Escape from Afghanistan: America didn’t help him. Two Americans did. – Grid News
Escape from Afghanistan: America didn’t help him. Two Americans did.

On Oct. 1, 2021, a thin, dark-haired man with a trimmed beard walked into the arrivals hall at Reagan National Airport. He had skipped baggage claim; his belongings filled only a small shoulder bag.

Turning a corner, his eyes brightened, and a smile spread across his face. A moment later, he was embracing a friend.

“I’m so happy to see you, Sam,” the traveler said. “So very happy.”

“Me too, Wazir. It’s great to see you.”

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Wazir Gul had flown that day from Albuquerque; he had been at a refugee relocation center there for three weeks. Before that, nearly a month in Qatar. Doha Airport was the first Wazir had ever flown to, and Qatar the first country he had seen besides his own.

His country was Afghanistan. He had left Kabul on Aug. 26.

Wazir was one of the more than 120,000 Afghans evacuated safely in the chaotic last days of the nearly two-decade U.S. war in Afghanistan. He had served with U.S. forces as an armed security officer. Four days after his plane left Kabul, the last American troops left. The “forever war” was over.

Tens of thousands of other Afghans who had worked for the U.S. didn’t make it out, despite a pledge from President Joe Biden just two months earlier: “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”

Wazir had not been “left behind,” but that was thanks to a former staff sergeant named Sam Lerman, the man he embraced at National Airport.

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“Wasn’t sure this day would come,” said Sam.

Wazir laughed. “I’m so happy,” he said again.

On the one hand, Wazir’s is an inspiring, heartwarming story of one man’s bravery, his valiant support for the United States and the tireless work of one American veteran to help him. After the trauma of the U.S. withdrawal, the reunion at National Airport looked like a good-news story.

But Wazir’s odyssey is also an indictment of the State Department and the extent to which even those who risked their lives for the U.S. were left to fend for themselves. And how those who succeeded often did so thanks to friendships, random connections and, above all, good fortune.

Ever since his arrival in the U.S., and even with a champion in Sam, Wazir’s efforts to obtain a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) remain in limbo. The pressures of a frantic withdrawal from the “longest war” have dissipated, but the State Department and other agencies continue to struggle to fulfill commitments to Afghans who risked their lives in service to the United States.

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“Should never have been this hard,” Sam told Grid. “I mean, if anyone should have been cleared, vetted and put on the first planes out of Kabul, it was Wazir Gul.”

Sam and Wazir

Wazir had never imagined he would work with Americans. And never imagined he would carry a gun.

Born in 1986, he was in his prime school years when the Taliban first took control of the country in 1996. Music and other forms of popular culture were banned. English language classes ended. A quarter-century later, Wazir laughs sheepishly when he says, “My English no good.”

That all changed after the October 2001 U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban. Schools reopened. A free press blossomed. Wazir’s father went to work for the Americans. A brother and some cousins did as well. Wazir secured a job at Bagram Airfield, the sprawling U.S. base some 25 miles outside Kabul, and worked his way up. By July 2011, he was an armed security guard for an American contractor. The job paid well. He liked meeting Americans. And he liked his new partner, the sergeant from Virginia.

Sam had deployed to Afghanistan in July 2011. He was 14 when terrorists struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and soon after that he wrote a school paper about Afghanistan. He enlisted before college; at 24, he was posted to Kabul.


He was assigned to the Bagram base’s Alpha Sector, with the principal task of defending the base from enemy attack.

Attackers came regularly, and Sam’s squadron needed first-rate intelligence to identify and repel them. Success depended heavily on more than 100 Afghans embedded with their unit, local security officers who had proved their competence and won the trust of the Americans.

Ten days into his tour, Sam met the man who would be at his side for many of his regular 14-hour shifts.

They were the same age. On their first patrol, Sam asked Wazir about his family and about Afghan culture, which Sam had studied in a kind of self-taught crash course before deploying to the country.

“This was just an incredibly nice guy,” Sam said. “We wound up talking for hours.”

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“First time I’m seeing Sam, I am so happy,” Wazir told Grid. “I understand, this is a good person.”

Rocket attack

Sam and Wazir peppered one another with questions on their first shifts together, about each other’s lives, their cultures, how each man had come to be there. The hours passed.

They were having one such conversation, the sun falling on a late July evening, when they heard the whoosh of an incoming rocket.

“This was probably 7 o’clock or so, around dusk,” Sam remembered. “We got rocketed, 107mm rockets impacting just outside the perimeter, pretty close to our position. The blast radius was maybe 100 to 150 meters away. And we’re standing outside on the catwalk of this tower.

“I remember diving for cover behind the sandbags. I expected Wazir to fall on top of me. There wasn’t a whole lot of area on that catwalk.”

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Crouched low, waiting for the attack to subside, Sam looked for his new friend.

“I didn’t feel him hit the deck. And so I look up, and Wazir’s standing on top of the sandbags and has my binoculars in his hand, looking for a launch position.”

Wazir smiled at the memory. Why hadn’t he followed suit and ducked for cover?

“No, it’s my job,” he said. “I look for enemies.”

Had he feared for his own life?

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Wazir deflected the question: “I have grown up with war, fighting the Russians. Our fathers fighting. U.S. helping us. And now U.S. helping us again. And so I am helping them.”

It was clear, he said, that “bad people” were attacking the Americans and that his job was to learn, as he put it, “this one is bad people, this one is good … and this is my job. Look for bad people.”

“After that attack,” Sam said, “I thought, here’s a guy who clearly knew what he was doing and was willing and ready as I had just seen to die defending American forces.”

Tour of duty

They worked together for seven months. To hear them describe that time is to imagine the cadence of a firefighter’s job — long periods of calm, even boredom, punctuated by adrenaline bursts when danger visits. At Bagram, such bursts came roughly twice a week, rockets or small-arms fire striking inside or near the base perimeter.

“We had one very serious attack,” Sam remembered, “on Sept. 10, 2011, the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It was the Taliban celebration of that. And we got hit for three and a half hours.”

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The attack killed two Afghan security guards and injured nine others, including three U.S. soldiers. Sam brought two critically wounded Afghans to the Bagram hospital. Both survived. Now Wazir saw that Americans were willing to risk their lives to save Afghan security officers. Trust was building on both sides of their relationship.

Meanwhile, as in a firehouse, the long shifts and nature of the work inspired a camaraderie. Sam and Wazir made use of the time when no rockets fell and no warning sirens pierced the night air.

“I really got to know Wazir over the course of those months,” Sam remembered. “He would work on Dari with me, and he started teaching me how to give people commands, to say, ‘Stop, or I’ll shoot,’ or, ‘Turn around,’ ‘Go back.’ Things like that, basic vocabulary.”

Wazir recalled an eager student.

“I teach him Dari and Pashto. Sometimes he teach me English. Something like, ‘That one is good. That one is no good’” — useful phrases for Wazir as he watched for Afghans who approached the base.

Sam’s tour in Afghanistan coincided with a spate of “green-on-blue” killings — attacks on Americans by armed Afghans, typically members of the Taliban who had infiltrated the international forces. For obvious reasons, friendship with an Afghan security officer was often tainted by an undercurrent of fear.

Sam had no doubts.

“There was this mantra about never turning your back, even with your allies, because you never know when the wrong guy has been turned. But Wazir I came to trust 100 percent, to the point where I’d give him my weapon. The only Afghan I ever did give my weapon to. And he became my lifeline, my path of information, my mentor in the things that would keep you alive out there.”

Sam befriended other Afghans, and Wazir has only kind words for other Americans he came to know. But theirs was a special bond.

“I can’t estimate how many lives Wazir saved through the knowledge that he imparted to Americans,” Sam said. “I was not the only guy who’d say that Wazir was the most trusted Afghan who worked with us. Everybody knew: If you need to understand something, if there’s something you don’t get and you want ground truth on, find Wazir.”

Farewell

In January 2012, Sam received his marching orders. He was headed back home.

“Leaving Afghanistan was bittersweet,” Sam said. “Obviously, it was really hard work there. And it was difficult being away from my family. But I felt like what I was doing there was the most important thing I’d ever gotten to be part of. I was finding it harder and harder to conceive of leaving.”

The hardest part was saying goodbye to Wazir.

“I had this American flag that I had planned to bring home and put up in my house. I’d carried it with me for much of the deployment, in my pack,” Sam said. “And on the last day, I went and found Wazir. And I gave it to Wazir as a thank you for his service to the United States.”

Sam did one more thing before he left. He and his fellow servicemen at Bagram felt Wazir deserved a higher rank and salary. Sam went to his superiors and told them Wazir was the only Afghan his team worked with who they all “trusted 100 percent.” They would be “idiots,” he said, if they didn’t make him a supervisor.

And then, on Jan. 15, 2012, Sam and Wazir embraced and said their farewells.

“It was so hard for me,” Wazir remembered. “Very hard for me to say goodbye.”

They said they hoped to meet again, in Kabul or the U.S. or some point in between.

2021: Return of the Taliban

For nearly a decade, they had no contact.

Wazir had daily reminders of Sam, thanks to the gifts he had left behind — a DVD player, videos and the American flag. “Every day I’m seeing the flag. I go into my room, I’m seeing the flag. I am remembering Sam,” he said.

Sam thought of Wazir whenever major news came from Afghanistan — another attack, another new U.S. policy. By early 2021, the news came regularly. And the news was rarely good.

In 2020, the Trump administration had cut a deal with the Taliban. All U.S. and NATO troops would leave Afghanistan; the Taliban would repudiate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, continue talks with the Afghan government and refrain from attacks on international forces as they left. In April 2021, Biden announced his intent to stick to the agreement. American troops would come home.

The Taliban launched a fresh offensive against Afghan security forces in May, a series of attacks that began in the countryside and rapidly gathered steam. By July 21, the Taliban controlled half the country’s districts.

Sam reached Wazir by phone in late July. In the intervening years, Wazir had gotten his promotion at Bagram only to leave soon after to care for his ailing father. After his father died in 2013, Wazir and his wife returned to the family farm, where they harvested grapes. They had six more children — bringing the total to eight. He never returned to Bagram.

It was, he said, a “good life.”

Until the Taliban began its march to the capital.

Wazir couldn’t believe it. He had known the day might come. But now it was coming fast.

It had been eight years since Wazir had worked for the Americans, since he had stood on the Bagram catwalks and called out the “good people” and “bad people.” But even after all that time, Wazir knew he was at risk.

He hadn’t just worked with Sam and the other Americans; he had shot at Taliban fighters. And he had made his feelings known. At the village mosque, Wazir told Grid, everyone was aware, as he put it, that “this guy worked for U.S. Everybody knows I am for America. I hate Taliban.”

“America is leaving,” he recalled thinking. “I’m scared. I’m understanding that Taliban maybe come back to my village.”

On the other side of the world, Sam had the same thoughts. He felt he had to do something to help his friend.

“Afghans who supported the United States all risked their lives to do so,” he told Grid. “But some jobs were more dangerous than others. There were Afghans who cleaned our rooms, cleaned the dining facility. They were in danger because they worked for the United States, but their role wasn’t visible. Wazir’s job was one of the most visible, dangerous jobs you could possibly do in service to the United States. He was serving openly in a public space carrying a rifle for the United States of America and searching people to stop Taliban suicide bombers from taking out Americans.

“I can think of very few roles that were more dangerous.”

Fifteen minutes into their July 2021 conversation, Wazir put the question to Sam: “Can you help me get out?”

Sam said he wasn’t sure. Then he added quickly, “I’ll try everything I can.”

Sam had just begun learning about the Special Immigration Visa program; he called lawyers and refugee aid organizations, trying to start the process for Wazir. But within a few days, the situation in Afghanistan was spiraling badly. Sam’s anxiety had begun affecting his sleep and his work. He took a leave of absence to work full time on an escape plan.

Wazir was anxious, too, but relieved for the moment to have heard from his friend. “I’m so glad I found Sam again,” he said. “I called him every day, he called me. I lost my friend, and I find him again.”

“Rush to the exits”

By Aug. 1, the Taliban march threatened the country’s largest cities. On Aug. 6, the U.S. and U.K. urged all their nationals to leave the country.

Subsequent reporting would show that the U.S. and its European allies delayed evacuations of their own forces and Afghans who had worked with them because, as the New Yorker’s Steve Coll and Adam Entous put it, it would “look like a rush to the exits.” On Aug. 13, the Taliban captured Herat and Kandahar. Kabul would be next.

Now the “rush to the exits” was on.

Sam called Wazir and urged him to leave his home and go to Kabul. He asked whether there was a place he and his family could stay; Wazir said yes. And so they moved. All 10 of them.

From the Kabul house, Wazir sent Sam photos of personal documents that would support the SIV application. The ID badge from his time working with the U.S., certificates of appreciation, his family’s IDs, his passport — all these went to Sam’s inbox. The SIV was for Afghan nationals who had been employed “by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan”; it was, in essence, the document to support Biden’s pledge that no Afghan who had worked for the U.S. mission would be left behind.

“I spent several days putting together his application,” Sam said. “I submitted it just before Kabul fell.”

The Taliban took the capital on Aug. 15 without a fight. Wazir learned from a friend that Taliban gunmen had come to his village two days after he left.

Sam called Wazir and told him the paperwork had been filed; he could go to the airport and say he was an SIV applicant. The airlift had begun.

But Sam knew that Wazir’s chances were slim. Wazir was merely an applicant; he didn’t hold an SIV. Sam had a Rolodex of Capitol Hill connections from work in the defense industry; he wrote to members of Congress, to ambassadors, to the State Department. He sent information and testimonials about Wazir. None could offer much help. Many were hearing similar pleas from other veterans, working on behalf of Afghans they had known.

What else could he do?

Escape plan

When the break came, it had nothing to do with members of Congress, ambassadors or others in high places. It came via the friend of a friend.

“I get a call from a good friend, an agent with the Diplomatic Security Service,” Sam recalled. “He calls me, frantic, and says, ‘I think I’ve got someone who can help.’ He told me about his friend, Justin, who he’d just found out was in Kabul, at the airport.”

Justin Peele works for the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the Secret Service’s equivalent for the U.S. diplomatic community. DSS agents are posted in foreign capitals, typically for two-year missions to protect diplomats and diplomatic installations.

Justin’s most recent tours had taken him to Sudan and Paraguay. In mid-2021 he got his next assignment: Kabul. It would be shorter — a one-year mission — because Afghanistan was considered a hardship post.

He landed in the first week of August. His first days in the Afghan capital were spent quietly enough, touring the sprawling, well-fortified embassy compound. “Admin stuff,” he called it.

But Justin knew almost from the moment he landed that the situation in Kabul was tenuous. “I think the writing was on the wall,” he told Grid. “Things are always fine until they’re not. And they were very quickly — not.”

Four days after his arrival, Justin was redeployed to the Kabul airport. His mission of diplomatic protection was over. Now he was to assist in the evacuation of American citizens and Afghans who had served with the U.S. He would be based at Abbey Gate, inside the airport’s perimeter.

In addition to helping maintain security, Justin’s job would involve vetting arrivals at the gate and clearing as many Afghans as possible for evacuation. He watched for particular documents — U.S. passports, the yellow badge that signified employment with the U.S. embassy, and the SIV.

Wazir had none of these. His best bet was the SIV application, the powerful case it contained and then the hope of finding a sympathetic ear.

From his home in Virginia, Sam devised a plan. Wazir would have a photograph of an American flag on his phone that he would hold high; he would search the walls at Abbey Gate for Justin — whose photo Sam had sent — and he would yell “Justin” as often and loudly as possible. For his part, Justin would carry a blue glow stick and wear a baseball cap instead of his usual helmet. And he would keep an eye out for Wazir.

“Sam sent me a photograph of Wazir, which admittedly didn’t do a whole lot for me,” Justin recalled. “Looked like a lot of photographs I’d seen. I worked at night, so it’s also very dark, which didn’t help.”

Sam would keep them both on a WhatsApp link. Directing traffic, as it were. Justin told him there were no guarantees.

“He stressed many times, no promises,” Sam said. “And even best-case scenario, it was going to be extraordinarily dangerous just to try to get into the right place where he could get him out.”

Wazir and his family would have to navigate Taliban checkpoints that ringed the airport. They would have to reach a sewage canal that flowed like a moat around the airport walls, and which was already crowded with thousands of people. And there, in the dark and the chaos, Wazir would holler the name of a stranger and hope to find him.

Wazir went three times to the airport with his family. Each trip was more chaotic than the last. He and his wife grew more worried about their children. Wazir thought the youngest might be trampled.

On their third try, they spent nearly 30 hours trying to enter the airport perimeter. There was sporadic gunfire and a crush of people. Every time Wazir and his wife pushed forward, trying to keep the children close, they were pushed back. At one point he was struck with a rifle by an American service member.

“Too many people,” Wazir said. “Everyone coming to airport. People were pushing against us. My little 1-year-old son fell. We stayed for so long. My wife says, ‘It’s too scary.’ She says, ‘Maybe you go. Maybe I stay here. For children to go, it’s too scary.’”

They returned to their Kabul house. Wazir called it the most difficult conversation he has ever had — the one when he agreed to return to the airport without them. He would go with his brother. His wife and children would stay behind.

“It’s so hard for me. Because my family is there. I call Sam, he says, ‘OK, you come. Maybe after you, your family come. But you have to go,’” Wazir said.

Abbey Gate

On the night of Aug. 25, Wazir returned to the airport, this time with his brother. It was easier for the two of them to move through the checkpoints. After less than two hours, they had reached the canal near Abbey Gate.

Then Wazir did as Sam had instructed. He pulled up the American flag on his phone, walked along the wall and held the phone high. And he started yelling:

“Justin! Justin!”

Occasionally he got a reaction. A head turned.

“All the time I’m shouting, ‘Justin! Justin!’ So many times I’m shouting this name,” he said.

Seven thousand miles away, Sam was beside himself: “I’m sitting there, going nuts. Justin can’t see or hear Wazir. Wazir just keeps hollering.”

“I’m calling his name, long time,” said Wazir. “Maybe one hour. ‘Justin! Justin!’ I called Sam. ‘Sam I’m here — where is Justin?’ I’m shouting, and I’m showing the flag.”

Justin — who had never met either man — felt suddenly caught up in the drama and helpless from his post at Abbey Gate.

“I mean, it’s dark. It’s loud. Sam has this great plan, sounds good, and I’m trying, but there’s just a lot going on in that moment,” he said.

“Wazir couldn’t find Justin,” Sam said. “He called me. He’s fighting his way through this crowd, in that sewer water. And I’m going back and forth between Justin and Wazir via phone and WhatsApp trying to get them onto each other’s location.”

It was just after 6 p.m. in Woodbridge, Virginia. Three in the morning in Kabul.

“Justin! Justin!”

It might have been the hundredth time Wazir had yelled the name. This time, Justin heard it.

“I looked — just to be sure — to see his face,” Justin said. “I looked for that flag on his phone. And he’s yelling my name like it’s the last thing he’s gonna do.”

Wazir grinned at the memory: “This man says, ‘What’s your name?’ I told him, ‘My name is Wazir Gul!’ He says, ‘OK, I’m Justin.’ I’m so happy. I almost fall in the water!”

A minute later, Justin lifted Wazir and his brother over the wall.

“I dead-lifted them both out of the sewage canal. A lot of people have said that being an agent is 95 percent cerebral, 5 percent physical. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But these situations in Kabul, I think that was that 5 percent. It definitely paid to be fit and strong.”

Within an hour, Wazir and his brother were aboard an American C-17, en route to Doha, Qatar. By dawn, they had landed.

Death at the airport

A few hours later, Justin heard the order. An all-clear. There was an “imminent and confirmed threat” of a suicide bombing. Justin went to his barracks.

That afternoon, a former engineering student named Abdul Rahman al-Logari, who had escaped from a U.S. prison earlier that week, walked up to Abbey Gate. He was wearing roughly 20 pounds of explosives. At 5:36 p.m., he blew himself up.

One hundred seventy Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers were killed. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Justin had known some of the victims. “It was just luck” that he had not been among them, he said. “They call it the ‘God factor.’ Why are some people there and other people are not, when something explodes?”

Justin never returned to Abbey Gate. He and his team flew out of Afghanistan at the end of August. His one-year tour had lasted exactly one month.

“Wazir and his brother were the last people I pulled over at Abbey Gate,” he said.

SIV application: “like a snail in molasses”

Six weeks after their flight out of Afghanistan, Wazir and his brother began an open-ended stay with Sam and his family in their two-story home in Woodbridge.

There the two Afghans rested, took in the sights of Washington, D.C. — roughly an hour’s drive away — and enjoyed a bewildering array of “firsts”: first visit to a shopping mall, first ride in an elevator and first encounter with an ocean, to name a few. Sam and his family took Wazir on a road trip to Montana. Wazir and his brother learned to use a computer and type in English and in Pashto.

Wazir was impressed by the warm response and religious tolerance; many Afghan friends had him that both were in short supply in the U.S.

“I call my family,” he said. “I call my other friends. ‘Why you say America is bad? America is good people.’”

For Wazir, there were two imperatives in his new life: to find a job and begin the work of bringing his family to America.

Neither came easily. For more than seven months, he and Sam received only automatic replies from the State Department to requests about the SIV application. Without the SIV, he couldn’t begin the process of bringing his family to the U.S.

This year, on March 30, they received a case number and request for additional information. They were asked to produce “proof of employment” and a “human resources letter” from the contractor that had employed Wazir; the initial application had included a letter from the company’s senior vice president, not only confirming Wazir’s employment but extolling the quality of his work.

“Like a snail trying to swim through molasses,” Sam said about the process. “Wazir has one of the strongest SIV applications I could imagine, and yet he received almost zero communication from the State Department, not a single reply for more than six months, and awaiting his SIV package approval is what is holding up his family from potentially being able to come here.”

Wazir speaks to his wife and children at least once a week. His genial demeanor slips only when the conversation turns to his family.

“They are right now safe,” he said. “Sam is helping me. We are trying. Maybe they come here one day.”

Grid asked the State Department why Wazir’s application would have gone so long without a response. The department said it couldn’t discuss Wazir’s specific case due to confidentiality; a spokesperson who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Grid that there are “approximately 50,000 Afghan principal applicants at some stage of the SIV application process.”

It seems clear that without the efforts of Sam Lerman and Justin Peele, the courage and resilience shown by Wazir Gul himself, and a series of serendipitous twists, Wazir and his brother would never have made it out. Wazir might well have been jailed or killed.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of other SIV applicants remain in Afghanistan. A State Department official acknowledged that the majority of SIV applicants were not evacuated, and in a February survey of SIV applicants still in Afghanistan, nearly 30 percent reported being imprisoned by the Taliban at some point.

With Sam’s help, Wazir got a job on the night shift at a food processing plant in northern Virginia. “Hard job but good job,” he said. Wazir’s only regret was that he had hoped the workplace would help his English, but his close colleagues were newcomers from the Philippines and Mexico and others from Afghanistan. Their English wasn’t much better than his.

And in March, Wazir and his brother moved to an apartment, just a short drive from Sam’s home. In these respects — a job, a home and safety above all — Wazir feels immensely fortunate. He seems, by nature, almost incapable of complaint.

Sam is grateful, too, but he feels that Wazir and thousands of others are owed more. Much more.

“They’ve earned it more than anyone I can imagine,” Sam said.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

Correction

An earlier version of this article misstated Wazir Gul's birth year, and the number of people who were injured in and survived a Sept. 10, 2011, attack. This version has been corrected as well as updated to clarify Sam Lerman's leave of absence.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.