The fall of the Afghan government in August came with a speed which surprised everyone – but the collapse itself was not unexpected. As swathes of the Afghan army gave up the fight, it was clear that the corruption and abuses that riddled the government were coming home to roost. The powerful connection between corruption and insecurity, which Global Witness campaigned on in Afghanistan for almost a decade, was demonstrated with unmistakable clarity and force.
However, as we watched the international community scrabble to respond, our thoughts were turned to a much more immediate concern: the serious danger faced by our long-standing researcher, ‘Jawed’.*
Jawed has worked alongside me at Global Witness for many years, conducting risky but impactful investigations, particularly looking at corruption in the mining sector, but also uncovering abuses by senior government figures and warlords. A colleague and a friend, he has made a genuinely major contribution to uncovering torture, corruption, and illegal mining.
This is not an easy line of work. He has faced threats, including to his family, over many years, and from all sides. Just weeks before the Taliban marched through the streets of Kabul, he had been seized by a group of fighters and beaten up. He was lucky to escape with his life. We knew he might not be so lucky again.
This article is about Jawed and our efforts to get him out of Afghanistan as some of the world’s biggest military forces sought to evacuate the country after 20 years. It is the story of just one man and his family. We know there are many very similar stories and many other organisations were trying to do the same thing.
We also know that there are thousands of people whose lives were – and remain – under threat, who did not have the infrastructure and network of a global NGO to call upon. And there are others who, even with people right across the world straining every sinew to get them onto lists, visa schemes, or refugee programmes are still living – sometimes in hiding – in Afghanistan.
We began our efforts to get Jawed out by convening our internal Crisis Management Team to explore where we have leverage and contacts to get the information and the right official papers. Board members were roped in to mobilise their relationships; contact books were ransacked for leads.
We were looking at any country that might offer asylum to him and his son, plus support in getting him into Kabul airport. This latter part was key – even more than asylum, just getting out of the country was the first and most urgent task. With the Taliban controlling the borders, the best option was air. That meant getting into the airport.
I’m sure everyone saw the images day after day of desperate crowds gathering outside the gates amid the ever-present threat of terrorist attack, some brandishing official papers, but still being waved away – and in some cases, met with violence from the Taliban and desperate crowd-control measures from the international troops securing the gates.
Jawed – and one of his sons, who was trapped with him in Kabul – made the trip on three separate occasions, each time taking great risks by passing through Taliban checkpoints. Once or twice they got close enough to see the foreign troops, but every time they were unable to approach the actual gate, or unable to get someone to let him in. They were on an evacuation list, so we were confident we could get them on a plane if he could actually make it into the airport. Once there, it would not have mattered if he had waited for days so long as it was in the relative safety afforded by international forces. But for that they had to get through the wire that protected the airfield. That was the difference between life and death.
Over 10 days, we tried reaching out to all and any contacts within governments with programmes to give sanctuary to Afghans at enormous risk. We liaised with the State Department and Senators in the US; with MPs, Special Advisors and Committee Chairs in the UK; with crisis lines in Belgium; with NGO contacts in Germany and Ireland; with Government officials in India; with the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff in Albania; with the Prime Minister’s office in Greece; with diplomats in Spain; with a well-connected contact in Mexico. We asked for help from a swathe of old diplomatic contacts in the Canadian, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, German, French, American, and British embassies and from the US military, many of them people who had left Afghanistan years before. We also applied for visas through more formal channels in the US, UK, Canada and Norway.
From feeling fairly confident that we could swiftly help Jawed and his son, our regular meetings to update each other on the situation became infused with an air of desperation. It felt like doors were shutting right across the world. The quota set for accepting Afghan refugees was met ridiculously quickly in some countries, whilst others had barely got their support systems off the ground. It’s fair to say that the widely seen chaotic scenes outside Kabul airport were mirrored by the chaotic bureaucracies working behind the scenes.
Meanwhile the danger for Jawed was increasing. The Taliban were sending people to places he had a connection to, including one he had been hiding in a day or two earlier. On one occasion, a Taliban fighter suspected him of being hidden down a well at a house he used to visit in the provinces, so he aimed his gun down it and shot. But the programmes which Presidents, Prime Ministers and Special Envoys were claiming were unprecedented, “around-the-clock efforts” to get Afghans in danger from the Taliban out of the country were moving at a snail’s pace. Without official support – perhaps even with it – we could not get him past the wire. And in the background the clock was ticking for the end of the evacuation process.
The breakthrough, when it came, was unexpected. Of all the threads we sent out, one yielded some promise – the Dutch government, together with Oxfam Novib, was organising a flight out and, in light of the imminent threats to Jawed’s life, were willing to add him to their list. The support of the Dutch government was critical, as this could help get people through the airport gates.
Our understanding was Oxfam Novib might actually be able to pick Jawed up in the city and drive him into the airport – some buses were getting through – but at the last minute that was not possible. In the end they could only give him a rough time to arrive, a signal to give to the guards, a code word and a specific colour of clothing he needed to wear. He had to get to the airport himself.
There was a desperate, almost comical moment where Jawed looked for a piece of cloth of the right colour, late at night and with perhaps an hour or two notice before he would have to move. There was a debate about whether he should even go – he had tried before and we could not be sure this attempt would be any different.
But he went, with his son, close to midnight through the deserted streets of Kabul. They somehow found two cars to take them close to the airport, travelling in separate vehicles in case one of them was stopped and detained. Jawed was stopped at a checkpost, but persuaded guards that he was returning to his house near the airport, naming the lane he was heading for.
The pair continued on by foot, and eventually reached their destination – a gate slightly removed from the main entrance where the greatest crush had been. Even so they had to fight desperately through the crowd, at one stage descending into a small river channel full of foul water as the only way to get a closer to the gate. Shouting the code word and showing the cloth, against all the odds they caught the eye of a guard. And, against all the odds, that guard pulled them from the crowd and past the first gate. They were in.
It was deliverance, but only partial. Beyond the gate the guards could not find him on their list, although we had been promised they were on it. They phoned me and amid the sounds of chaos and shouting I tried to reassure them, deploying my limited Dutch for added effect: yes, they were legitimate and yes, they should be let through.
The call cut off after a few seconds – had they been convinced? Somehow what I said must have been enough. They were allowed to pass. But only to another barrier, where there were further checks. Their names were still not on the list, but somehow someone decided they could proceed, perhaps because expelling them at this point would have been dangerous in itself. “I like the look of you, you can go on”, one guard apparently said.
After more stressful minutes of waiting, I got the call we’d been working to get for so long – they were through and waited to board a plane out of their country.
There was more tension as their flight went via Pakistan, a country with close links to the Taliban. Nothing was heard from Jawed for more than 24 hours – more than enough time to start worrying. Jawed’s son finally called – they had arrived in Amsterdam. All was well. They had flown via ‘somewhere in Africa’, which seems implausible, but who knows. What mattered was that they were there.
We are deeply grateful to the Dutch government and Oxfam Novib for their help. They could have stood by, but instead, together, they saved a good man in need. Without their help, without their willingness to step up at a time of crisis, the story might have ended very differently – even with it, success was far from assured.
The day after his arrival I spoke to Jawed, who told me in Persian: Tashakor, tashakor, tashakor – thank you, to the country that had rescued him and all those who had helped him get there.
Too many governments, including the UK, seem more concerned with putting up barriers and accepting the smallest possible number of Afghan refugees than helping those at risk from a failed intervention. “Operation Warm Welcome” hides a wider uncertainty over whether the countries that invested so much in Afghanistan will do enough to help those who put the greatest trust in that vision of a different future for the Afghan people.
The story of one person can rarely shed light on the plight of a whole country, or even part of one. Jawed is safe for now, but there’s no sense of triumph – only relief. For all the claims of a “historical evacuation programme”, global leaders and countries with large and sophisticated militaries and civil services screwed this up.
In a way it was a fitting end to twenty years of intervention fatally undermined by strategic blindness, hubris, and incompetence. The chaos of the evacuation echoed the failure to understand or address the drivers of conflict, to support genuine nation building rather than an expensive façade, or to discipline the self-indulgent short-termism and bureaucratic and political self-interest which did so much to damage the effort. And we are still waiting to see whether the plan to support those who were removed is better thought through, and whether there is a real strategy in place to help people still in the country looking for a way out.
Meanwhile, there are rumours of renewed interest in Afghan mines, and of geopolitical games over their future – as the new Taliban government looks set to be prey to much the same hubris as its predecessor. As the media moves on, we mustn’t let the pressure subside on those who should and could have done better for Afghanistan – and who could still help shape its future.
* 'Jawed' has been used as a synonym for our researcher, and the blog author has been kept anonymous, for security reasons.