It’s been a year since the chaotic end of the US war in Afghanistan, and in hindsight Elliot Ackerman doesn’t look any better: “This was a collapse of American morale and how we treat our allies,” he said. “It was a collapse of American competence, our ability to carry out this mission.”
For Ackerman, who served four combat missions in Afghanistan (with both the Marines and the CIA), the collapse was also personal. ‘Suddenly I’m at war again. I thought I had left the war.’
He had been away from the war for ten years and made a living as a writer. Now he has written a book on America’s longest war called “The Fifth Act” (published by Penguin Press on August 9).
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked, “Five acts. Shakespeare’s tragedies?”
“You have Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden, and the fifth act, the denouement, is the Taliban,” Ackerman said.
The Taliban had survived the largest superpower in the world and wanted to take revenge on the Afghans who had sided with the Americans. A war that started before the iPhone imploded in an endless stream of viral videos. “Through your phone you could hear the collective voices of all these Afghans who had believed what we told them and cried for help,” Ackerman said.
So he became part of a digital network of veterans working to get Afghans out. “I was involved in efforts that, you know, probably brought in over 200 people.”
US forces had taken control of the airport in Kabul, and Afghans swarmed the gates, looking for some way to get past the guards and onto a plane.
“It would be like going to a Rolling Stones concert and walking in the back and having the band call you up on stage,” Ackerman said. “You had to know someone in the band.”
Or someone from the Marines guarding the gates. Ackerman’s network texted them pictures with arrows showing where to look for specific Afghans with handmade signs. Most of them were strangers. They were all desperate.
Like the man Ackerman calls “Aziz.” He had once worked for the US government and now sent haunted voice messages about his fear of the Taliban:
“Blessed sir … please do something for us. Please save my children. … We don’t want to get caught by the Taliban because they search everywhere, this place by place, house by house, street by street, looking for U.S.
“The whole family is in a very bad condition. They are so scared. Children are so scared.’
Ackerman said, “How do you ignore something like that?”
Martin asked, “What did you think the odds were?”
“Low, that we could help him. And then the bomb happened at Abbey Gate, and it stopped everything.’
A suicide bomber slipped into the crowd and.
Four days later, the last American soldier flew out of Afghanistan. Ackerman couldn’t do much more than tell Aziz he was sorry.
“He sent me this text message: ‘You did your best and more. Then you are the superhero of our family. I think we are lucky to die at the hands of the Taliban.'”
Then Ackerman learned of a flight departing from Mazar-i-Sharif. “It’s halfway across the country to the north, in the mountains, you know, a long drive.”
He texted Aziz:
“Please go as fast as you can.”
‘You have to hurry. All flights depart today. Hurry.’
Aziz sent videos of the drive north. He reached Mazar-i-Sharif on time. “But then,” Ackerman said, “the flight doesn’t go that day, and it doesn’t go the next day, and days and weeks go by, and he’s in a hiding place that’s really just a wedding hall. … He remains in this limbo for about a month. And then one night I knew he had manifested for a flight, and I went to bed” – and woke up in the morning to a video sent to him by Aziz, who had made it from Afghanistan with his family and came in a refugee center in Qatar – finally safe from the Taliban.
“Hello sir, how are you?” said Aziz. “I have no idea how to give thanks. But I’m grateful to everyone, every person in America, because we’ve never dreamed of such a thing. But their love, their grace. Thank you, thank you for everything.”
Ackerman said, “I was amazed that after going through the ordeal he’d been through and seeing how disastrous it all ended, his impulse was to thank us. And he says, ‘I thank every American.’ “
Aziz now lives in California with his wife and children. “Sunday Morning” doesn’t use his real name and he didn’t want to be interviewed on camera because he still has relatives in Afghanistan.
Ackerman said, “Just because we as Americans have decided to turn the page doesn’t mean the page will be turned for all the people who are still in Afghanistan, or all the Afghans who have come to America whose families are still there.”
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Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Mike Levine.