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I Remember the Afghans We Left Behind
Two years after the fall of Kabul, memory still isn’t enough, but it’s all I have left to give.
EVERYBODY IN THE MILITARY HAS one superpower. Some are great gunslingers. Others are expert bureaucratic knife fighters. A precious few are master strategists. I am none of those things. However, my superpower was rare: I was great at befriending Afghans.
I spoke their languages, studied their history, and immersed myself in their culture.
That superpower nearly destroyed me after the fall of Afghanistan. It’s been two years exactly since the last American plane left Kabul, and I—along with thousands of other veterans—still struggle every day.
Last month, after completing an arduous two-year command tour, I voluntarily admitted myself into the Strong Hope military mental health program at Salt Lake Behavioral Health Hospital, which specializes in combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moral injury, and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
Stripped of all my possessions and contact with the outside world, I finally faced the demons created from 1500 days in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 28 days, I spent nearly 100 hours in intense therapy—eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), cognitive processing therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, psychodrama, and counseling for moral injury.
During this treatment, I faced the intense shame I felt for leaving my Afghan allies behind. I realized that the only way to conquer my demons was to move on from Afghanistan, which felt like an enormous betrayal to those left behind.
Through the help of my therapists, I realized that I had to channel the shame, betrayal, and rage into something productive. Something good had to come from all this suffering.
By sharing my Afghan brothers’ stories, I hope to memorialize them so we don’t forget the pledges my brothers- and sisters-in arms made on our behalf.
He comes to me in my nightmares. The Taliban are chasing him. He screams for my help. I'm on the phone, desperately calling faceless bureaucrats to save him. Then his family appears, and they all plead for me to save them. But I’m powerless to do anything.
When the Taliban breaks down his door, I wake up in a cold sweat. These nightmares haunt me. They shame me wide awake.
And even when I’m awake, I still see him. Sometimes I see him out of the corner of my eye. I often see him sitting at a table in a crowded restaurant. He appears when I’m alone.
I kept these hallucinations to myself, deathly afraid I was losing my mind. While at Strong Hope, I told my therapist about these hallucinations and General K’s story.
I had tried to get him and his family out for nearly a year. But those efforts failed. Tragically, the Taliban found him and forced him to join their ranks—or else. I had to report his decision to higher headquarters, slamming the door on him and his family. I reported my friend to the people responsible for abandoning him because I had to protect the integrity of my list of other Afghans in need of help.
After listening to General K’s story, my therapist told me the grief and shame I felt over General K had manifested my hallucinations. She said I needed to acknowledge General K, and tell him I loved him.
After I left Strong Hope, I saw General K at the Charlotte airport, sitting and staring at me. I breathed deeply, walked up to him, and took the empty seat next to him.
I put my head in my hands, sobbed, looked up at him, and said, “Brother, I’m sorry. I tried. I tried for months.” As I sat weeping, I looked back up at him. He had tears in his eyes and whispered back to me in Pashto, “Pohegum, zmaa wrora (I know, brother).”
Twelve other Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans and I sit quietly in the group therapy room. Here we share our darkest, most intimate secrets. We try to unburden ourselves of the shame and rage that has driven us to seek help.
Our therapist warns us, “We’re going to go really deep today. We’re going to get dark.” He positions two chairs in the middle of the room, approximately one foot apart. “However, we’re not going to use our words. We’re going to let our eyes do the talking. One person will replay a trauma in their mind while looking at their partner,” he explains, pointing to one chair. “He will be the talker. The listener will not say anything either. They will look into the talker’s eyes and feel their trauma.”
We all get into position. I will be the talker while the therapist listens.
“The talker will begin his recollection for one minute starting . . . now.”
I start thinking about Major S, and I’m instantly ashamed. He always brought his binder to our meetings. Like clockwork, we would spend the first 10 minutes reviewing its contents: his American training certificates, pictures with American servicemembers, and his favorite pics from trips to DC.
Nearly every Afghan I met had these binders. For most of my career, I thought they showed them to me to brag about their accomplishments. Now I realize I was wrong. They showed me so I would remember them when we eventually left. They hoped that by proving their worth, they’d get a seat on the flight out.
I never thought Major S needed to show me his binder. He oversaw the Afghans who guarded the American Embassy in Kabul. Surely, we would evacuate those responsible for protecting our diplomats.
I was wrong.
Tragically, despite my best efforts, Major S didn’t make it inside the airport. Like so many others.
For over a year, I searched for a way out for him. Each lead evaporated in front of me like a mirage. Finally, he decided to leave Afghanistan via a third country. After a year on the run, he feared that we would be executed by the Taliban, as his brother had been.
We lost contact with him shortly after that. I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he’s in a refugee camp. Or perhaps he’s trying to make a desperate trek to the United States. Most likely, he perished, seeking the freedom he desperately deserved.
Whatever happened to him, he deserved better. For almost five years, he protected America’s Embassy from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In return, we left him behind.
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The therapist states loudly, “Time’s up.”
He looks at me and says, “I could see the rage and deep shame in your heart, Will. It looks unbearable.”
I hold my head in my hands and confess, “It is. It is destroying me.”
I grasp the EMDR paddles tightly in my hands. They produce alternating vibrations to stimulate my brain’s right and left hemispheres. I close my eyes and breathe.
“Who should we talk to next?” whispers my therapist.
“Khadi,” I whimper.
“Pull him up in your mind and talk to him.”
As the paddles vibrate lightly in my hands, I bring up Khadi in my mind’s eye. I sit silently for more than a minute until my therapist prods me to begin.
“Brother, I need you to know the truth,” I whisper. “You weren’t my top priority during the withdrawal!” I cry out.
“There were so many others. I couldn’t keep track of all the Afghans I was trying to get out. Every hour, I was tasked to help somebody else. You kept being pushed down the list,” I confessed. He weeps as I talk to him.
“After the final plane left, my team kept working for you and your family. But you didn’t have a current passport. And without a current passport, I couldn’t get you to safety. Those weren’t my rules, brother,” I pleaded.
“I need to tell you the real truth: You probably will never get to the United States. My government hasn’t made getting former Afghan officers out a priority.”
I sit in silence again for a few minutes.
“What else do you want to tell him?” asked my therapist.
I breathe deeply and continue. “You’re a good man, brother. I always tell people about you. I tell them that you survived the first Taliban regime and then partnered with us after we invaded. Your agents infiltrated the Taliban's inner circles and protected all of us.”
My grip on the EMDR paddles tightens.
“I learned so much from you. I remember sitting in your office in 2014. We had so many good laughs during our meetings. I was not really much of an advisor. You knew more about fighting the Taliban in the shadows than I could ever imagine.”
I begin to sob loudly. The shame is pouring out of me as I cry out in pain. “I’m sorry, brother. I tried my hardest to get you and your family out. But I failed.”
As I weep uncontrollably, Khadi’s family appears alongside him. They’re all crying with me.
In broken English, Khadi and his sons tell me, “It’s ok, DaGarWal (Colonel). Thank you for fighting for us.”
My therapist gently tells me, “You did everything possible for them. It wasn’t your fault. He knows that. He knows you love him.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I wish that was enough, but nothing ever will be, I’m afraid.”
Our group sits outside in a circle. Every week we write letters to various people or things: those we hurt, those who hurt us, our addictions, etc.
“Does anyone want to read their letter first?” the chaplain queries.
I walk to the front of the group, clear my throat, and breathe deeply.
Brother, I don’t know if you’re alive or dead.
After the fall, I tried desperately to find you. I called hundreds of times, but your phone was disconnected.
Even after the last American plane left, I tried to find you. I asked Afghans from Kandahar if they’d seen you. All my leads went nowhere.
Sometimes, I daydream about our time together in 2012. It’s humorous now when I think back. We would sit in your mud hut and scheme ways to increase the government’s power. What did a thirty-four year-old Texan know about advising an Afghan district governor?
We tried our hardest to “connect the people to the government,” but it was always an uphill fight. Perhaps it was always bound to fail? I don't know anymore, to be honest. All I know is that we were young men placed in an impossible position.
It was great seeing you at the Embassy in 2021. We had both become speengereys (graybeards). It was a great reunion—two old comrades sharing a meal after nearly ten years apart.
I could see the pain in your eyes when we talked about your brother. I know the sadness you carried after the Taliban killed him. I know you felt responsible for his death, much like I feel responsible for leaving you behind.
I like to think you’re still alive, you old bandit. But I know what the Taliban does to former commanders. You took a giant leap of faith when you flipped from the Taliban to the Afghan government—you placed your life in our hands. And we, in return, abandoned you.
You deserved better, my friend. Wherever you are, brother, please know that I love you. I hope you know that I tried my hardest to find you. I would have done anything to save you.
I wipe the tears from my eyes. Then I light the letter on fire and watch it burn.
“What does it feel like watching it burn?” the chaplain asks.
“I feel ashamed because I’m trying to move on. And I feel rage because nobody in America cares about him. They think he was corrupt or didn’t fight, even though he did more for this country than most people here,” I seethe.
The other men in the group nod their heads violently in agreement.
“But if you tell his story, Will, like we talked about, then he will be remembered. I think that could be enough,” he pushes back gently.
“It won’t be enough,” I said. “But it’s the only thing I can do.”
I walked into the Strong Hope’s director's office for my discharge meeting. We are reviewing my diagnosis: chronic PTSD, moral injury, TBIs, and severe depression. As we review the last month, she asks, “Are you ready to start giving yourself some grace over Afghanistan? We’ve talked about you walking away from Afghan evac work since it’s such a drain on you and your family.”
“Once Abdullah’s out, then I can completely walk away,” I tell her. “He’s my final case. I owe him more time.”
“Who is Abdullah?” she asks. “I don’t remember him from your stories.”
I had forgotten about him. I’ve had so many interpreters throughout my six deployments that keeping track of them is difficult.
In March 2022, I received an email from an American lawyer asking if I had worked with Abdullah in Kandahar. He attached a picture of him to help refresh my memory.
I immediately remembered him. He was so young when we worked together in 2012. I was the first American he worked with, and he was eager to prove himself.
Abdullah proved to be an invaluable asset. He was not just an interpreter but also a cultural tour guide. Although immersed in Afghan history, I was out of my element in rural Kandahar. He picked up on nuances—not so much what people said, but how they said it, or sometimes more importantly, what they didn’t say. He helped me connect the dots. I may have been well armed, but he was my real weapon.
Abdullah’s lawyers told me he had survived the fall of Kabul, despite the Taliban hunting for interpreters. But his Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) was denied despite stellar recommendations from me and another senior officer.
The problem? His former employer erroneously reported firing him for missing work in 2013. A careless filing error was barring Abdullah and his family from their spot in the United States. This is a common problem for thousands of former interpreters, especially those who worked for small companies that have since closed.
Despite my affidavit informing the company of their error, they refused to budge.
Abdullah’s pro-bono U.S. lawyers, who he had acquired via a friend of his sister’s, have since helped him re-apply for an SIV. We hope he will be approved since he has my affidavit and a new letter of recommendation.
As he waits underground in a third country, Afghan refugees are being hunted throughout the region and sent back to Afghanistan. For Abdullah, that would be a death sentence since he served as an interpreter for some of our most elite units.
His finances, acquired through various charities, are quickly dwindling. Hopefully his application will be approved before the money runs dry.
As of today, he’s still waiting.
America has turned its back on Afghanistan. It’s easier that way—to avert our eyes from what happened.
Who wants to face the truth?
The statistics are sobering. Approximately 200,000 to 300,000 SIV applicants are still in Afghanistan. At the current adjudication rate, these applications will take 31 years to be processed. While our allies remain underground, the Taliban continue a country-wide campaign to kill them.
These statistics often spur us to search for a scapegoat, but no single person is to blame. We are all to blame for Afghanistan. Trying to pin the blame for a failed war on a single leader is a futile effort that shifts the focus from the war's actual victims: the Afghan people.
Hypocritically, we often blame the Afghans for not defeating the same enemy we could not defeat. We obfuscate our culpability in Afghanistan’s humanitarian disaster by blaming the Afghans.
We can do better than victim-blaming our former allies.
Although we cannot erase the last 20 years of death, destruction, and futility, we can help mitigate a tidal wave of PTSD and moral injury wreaking havoc in our veterans community by relocating our Afghan allies and finally passing the Afghan Adjustment and EVAC Acts.
My brothers-in-arms at Strong Hope courageously faced their demons and pledged to atone for their mistakes.
It’s time we do the same.
Will Selber is a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.