

“The reward of working with the USA military is this?” he asked. “Death by the hands of the Taliban?”

Afghan refugees evacuated from Kabul, arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport on August 27, 2021.Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hope for a later rescue via U.S. diplomacy or military efforts also appeared limited. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday the U.S. would suspend its diplomatic presence in Kabul and open a new office in Doha, Qatar — more than 1,200 miles away. Other nations have said they've moved their diplomatic offices to Doha.

Still that remains a concern among invested Americans and Afghans: How will the Taliban act in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan when the international community is no longer watching?

“I don’t see a lot of journalists or international oversight being able to stay in Afghanistan without any kind of security structure in place other than the Taliban,” King said. “So when the retribution starts, how is the world going to know? Will people just disappear? Will the emails stop? Will the messages just dry up? We’ll just never know.”

Shakila said that there is much anger and fear among Afghans who worked for the U.S., and many still can’t believe that the American mission in their country had come to an end without a sense of direction and with the Taliban again in control.

While they knew they were taking a risk by working with Americans, none of them expected that the U.S. would suddenly leave and rob them of the hope they had for their country’s future and potentially put their lives in danger.

“I still don’t know how I’m supposed to react to this situation, like my country, my people, are suddenly going to go back 20 years so fast?” Shakila said, adding that her family had to burn all their photos and employee ID cards from the past two decades to protect themselves from the Taliban. “I am traumatized. I am just hoping for a miracle that can save my country, just a simple miracle that can change everything.”