When Fazal Safi, his wife and five children arrived at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 18, fleeing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, hundreds of people preceded them and guards fired in the air with them. AK-47 semi-automatic rifles. to break the crowd.
“It was a very, very bad situation,” Safi said on Tuesday. “I can’t explain how bad it was.”
After being beaten twice on the back with batons by Afghan private security guards, Safi withdrew and called his brother who arranged for an Afghan interpreter working with US soldiers to provide Safi and his family an armed escort to the door. Several hours later, Safi presented the soldiers with his passport and special immigrant visa – a document given to Afghans who assisted the US military during the 20 Years War – and the family was evacuated.
On August 24, after stopovers in Qatar and at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where they slept in the rain, the family landed at Dulles International Airport. A few hours later, Safi reunites with her friend Paul Negley Jr.
Negley, a former resident of Winchester, had worked with Safi for years to get the family out of Afghanistan.
âIt was a very tearful exchange between us,â Negley said. “We haven’t seen each other for a long time. It has been such a traumatic journey.”
Negley said Safi’s composure under pressure at Kabul airport is typical of Safi.
“He’s a big guy with a very generous and sweet personality,” said Negley, who met Safi in 2009 when they worked together in Afghanistan for the US Agency for International Development. “He’s very calming when you talk to him. He has a very deep voice. I jokingly called him Fazal the bear.”
The two worked together in Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan, about 135 miles east of Kabul. Negley, 40, a 1998 Handley High School graduate who now lives in Sterling, was USAID’s Field Program Manager from 2009-2011 in Afghanistan. He then spent about a year there as a private contractor, advising General David H. Petraeus and General John R. Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Negley is now the Peace Corps Executive Director for Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean. While with USAID, Negley was integrated into a US Army battalion known as Task Force Lethal in the Pech River Valley in Kunar Province. The battalion, which was responsible for approximately 386 square miles of territory, was frequently in combat after arriving.
Between June 2009 – when the battalion was deployed to Kunar – and March 2010, the military said eight Americans, as well as several Afghan police, soldiers and private contractors, were killed.
To reduce fighting and civilian casualties, USAID worked with Afghan villagers as part of the army’s counterinsurgency initiative. The carrot and stick strategy combines combat with diplomacy, service delivery to local civilians, intelligence gathering and local self-determination.
Negley and Safi were part of a provincial reconstruction team that worked with local leaders on development projects such as improving roads and providing clean water. He said his job was also to respond to residents’ grievances and needs and “win hearts and minds.”
This strategy of “hearts and minds” failed during the Vietnam War and Negley said it failed in Afghanistan because of corruption among the Afghan military, regional politicians and some local leaders. He said the Taliban also extorted villagers and contractors by threatening to destroy projects if they were not paid, a tactic known as “threat financing.”
The United States spent about $ 2.26 trillion in Afghanistan, according to the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University. This included $ 144 billion for Afghan reconstruction and $ 88 billion for building the Afghan army. But by the time US forces withdrew last month, up to 72% of Afghans were living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Last year, then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said 90% of Afghans lived on less than $ 2 a day.
âThe level of assistance that was going into Afghanistan created a network of bad actors,â Negley said. âThe wrong people were getting help.
Nonetheless, Negley and Safi tried to make sure that needy Afghans got help. Negotiating with the village elders about the projects was often like a game of high stakes poker.
Safi, who translated for Negley, helped him read the play and look for clues in the behavior of the Afghans. The person who introduced himself as the leader of the group might actually glance at another person in the room who actually took the lead. Long silences in conversations can be awkward, but sometimes it was better for Negley to remain silent after making an offer rather than keep talking and making promises. Negley said he knew he could trust Safi to guide him.
âHe cared deeply about my reputation in the community,â Negley said. âHe made sure that I did not communicate inappropriately with the Afghans.
Negley also recalled Safi’s selfless nature. He cited the 2010 kidnapping and murder by the Taliban of Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province. Norgrove had been employed by a USAID contractor. When Safi called Negley about the kidnapping, Negley could hear explosions and gunshots in the background. But Safi was more concerned with the worker than being rescued.
âHis first thoughts were for a colleague and not for his own safety,â Negley said. “It’s a real testament to his character.”
Although it helped feed her family, Safi’s job was dangerous. Afghans working with the Americans were often seen as collaborators by their fellow Afghans who supported the Taliban or the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), a radical paramilitary group formed by exiled Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatayer, who denies reports that he and HIG men threw acid in the faces of unveiled women, was funded by the CIA when he fought the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Negley said that HIG or the Taliban were behind the firing of a rocket-propelled grenade at Safi’s home around 2012. Safi said he was also verbally threatened because of his job.
While Safi was threatened, Negley was exhausted from his job and the war. By the time he left Afghanistan, he was disillusioned.
âI saw that we were building a corrupt government that was not supported by the Afghan people,â he said. “We were fighting radical groups that the Afghans did not seem willing to fight against. To me, this is an indicator that we are not fighting on behalf of the people if they do not want to fight for themselves.”
In addition to high-level corruption and the incompetence of the Afghan government, Safi said support for the Taliban by Pakistan – where Osama bin Laden lived when he was killed by the Navy Seals in 2011 – led to the defeat of the United States. Since 2009, the United States has spent about $ 5 billion on civilian aid and $ 1 billion on emergency humanitarian aid in Pakistan, according to the State Department. About $ 82 million in military aid is part of the latest US budget in Pakistan, which has around 160 nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association.
Despite being an ally of the United States, Safi noted that it is common knowledge that Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani CIA, funded and provided safe havens for the Taliban. âPeople in Afghanistan think the United States could have done a lot better if they had pressured Pakistan,â Safi said.
As he disconnected from Afghanistan due to his frustrations with the way the war was being fought, Negley wrote letters to the State Department to advocate for SIVs for the Safi family. He has started a gofundme page to raise funds for the family who are hoping to relocate from Fort soon. Lee’s treatment center in a Maryland home. Negley, who fondly remembers growing up in Winchester, said he hopes residents will donate to the Safi family and the city will consider hosting the family or other Afghan refugees.
âIt would be amazing,â he said. “I would like Fazal and his family to see America as friendly and welcoming.”
Safi, 46, a Pashtun – the majority tribe in Afghanistan – speaks some Afghan dialects. He said he hopes to eventually get a job in international development.
Safi and his family were among some 123,000 people rescued in the unprecedented airlift between July and August 31, according to the US military. About 79,000, including 6,000 Americans, went out between August 14 and Tuesday. This works out to about 4,400 per day.
In contrast, the United States spent only two days evacuating people during the fall of Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Only 7,000 people were there. been evacuated.
President Joe Biden has been criticized for failing to evacuate more people and for the chaotic conditions that led to the August 26 suicide bombing that killed up to 170 people, including 13 U.S. servicemen, outside a doorstep. airport.
Safi disagrees with the critics. He said he and other refugees were grateful to the US military and mourned the 11 Marines, Marine, and Army soldier killed. He said they were also grateful to Biden, who, as vice president in 2009, unsuccessfully tried to convince President Obama to defuse the war. Safi said Biden made the most of a bad situation and kept his promise to evacuate as many Afghan allies as possible in a short period of time.
âI thought we might be left behind,â Safi said. “I also want to thank the people of the United States. The way they have treated us so far is extremely, extremely beautiful.”