The call came long after dark. At 11pm on Thursday night, Shaqaiq Birashk received a message telling her to be ready. Twenty minutes later an Afghan driver arrived at her home in downtown Kabul and she climbed into the vehicle. The undercover rescue mission had started.
Ever since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the 37-year-old US citizen, a former Afghan refugee who was an adviser on a US-funded Afghan government project, had been trying to find a way out of the country.
She watched with panic as the Taliban walked into the presidential palace on Sunday August 15 and the following day as the huge national flag that usually flew over a hilltop was taken down.
“That was the moment that actually confirmed everything,” she said, recalling how she collapsed into tears. “My heart was in my throat. The effort of the last 20 years all gone — the lives lost, on all sides, the sacrifices of the mothers and the wives on all sides, and the dreams . . . just being flushed.”
The Taliban’s victory came after the Biden administration followed through on a 2020 deal that then-president Donald Trump struck with the Taliban to withdraw all US troops in Afghanistan and bring an to end America’s longest-running war. The US had first deposed the Taliban in 2001. Now the Islamist group was back in power.
Their victory sparked chaos at Kabul’s airport as people tried to leave. They included Americans and those from allied countries as well as Afghans who had worked with them and feared retaliation.
With the Taliban controlling key routes to the US-controlled Hamid Karzai International Airport, Birashk watched in horror as a huge scrum unfolded outside. A group of her friends made it to the airport, only to turn back after being robbed.
On Tuesday, Birashk received an email from the US embassy telling her to head towards the airport. But the chaotic scenes made her change her mind. By Thursday morning, she had received three evacuation emails from the US government. But going to the airport was “equivalent to going through the death valley”, she wrote in a message to the Financial Times.
“I wanted to leave with respect,” she would later say in a message to friends and family. Determined to avoid death by stampede, she began to mentally prepare herself for life under Taliban rule.
But by Thursday, one of her Afghan friends who had links to the US was trying to get her and others out. She received a text message and then a call from a man who said he was a friend of her friend, and a representative of the US government.
But she wavered, upset at the thought of others being left behind, and declined the offer of help. The friend rang back and insisted there wasn’t time to wait: the security situation was changing rapidly and she had to go.
That Thursday night, she climbed into the car. An international Afghan couple, each carrying a European passport and visa, was already waiting inside the vehicle. The two women had dusted off their flowing abayas to ensure they were dressed in keeping with Taliban mores.
They passed a few Taliban checkpoints on their way to an undisclosed location. Birashk noticed how young some of the Talibs were, some in their teens, too young even to have grown beards yet. Not all of them looked Afghan to her. Eventually, they arrived at the location. Birashk was greeted by Afghan security forces, who handed her over to US special operators.
There she met the US commander who had called her. The special operators were “super helpful and kind”, she recalled.
On Friday, president Joe Biden acknowledged rescue operations in public remarks just moments after aides said he was briefed on them. The US had airlifted 169 US citizens from the Baron hotel to the airport. The commander had “made a call on the spot” in that instance, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby later told reporters.
On Monday, Kirby said the US had made “at least one” additional airlift since then and was “going out as needed and helping Americans get into the [air]field”.
He said commanders on the ground had the authority to conduct local missions on a case-by-case basis. Biden said on Tuesday that the US had evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 70,700 people since August 14.
“The military is really trying to come up with creative ways to cover the mess of the administration’s departure,” Birashk said.
Birashk lined up and got into one of three Chinook helicopters. She sat on the floor, tightly packed beside medical equipment. Flying close together, the choppers took the short ride to Kabul’s airport.
A second US citizen, who took the same helicopter flight as Birashk after his two earlier attempts to reach the airport failed, corroborated her account of the ride. The FT delayed publication of this article at the request of the Biden administration.
“It was a very difficult ride. I didn’t know if that was going to be my last observation of the country,” Birashk said tearfully. “After 20 years of Afghans being told to dream, taught how to dream, the promises that they’ll never be left behind — all of those broken.”
Birashk and the others were checked in by the US military and handed over to the Hungarian military to be taken to Uzbekistan, where officials looked after the shaken group. There, she ran into a fellow Afghan-American and her two-year-old who had been evacuated, their faces both bruised from stampedes at the airport.
From there, Birashk flew to Budapest, where state department officials looked after her and the others, and she was due to fly on to the US on Wednesday.
Birashk, who is deeply appreciative of her US rescuers, called Biden’s withdrawal “irresponsible and inhumane”.
She added: “I have vowed that I’ll never be voting for this administration . . . again.”