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Trying—and Failing—to Save the Family of the Afghan Who Saved Me

In the middle of March, I texted my friend Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist who lives in the Washington area, after I saw a video he had posted on Facebook of his teen-age son running on a treadmill. My text was banal, a quick check-in to see how he and his loved ones were faring amid the isolation of the past year. “How is your family? How are you?” I wrote. “See the pictures of your children on FB. Your son is very tall!!!” Tahir did not reply. At the time, I didn’t worry and assumed that he would get back to me. Our communications were sporadic, but our bond was unusual.

Twelve years ago, Tahir, an Afghan driver named Asad Mangal, and I were kidnapped by the Taliban after one of their commanders invited me to an interview outside Kabul. Our captors moved us from house to house and eventually brought us into the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, where the Taliban enjoyed a safe haven. Our guards told Tahir how eager they were to execute him and the many ways that they would mutilate his body. They treated me far better and demanded that the Times, my employer at the time, pay millions of dollars in ransom and secure the release of prisoners from Guantánamo. We were held all together, in the same room, and Tahir and I spent hours talking, regretting the anguish that we were causing our families.

After more than seven months in captivity, Tahir and I escaped. As our guards slept, Tahir guided us to a nearby military base. (Asad fled on his own, several weeks later.) It was an end to our ordeal that neither of us had dared to believe was possible. I reunited with my wife—we had got married just two months before I was kidnapped—in the United States. Fearing reprisals from the Taliban, Tahir and, later, Asad moved here as well. In the years since, Tahir and I both transformed our lives. I forswore war reporting and became the proud father of two daughters. Tahir’s path was more arduous. Settling in northern Virginia, he worked as an Uber driver, then started delivering packages for Amazon. He lived with other immigrant men in a succession of cramped apartments, sending most of his earnings home to his large family, who remained in Kabul. In 2017, after becoming a U.S. citizen, Tahir brought his five oldest children to the U.S. to live with him.

Tahir Luddin and David Rohde at the office of the New York Times, for which Rohde reported, after escaping the Taliban.Photograph by James Estrin / NYT / Redux

In April, I tried calling Tahir but couldn’t reach him. Concerned, I sent him a series of text messages. Again, no reply. Alarmed, I sent him an e-mail, and he responded right away. “I am in kabul since March the 28th,” he wrote, in the fragmented English that I’d come to know well during our months in captivity. “The taliban are just outside kabul. Thousands of afghans are leaving kabul everyday.” He said he had applied for visas that would enable the rest of his family in Afghanistan to join him in the U.S. I was relieved to hear this. Days earlier, President Biden had announced that all U.S. troops would pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th. For years, Tahir had hoped for a peace deal in Afghanistan. Now he was focussed on safely getting his loved ones out of the country. I assumed that Tahir, as an American citizen, would be able to secure visas for his wife and remaining children, the youngest of whom is four.

Around the same time, another Afghan friend of mine, Waheed Wafa, who spent a decade as a reporter for the Times in Kabul, had come to the same conclusion as Tahir about the prospects for his country. Waheed had made repeated visits to the United States but always returned to Afghanistan, determined to stay in his homeland. In 2019, a gunman had fired on a car that was supposed to be taking Waheed to the airport, wounding the driver. Waheed was not in the vehicle at the time and is not sure whether he was the one being targeted. He helped to rescue the driver and take him to the hospital. In 2020, the Taliban carried out a wave of targeted assassinations that killed more than a hundred Afghan civilian leaders, including doctors, journalists, and human-rights advocates. In a new tactic, the Taliban had begun placing magnetic bombs under the cars of their victims—to terrorize the city. “They are going to the soft targets,” Waheed told me in a phone call.

In May and June, I contacted refugee-aid groups, nonprofit legal organizations, and academic entities to see whether they could help Tahir and Waheed. The replies I received were warm but noncommittal. Becca Heller, the head of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me that she was shocked at the Biden Administration’s lack of advanced planning. Senior White House and State Department officials did not appear to grasp the number of Afghan civilians who, like Tahir and Waheed, had backed the U.S. effort and would be in grave danger if the Taliban regained power. The U.S. had attempted one of the largest efforts to rebuild a nation since the Second World War, funding the creation of schools, health clinics, and independent media outlets across the country. According to the International Rescue Committee, over the past twenty years three hundred thousand Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the American project in the country.

Tahir spent two months in Kabul waiting for his wife and children to receive visa interviews at the U.S. Embassy, and then, in mid-June, returned to the United States. He was frustrated and out of money. In the wake of Biden’s announcement about the American withdrawal, thousands of Afghans had applied for visas, and Tahir’s applications for his wife and children were somewhere in the queue. A COVID outbreak in the U.S. Embassy further slowed the process.

In mid-July, as the pullout of U.S. troops approached, Tahir and Waheed told me that they had both given up on the idea of American visas. They told me that they would welcome visas to Turkey or another third country, where they would be beyond the Taliban’s reach. I reached out to current and former government officials whom I had met during past reporting. They told me that priority was being given to processing the applications of twenty thousand Afghans who had worked as translators and other employees of the U.S. military. Current and former military officials assailed the pace of that effort by the Administration as well. Three months after Biden’s withdrawal announcement, only about seven hundred of the twenty thousand military translators had arrived in the United States. Advocates had pressed for the U.S. to undertake an effort akin to the Ford Administration’s evacuation of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese—by air and by boat to Guam—before the fall of Saigon, in 1975. Biden Administration officials listened politely but seemed to lack urgency. When I asked Administration personnel about the Guam option and Tahir’s case, I got caring replies but the same message: there was nothing that could be done for Tahir’s family in Kabul.

On August 3rd, I decided to go public. During the Aspen Security Forum, which was held virtually this year, I asked Zalmay Khalilzad, the senior U.S. diplomat overseeing peace negotiations with the Taliban, about Tahir’s case. “He is desperately trying to get his wife and children out of Kabul,” I said. “What do I say to this journalist? He saved my life. He’s a U.S. citizen. He has a right to bring his wife and children here.” Khalilzad said that he, as an immigrant himself, understood Tahir’s situation. “With regard to your journalist friend, I would urge him to get in touch,” he said. “We will put him in touch with the right person at the embassy.” The answer raised my hopes. I obtained an e-mail address from the State Department for Khalilzad’s office. Days later, a staffer was in touch with Tahir but had little new information. At this point, his six-year-old’s petition for travel to the U.S. had been cleared, but the petitions for his other young children were still being processed, more than four months after they had been submitted.

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