‘I Know the Government Fell, but I Never Fell’

Women who served in the Afghan military are pleading for help, as Taliban fighters are hunting them down.

An illustration of four women wearing head coverings, etched in black and white pastel strokes.
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

Updated at 2:40 p.m. ET on March 18, 2022.

Perhaps you missed the Taliban’s statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The Islamic Emirate calls for restraint by both parties,” Afghanistan’s new rulers announced on February 25. They emphasized “diplomatic neutrality,” while urging “dialogue” and demanding that “all sides need to desist from taking positions that could intensify violence.” But on the day the war started, with the world distracted by Putin’s invasion, Talib fighters began going house to house in Kabul in pursuit of the regime’s supposed enemies. The targets of these ongoing searches are Afghans who served in the former government or military, especially members of the Hazara and Tajik ethnic minorities. The hunt is spreading around the country, putting the lives of thousands of Afghans in danger.

In the past few days I spoke by phone and text with six young women in Afghanistan, former soldiers or police officers. All of them are running for their lives and hiding, either in Kabul or in their home provinces. Fatima, who is 26, lives with her parents, sister, and grandmother in a mainly Hazara neighborhood in the Afghan capital. (For their safety, I’ve changed most of the women’s names.) On Monday, Talibs searched houses near hers, checking the identity cards of occupants against names in a computer database seized from the old Ministry of Defense. Fatima believed that her house would be next—surely one of her neighbors would have informed on her—and she fled with her documents to a friend’s place. On Tuesday, Talibs entered Fatima’s family’s house without permission. They questioned her parents, who denied that Fatima had been a soldier; apparently the database left some uncertainty about her name. The Talibs riffled through the family’s belongings, handling women’s clothes and other possessions in a way that showed no respect, leaving the house in chaos. They confiscated Fatima’s Afghan flag and threatened to come back.

When the searches began, Noori (she asked me to use her real name), who is 22 and eight months pregnant, fled with her husband from Kabul to Bamiyan, in the center of the country. They’re now trapped as the Taliban set up checkpoints on the main roads and begin door-to-door searches in towns and villages. “I feel as if everything has closed around me,” Noori told me. “I’m terrified to go outside. I don’t know where to turn—it’s a very dark time for us; we can’t turn right or left. I’m overwhelmed with the emotions of the situation and the fear of being caught. We know what they do—if they pick you up it’s not going to be nice.”

Noori sold most of her belongings to pay $700 for a black-market passport; her husband doesn’t have one, and now the office is closed. Overland travel isn’t possible for a woman in her condition. The only way out would be by air, but Talibs are guarding the Kabul airport, refusing departure to most Afghans on the few flights now leaving the country.

A U.S. Army captain I’ll call Alice Spence—the officer I’ve written about before, who helped dozens of Afghan-military women and family members out of Afghanistan last year, and who is still trying to help scores more—is in touch with Noori almost daily. A few weeks ago, Noori asked Spence to give her unborn daughter a name.

“My friend, you give me this great honor and I do not deserve it,” Spence wrote. “To name your child is such an honor for me, but I have not helped you. And if I cannot help you, then every time you would say your child’s name, you would think of that.”

Noori replied: “No, darling, humanity is very important in everything in the world, I see a lot of humanity in you, whether you helped me or not, I will never be upset with you.” Noori said that she would name the girl after her American friend.

In a photo, Noori cuddles with her husband, their heads together, her black hair tangled up in his. They look ineffably young and beautiful and free. I asked her if it would be possible to get to a hospital in Bamiyan when the baby is due. “At this point, my child will probably end up dead,” Noori said. “Before I can get to the hospital, I’ll give birth. I’m terrified that I’ll lose the baby in giving birth by myself.” Only the thought of her little girl keeps Noori from wanting to kill herself. Sometimes even that isn’t enough. “This problem may be solved by a doctor,” she told me, “but it is difficult for me to live here.”

While Noori hides and waits, Spence tries to encourage her. “Remember, even if you do not wear uniform, you are still a soldier,” Spence wrote on Thursday morning.

“Yes, I always feel like a soldier,” Noori wrote back. “I know the government fell, but I never fell and I do not.”

The Taliban searches are conducted with absolute power and casual brutality. Najibeh, who has two sons, 9 and 3, was hiding in a rented house when we spoke, while Talibs slept in a nearby mosque as they prepared to search the neighborhood. She described how they beat people with rifles and sticks, destroy any passports they find—part of the purpose is to keep unreliable Afghans from leaving the country—and loot money, gold, and jewelry. Noori sent me pictures of the bodies of several military women, murdered a few days ago and left on piles of rubble or trash in alleyways. One of them had been tied with rope by the wrists and legs.

Another former soldier named Mahdieh, who is 22, fled her home to hide with relatives. When the Talibs came to her family’s house, they took away her 10-year-old brother. That was a week ago, and he still hasn’t been returned. “My brother is a detainee because of me,” Mahdieh told me, her voice breaking. “Is there any way you can help to get him out safe? Or if he’s at risk and they keep him longer, help me to get out of this situation so I can help him?” She can’t go back home, but her relatives want her to leave because her presence endangers them. Like the other women, Mahdieh can’t work, has little money, and is running out of food. “I’m hoping you can raise my voice to some higher ranks in the United States,” she told me, “and let them hear my voice and help me in this bad situation I’m in right now.”

But the higher ranks in the United States aren’t listening. They’ve shut the exits to Mahdieh, the other women, and Afghans in their position. According to a senior Senate staffer (who asked for anonymity to retain his access to the administration), a deputies committee of President Joe Biden’s National Security Council decided several months ago to end all efforts to help evacuate Afghans like them. The U.S. government now assists with the departure and resettlement only of American citizens, green-card holders, and Afghans who have nearly completed the process of receiving a Special Immigrant Visa, restricted to those who worked directly for the U.S. government or its contractors. (An advocate working on private evacuation efforts confirmed hearing of this decision from a White House source. The National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) “The last call I was on with the State Department,” the Senate staffer told me, “they estimated there were 100,000 people in Afghanistan that would qualify for immigration to the U.S.—either SIVs and their families, or those with family members in the U.S.” Afghans are “caught in this insane infinity loop,” the staffer added. “In order to get out, you have to fall into one of these following criteria. But the determination of your eligibility will take years.”

I asked whether the administration could negotiate a more generous evacuation policy with the Taliban in exchange for loosening the sanctions that have contributed to Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis. The staffer made it clear that the main obstacle doesn’t lie with the Taliban. “Even if they lifted some sanctions, or provided access to the central bank, which is what the Taliban desperately, desperately want right now—even if they did any of that, and the Taliban said, ‘Fine, get out of here, go ahead, if you want to leave you may leave’—it doesn’t help, because the U.S. government won’t decide on your eligibility to come to our country for years and years and years.” Meanwhile, Afghan-military women like Noori, Mahdieh, Fatima, and Najibeh, along with the many others who put themselves in danger during the American war, and who at this moment are being hunted down, arrested, and in some cases killed, have no chance. “That’s a policy decision that the administration has made,” the Senate staffer told me. “There’s nothing in law that prevents them or restricts them from continuing Humanitarian Parole”—the program that granted temporary U.S. visas to Afghans during the evacuation last August. That path of escape from Afghanistan has closed.

The U.S. gave Temporary Protected Status to 75,000 Ukrainians, the staffer told me. The Ukrainians will be allowed to stay, perhaps applying for asylum, rather than forced to return to a war zone. “I’m glad we did that. But the only difference is their religion and the color of their skin. The fact that we won’t do it for Afghans is a complete moral failure by our country.”

Most of the women I interviewed this week tried to flee the country when Kabul fell last August, but they were unable to reach an airport gate through the chaotic throngs and savage Taliban attacks. It wasn’t completely clear at the time, but the August evacuation would be nearly the last chance to leave.

As the women told me of their terror and despair, I kept thinking of an Afghan woman who did get out. Some of the ones I spoke with knew her, had served in the army with her.

On August 15, Lieutenant Shakila Nazari, wearing civilian clothes, was working at her desk in the legal office of the Defense Ministry when a male colleague walked in. “Why haven’t you left?” he demanded. “Get up; Kabul has fallen. You’re the only girl here. You have to go home.”

In utter shock, Nazari called around to female colleagues. All of them had abandoned their posts. “Why didn’t anyone tell me to get out?” Nazari shouted at a friend. “How could you leave without me?”

She ran downstairs, passing men who were frantically changing out of their uniforms. On the first floor the ministry guards had locked the doors and were blocking officers in civilian clothes from leaving.

“Did Kabul really fall?” Nazari asked a lawyer she knew. “How is it our entire Kabul has fallen and I haven’t heard a single gunshot?”

“We don’t know if it’s even real,” he said. “Maybe it’s a fake thing.”

The men in civilian clothes asked the guards to let Nazari go. The guards, who were under orders to defend the ministry, began to shout, “What happens to us? Don’t we have a right to go? We have to fight and die while you officers do nothing?”

“Nobody’s fighting,” Nazari told them. “I don’t have a weapon.”

One of the guards was crying. “How is it only our responsibility to fight and defend Kabul?”

“I have no weapon to fight along with you,” Nazari, also in tears, pleaded. “I’m the only woman left. If they find me they’ll kill me.”

“They’ll tear her to pieces,” the lawyer told the guard.

Nazari alone was allowed to leave. On the street she saw the wife of one of the men barricaded inside. “I need to get to my husband,” the woman cried.

“They’re not going to let him go,” Nazari told her. “Get home as fast as you can.”

On the street she looked for a taxi to take her home, but there were none. Everywhere people were running, aimlessly, with stunned faces, as if they understood nothing except that they were in danger. Many of those running wore uniforms or office clothes, Western-dressed people, women in skirts. Nazari’s own skirt was too short and she had no hijab, and as she ran she heard men in traditional clothes cheering and yelling: “Thank God the Taliban are here! Now you have some fear in you. Look at your tight clothes; look how indecent you are. Thank God the Taliban are here to put a stop to it.”

At every corner, Nazari imagined a Talib suddenly standing in her way like an evil apparition. After half an hour of running, she flagged down a driver and begged him to take her home, but on the way there he made her get out; her neighborhood, a Hazara area in western Kabul, was already in Taliban hands. Roads were closed; there were hardly any cars; shopkeepers had fled with their stores wide open. It took Nazari four hours to reach the house. She’d gone without food all day and her parents and siblings urged her to eat and drink, but she had no appetite. All she could do was cry. She stayed awake through the night, wondering what would happen to her and everyone she knew. Her heart couldn’t accept that this was the end. She covered herself in a full chador and stepped out into the street to see if it was real. Men on motorcycles drove past, brandishing guns. It was real. Everything was finished.

Nazari changed locations every night. Her three efforts to get into the airport on her own ended in failure and pain. “Where’s your male escort; where’s your husband?” the Talibs demanded, pointing guns and clubbing her on the legs and back. One of them noticed the shape of her eyes and said that they would need Hazara girls like her in the Islamic Emirate. Eventually, Nazari came to the attention of Captain Spence and her colleagues in the U.S., who tried to fly Nazari and two dozen other Afghans from the city into the airport on a U.S.-military helicopter. The operation failed on two successive nights.

Finally, on the night of August 25, Nazari and the others were driven to the airport in a convoy of three pickup trucks, escorted by Afghan commandos. Around midnight they arrived at a little-known gate on the northern perimeter called Black Gate. Nazari looked for the American soldier who would be waving a can of Monster energy drink. She spotted him on the far side of Afghan guards, who fired warning shots at her group—Pashtun men trying to drive Hazara women away. Nazari screamed at them to let her pass. She had on a much longer dress than usual to avoid trouble with Talibs, and as she rushed forward it caught on barbed wire, and she tripped and fell on her face. She imagined someone taking her picture as she lay on the ground. She imagined being unable to escape and the picture being seen everywhere, marking her for death. She tried to stand but her body was immobile with shock. The American picked her up and set her on her feet.

A woman, not of Nazari’s group, tried to come in with them. “Does this person belong to your group?” the American asked her.

Nazari didn’t want to lie and put everyone in jeopardy. “I don’t know her,” she said, “but I’m sure—”

At once the Afghan guards set on the woman and beat her mercilessly. Nazari begged them to let her inside, but they jeered, “Hey, Hazara girl, why are you pushing everyone through?” They flung the woman back out into the mob of human beings. Nazari could not stop thinking about the woman. She wept all the way to Qatar.

Nazari now lives in Kansas. She’s still haunted by the memory of her split-second decision. It’s almost certain that the other woman remains in Afghanistan. The difference between them is as slight and immense as the difference between life and death, a truth and a lie. There’s no comfort in the randomness of our fates. Nothing can explain why Nazari should be safe while Noori, Mahdieh, Fatima, and Najibeh should be running for their lives, why America should welcome one and refuse the others.

As I exchanged texts with the Afghan women, I kept one eye on Ukraine. The Afghans we’ve forgotten fought for and still want what the Ukrainians we now admire fight for and want—hope, freedom, a decent life. Their yearning is unbearable. We are always about to betray the people we try to save.

This article originally misidentified the program under which Ukrainians are eligible to remain in the United States. It has also been updated to clarify the eligibility guidelines for Special Immigrant Visas.