Book excerpt: “The Fifth Act,” on one American’s role in Afghanistan
exist “Act 5: The End of America in Afghanistan” (Penguin Press, Aug. 9) Elliott Ackerman, who made four combat trips to Afghanistan with the Marines and the CIA, writes about how his mission continued , in a quest to save an Afghan and his family from the fall of the country to the Taliban.
Read the excerpt below, then Don’t miss David Martin’s interview with Elliott Ackerman “CBS Sunday Morning” August 7th!
US Naval Academy
Twenty years have passed since 9/11 to today. As planned, Josh flew up with his 6-year-old son, Weston, and we got up early to take our kids to a Navy vs. Air Force football game. Josh had arrived the night before from Wilmington (not far from Camp LeJune), where he had settled after retiring from the Marine Corps. If it weren’t for his leg injury, I always thought Josh would have stayed around the Legion and tended to the organization; he would have been a good general. Instead, he turned himself into a successful businessman. He used to joke with me that he did every typical thing an American could do: he went to war; he started a family; he built and publicized a business. He told me about it with a smile, but also admitted he wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.
The night he came, after we put the kids to bed, he and I stayed up all night talking about the same things over drinks. Specifically, we were discussing the future of Afghanistan, but there was a subtext to that conversation; now that our war is finally over, it’s all about what happens next for each of us. This summer, about a week before Kabul fell, Josh sent me a video. It was a battalion of Afghan commandos preparing for their final attack when a desperate helicopter hit Lashkar Gah, the then besieged capital of Helmand province. The video was shot in a dark midnight tone. Heavily armed commandos lined up on the tarmac to wait for their helicopters. In Dari, they shouted, “God is great!” followed by “Long live Afghanistan!” Josh hadn’t been to Afghanistan in several years, but he admitted seeing the video made him want to come back. He thought he should have loaded onto those helicopters. Watching that video made me want to come back too. Or, to put it another way, it reminds me that no matter how far my life has progressed outside of war—family, work, friendship—war always takes hold of me and calls me back.Josh got a little nasty with the video I sent him when we were sitting at my dinner table, this is my favorite scene princess bride. The story takes place at the end of the movie, Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya kills the six-fingered man to avenge his father’s hatred. He turned to his good friend Westley, the stable boy turned pirate, and said thoughtfully, “You know, it’s weird. I’ve been in the business of revenge for so long, and now it’s over, I don’t know what to do For the rest of my life.” Westley replied, “Have you ever considered piracy? You’d make a great Dread Pirate Roberts.” Josh is a 2001 graduate of the Naval Academy. He has been in the business of revenge for a long time.
After the bombing of Abbey Gate, our ability to get Afghans into the airport ground to a halt; however, the number of Afghans trying to leave seems to only increase. Clearly, the departure window has shrunk to a point, and those Afghans who would have waited for airport conditions to improve now seem willing to take risks they wouldn’t have considered a week ago. Josh was curious how the last days of the evacuation went, in my opinion. I explained that most of my efforts are now focused on helping the families Admiral Mullen is trying to get out of. There were nine of them, including four children. The patriarch of this family, whom I call Aziz, worked at the American embassy. His brother, who had worked as a driver for a senior government minister, had been assassinated by the Taliban, while the minister himself had slipped away and boarded a plane leaving Hong Kong International Airport early in the evacuation.
Aziz mainly sends me voice notes. I played some of these for Josh, starting with the one Aziz recorded on Abbey Gate night. He was nearby when the bomb went off, like many others trying to get into the airport. “Hello sir, I hope you are doing well,” Aziz began, trembling in his voice. “We just moved back and are trying to go somewhere else. We don’t want to be caught by the Taliban because they’re looking everywhere, place by place, home by home, street by street. We don’t want to be recognized by them. I Too close to the explosion, blood all over the clothes. The whole family is terrified. Sir, I’m waiting for your next call. If you can, sir, it’s so good, um, uh…” A Ziz stumbled over his words before regaining enough composure to say, “I can’t tell right now. I could be near or near the airport. If only I could come and pick us up. The whole family isn’t doing well right now. , I am so scared, the children are so scared, and everyone is not well.”
I play another message from Aziz from Josh, which was a few days ago. After the last American flight left Kabul airport, Aziz squeezed into a taxi with all nine of his family members and headed north to Mazar-e Sharif, where his family and others hid in a safe house , waiting for a flight that may or may not. The safe house is not a real house, but a wedding hall rented out at high prices by private donors who paid for the evacuation. He has been there for about a week. There is about a week of funds left to cover the cost of the safe house. The Taliban had visited his home in Kabul. Once the funds run out, he will have nowhere to go if he hadn’t been on a plane yet. Aziz’s message was accompanied by a video of him filming the filth of the wedding hall, with children wandering aimlessly, family sleeping under the stairs, others sleeping in the open hall, on the dirty carpet, Empty bottles of water and some other stuff are littered with rubbish. “Please, sir, please,” he said, “I want you to help me, my family, my children. This is not a safe place. I’m going to turn off my phone and put it somewhere A place. I’m totally lost. I don’t know what to do.”
Josh asked me if I thought Aziz would go out. I describe some recent complications. Afghanistan’s largest private airline, Kam Air, is the only airline allowed by the Taliban to fly. A few nights ago, Aziz’s flight had been released. But in a corrupt scheme, Kam Air pilots offered their seats to the highest bidder, effectively doubling down on selling the flight for a multi-million dollar profit. This caused delays. Then, once the issue was resolved, the flight was released again, but at the last minute, the local Taliban commander blocked it from taking off because he had not received payment. The day after that, Qatar’s landing clearance in Doha went awry. For now, the U.S. State Department has suspended the flight, requiring every Afghan on board to have a passport, including children over one year old. Aziz’s children do not have passports. After enumerating the difficulties, Josh asked how often I received such information from Aziz.
I tell him every day.
From “Act 5: The End of America in Afghanistan,” by Elliot Ackerman, published by Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 Elliott Ackerman.
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