After weeks of pleading for help, an Afghan interpreter, who helped rescue then-Senator Joe Biden when he was stranded 13 years ago in Afghanistan, has finally escaped Afghanistan. Aman Khalili describes his journey out of the country, and we speak with the reporter who broke the story. “I was in the safehouse for 15 days,” Khalili tells Democracy Now! Khalili is “representative of a group of people that are still appealing for help from America and anyone else that can help them,” says Dion Nissenbaum, with The Wall Street Journal.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
An Afghan interpreter, who helped rescue then-Senator Joe Biden when he was stranded 13 years ago in Afghanistan in 2008, made headlines this week when The Wall Street Journal reported he and his family have finally escaped Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated by the United States and its allies between the Taliban takeover and the end of official evacuation efforts on August 30th. Many were left behind, including those who had worked for the U.S. government and military.
A day after the U.S. evacuations ended, Aman Khalili, who worked as an interpreter with the U.S. Army, made a public plea to Biden in The Wall Street Journal. “Save me and my family,” he said. Just before we went to air today, Khalili described to Democracy Now! his journey out of the country with his family.
AMAN KHALILI: So, this is Aman Khalili. I am talking with you from Doha, Qatar, and we start of our travel from Afghanistan. It took us 144 hours driving nonstop to reach in Islamabad. There was a guy contacted me in the city of Kabul, and he drove me from my house to a safe house. I was in the safe house for 15 days. Then, after 15 days, he called me. “Please be ready. We are going to move you up to north of Afghanistan.” So, when we come back from north by another team to Helmand province, we start our travel from Helmand to the border of Pakistan. We had a point of contact there. We reach into the house. There was a desert. There was no bushes, no human, no animals. It was sad. There was another team. They helped me and my family, and they took us to another one and start our travel to Islamabad. It took 14 hours’ drive by high speed, and there was a lot of checkpoints.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Aman Khalili, speaking from Doha, Qatar, where he and his family are now, after their long trip out of Afghanistan.
For more on how it happened and the latest on others trying to escape, we’re joined by The Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum. He broke the story, “Afghan Interpreter Who Helped Rescue Joe Biden in 2008 Escapes Afghanistan.”
Thanks so much for joining us from Brussels. Can you start off by just laying out the whole journey and what took place and exactly who he was working for at the time?
DION NISSENBAUM: Sure. Aman worked for a contractor that worked — that provided interpreters to the U.S. military. He joined right after the U.S. toppled the government in 2001, worked for the U.S. military in a variety of capacities for many years. And in 2008, he was working with the Arizona National Guard unit that was part of the rescue to save Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, who were on this fact-finding mission. He was left behind, as you know. There were tens of thousands of people like Aman who were trying to get out. This Army National Guard unit contacted me in the waning days of the evacuation and said Aman is being left behind. He was part of this special mission. And he made that emotional appeal to the president, which, in fact, led to officials in the White House and Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, saying “We will get you out. We will honor your commitment.” But, in fact, the U.S. government was fairly limited in its ability to get him out after they withdrew their forces.
And so, the effort to get him out fell to this mishmash of private groups that have been working in the past few weeks to get people like Aman out. And so, everybody from Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the notorious founder of Blackwater, whom you know well, Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator who was flying Christians out and other at-risk people, they both stepped up. They tried to help. Erik Prince offered to carry out a clandestine evacuation to get him out of the country, to fly him out. Glenn Beck worked for a couple of weeks to try and get him on a charter. But the problem was that the Taliban weren’t allowing people out, Afghans out, that didn’t have passports, and most of Aman’s family didn’t have one.
So, eventually, Aman and the Arizona National Guard folks that were helping him turned to an Afghan American interpreter, who also worked in military, who has been quietly getting people out across the border by land through these routes through Helmand. And it was a very risky effort. You know, it took many days. It took weeks for them to work out this effort. And, you know, what it shows is how difficult it is for people like Aman, who have the White House at their back, to get out right now, when the Taliban are posing so many restrictions.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you — you mentioned Blackwater. Can you go back to 2008, when then-Senator Joe Biden was saved, when his helicopter went down in that snowstorm with John Kerry, and who it was who was guarding him? The significance of that moment, right after Nisoor Square, the deadly assault by Blackwater in Iraq — of course, in another country — where they opened fire and gunned down so many people in an intersection in Iraq?
DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah. To me, this is sort of one of the more fascinating elements, is this kind of this quintessential end-of-war story here, because, in 2008, Blackwater held the State Department contract to provide diplomatic security to people like Joe Biden that were visiting the country. So, in 2008, Blackwater was providing personal protection for these three senators as they were on this fact-finding mission and on these two helicopters. And they were flying back to Bagram Air Base from another base in eastern Afghanistan. They hit this snowstorm, white-out conditions. They have to land in this valley. And so you had a Blackwater team that was providing personal protection for the three senators, and then they had the Army that was, obviously, providing protection for the general that was with them and for the transport in Afghanistan. So, Blackwater was providing security. This was just months after Blackwater’s security in Baghdad had killed 17 people in Nisoor Square. And so it was a polarizing event. I just found it fascinating. I don’t even think that the senators at the time knew that Blackwater was providing them security, but there they were.
And Erik Prince was, you know, boasting about saving Joe Biden in his biography and then when the withdrawal was happening. And then he popped up again to try and offer to save them again. At the time, over the last few weeks of the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Erik Prince was offering seats on charter planes for upwards of $6,000 or more and never got very many people out. He got maybe one charter out, if that. But he was one of those people that was making a lot of offers to help people that fell through.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dion, as you mentioned earlier, Aman Khalili had a rather curious and improbable alliance of groups working to get him out of Afghanistan following The Wall Street Journal report: refugee groups, the conservative commentator Glenn Beck, as you mentioned, together with Erik Prince and Blackwater, in general. Could you explain why you think that his case generated such widespread interest among these groups that wouldn’t necessarily be aligned, in particular, refugee groups and other humanitarian organizations that were working also for him to escape, and the fact that there’s such a large number of people — I mean, tens of thousands, as you document in your own coverage — who are waiting to leave Afghanistan, who are also at grave danger and, needless to say, do not have the support of these groups?
DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah, yeah. And I think this story resonated with me, as a journalist, and, I think, with so many people, because the bottom line is that this is an Afghan interpreter who helped save Joe Biden in 2008, who was being left behind by President Joe Biden as he was withdrawing from Afghanistan, and he made a personal plea for help. And I think it was just a personal story about someone that directly helped the president who now needed the president’s help.
And the fact that it took so many groups trying so many different ways, and with the White House directly trying to help, shows the difficulty that these tens of thousands of other people that are still in hiding and still trying to get out face. There are still Americans that are trying to get out. There are still the family members of U.S. servicemembers who are trying to get out. There are still high-profile judges, lawmakers. I get emails every day from people looking for help. And, you know, the ways out are incredibly narrow right now. You need a passport. You need help. And you have just a whole variety of people that are carrying out quietly heroic operations every day, getting people out through Iran, onto Greece, getting people out through Pakistan, trying to organize these charter flights. And, you know, there are just so many people that need help, like Aman. He’s representative of a group of people that still are appealing for help from America and anybody else that can help them.
AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you could comment on The Intercept, which recently published a piece titled “The CIA’s Afghan Proxies, Accused of War Crimes, Will Get a Fresh Start in the U.S.” Andrew Quilty and Matthew Cole write, quote, “The CIA prioritized the evacuation of Zero unit members from Afghanistan, flying out as many as 7,000 of the former commandos and their relatives even as thousands of vulnerable former U.S. government and military employees, human rights activists, and aid workers were left behind. … Most coverage of the CIA’s efforts has been laudatory. But the Zero units were known for deadly night raids that killed an untold number of civilians across Afghanistan. The Intercept documented 10 raids conducted by 01 in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul, in which at least 51 civilians, including children, were killed — many at close range, in execution-style assaults.” Your response, Dion?
DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah, certainly, those CIA units have been very controversial for a long time. The intelligence agencies were running their own efforts during the last weeks of the withdrawal. I didn’t have much visibility on what they were doing, for sure. And the withdrawal was incredibly chaotic. You know, there is so much criticism of the way the U.S. government handled getting people out, and so many people have been left behind that are still deserving of getting out of the country. And I know that people are counting on the White House commitment to help them, beyond what they’re doing right now. The U.S. government is very limited in what it can do. I know that there are a lot of people that would like to see them do more to help those that have been left behind and to continue to honor the commitment of those that are stuck.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dion, before we conclude, I’d like to ask about what the present political and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is. Just last week, on Friday, there was an attack on a Shiite mosque in which several people were killed. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, and the Taliban has blamed the U.S. for the increasing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. If you could comment on that and also on the humanitarian crisis in the country? The U.N. has estimated a million children now are at the risk of starvation.
DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah, it’s a difficult situation right now. I think the world is still trying to figure out when and how to directly interact with the Taliban government. The U.N. continues to provide support. There are so many uncertainties right now. People are watching the Taliban closely for how they are dealing with the economic situation, with treatment of women, with treatment of people that worked for the previous government and worked with the U.S. And these are essentially all unanswered questions. As you all know, the world often turns the page quickly, turns to other crises as they pop up. And Afghanistan is one of these places that pops up for a while and then is forgotten. And people there still need much help.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you can rest assured we won’t forget. Dion Nissenbaum is a Wall Street Journal reporter focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, his Wall Street Journal report headlined “Afghan Interpreter Who Helped Rescue Joe Biden in 2008 Escapes Afghanistan.”
When we come back, we look at probes into Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: The Zohra Orchestra, Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra. Members of the group, along with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, escaped from the Taliban and were taken to Qatar earlier this month.