‘I Was Totally Dying’: Afghan Interpreter Recalls Chaotic US Withdrawal

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Monday, Aug. 15, marked one year since the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan after 20 years of war and bloodshed. The New York Times reported that upward of 300,000 Afghans helped U.S. efforts in Afghanistan over those years.

On this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast,” Aziz, an Afghan interpreter whose full name is being withheld by The Daily Signal, shares his story of escaping the Taliban and the fallout after the botched U.S. withdrawal.

“To be honest with you, it was a really dark day and very bad time,” Aziz recalls of the days leading up to the fall of the capital city of Kabul. “There was fear. There was disappointments as the provinces were collapsing and the Taliban were reaching to the capital. I was totally dying, like a battery will lose its charge. I was seeing my body from inside; it was dying.”

Aziz served as interpreter for Chad Robichaux during his eight deployments from 2003 to 2007 as a staff sergeant in the Marines’ Force Reconnaissance special operations unit or as a Defense Department contractor. The Aghan fought side-by-side with the Americans.

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Robichaux, author of the forthcoming book “Saving Aziz: How the Mission to Help One Became a Calling to Rescue Thousands From the Taliban,” also joins the podcast to describe helping to evacuate Aziz, his family, and thousands of others as chaos unfolded in Afghanistan.

Aziz says that he didn’t expect his country to fall so quickly to the Taliban.

“We were thinking it will probably at least take them a few years before the regime collapsed,” Aziz says. “We were not expecting it, that the regime will collapse all of a sudden within the matters of hours. Like within 24 hours, the whole system collapsed. That was totally unpredictable,”

Now residents of The Woodlands, Texas, Aziz, 39, and Robichaux, 46, share their journey out of Afghanistan, their message to the Biden administration, and what the future holds for the terrorist-run country.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Samantha Renck: Joining the show today is Chad Robichaux, a former Marine with Force Reconnaissance, and his interpreter, Aziz.

Monday marked the one-year anniversary since the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, effectively taking over the country. Chad and Aziz, thank you both so much for joining the show today.

Chad Robichaux: Absolutely. Samantha, thanks for having us on.

Renck: Of course. Now I want to flashback to August of 2021, when the Taliban was making its way to Kabul. Aziz, I want to start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about the days leading up to the Taliban takeover and how your family was handling the situation?

Aziz: Thank you very much for the time. To be honest with you, it was a really dark day and very bad time. There was fear. There was disappointments as the provinces were collapsing and the Taliban were reaching to the capital. I was totally dying, like a battery will lose its charge. I was seeing my body from inside; it was dying.

And then on the other hand, I had my brothers, Chad, and some other guys, they were texting me and they were giving me the hope that they are finally coming to save me. I don’t have to be worried. And they knew it in what situation I was. And especially when I was watching the news that they were killing all those people, the Afghan National Army, the police, the … guys, interpreters or anybody who was involved either with the ex-government of Afghanistan or worked under the United States, [whether] contractors or directly for the military or government.

So we were actually, the family was under fear. I myself was under fear and my daughters were crying as they were seeing it. They were coming and finally there was totally disappointments.

Renck: Now, did you anticipate that the fall would happen? And what was mentally going through your minds, your family’s minds, in the weeks leading up to it?

Aziz: In the weeks leading up to it, we didn’t anticipate that it will happen just as [it] happened. We were thinking maybe because of that strong army we had over there, the strong Zero units that were trained by CIA, the ammunition and guns that they had. We were thinking it will probably at least take them a few years before the regime collapsed. We were not expecting it, that the regime will collapse all of a sudden within the matters of hours. Like within 24 hours, the whole system collapsed. That was totally unpredictable.

But still there was the fear of like when the government, the United States government, turned their back to all the interpreters and all those people that … worked for them either directly or indirectly. There was totally fear of being killed in front of your family, being tortured, which was really a risky situation for me.

Renck: Yeah, absolutely. I have a text message actually pulled up from Chad on my phone right now. It was dated Aug. 20, 2021, telling me that he had successfully evacuated you and your family. Chad, I want to dive a little bit more into the evacuation itself in just a moment. But Aziz, can you tell us what life has been like for you and your family since leaving Afghanistan last year?

Aziz: To be honest with you, we have been through many changes since last year up to now. We’ve spent like nine months in limbo in Abu Dhabi because of the State Department slow-processing the immigrants in the humanitarian city in Abu Dhabi. And then finally moving to United States.

There are some goods and bads. The bad part is like those few days that we were first trying to leave, but we couldn’t leave. We were trying to come to the airport as Chad’s friends, that they were inside the Kabul airport, they were sending me GPS locations that I should come to this gate with my family. But because of all the big crowd and people, we could not make it. Plus there were different security lines, like the Taliban security line was in the outer circle. In the middle circle, there was the Zero unit guys, the Afghan military. And then the internal circle was controlled by the U.S. Marines.

They shot at me and my family several times every day when I received a new direction to reach with my family … for the purpose of getting inside the airport, we couldn’t make it. We were getting disappointed. We were getting hopeless every day … . But finally, after a few days, when the guys physically had to come outside and find us in the crowd, then we were able to make it inside.

We saw people that they got shot at. We saw children that people step on and families were lost from each other, like [a] daughter lost mom and dad, like [a] son lost their brothers. I mean, there was all kinds of bad and heartbreaking situations that we’ve been through. On the other hand, we were seeing [the] dead in front of us. I was looking at my children’s faces, at my wife’s face, that they were so scared and so, I mean, crying inside.

But then once we ended up in Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, since we were not vaccinated, we spent a lot of time inside the building. We were not allowed to move from one building to another building because first of all, all the immigrants were not vaccinated. Secondly, they didn’t have visas; there was a fear of that they might jump over the wall and ran away into the city.

I mean, there was all kinds of perceptions that they kept us inside the buildings as prisoners. We eat the same thing. We slept all day and night inside the same room. We didn’t have the freedom to walk from one building to another building because they were just trying to control the crowds and the people, because everybody was pushing themselves to either reach to the building where the American NGOs were or the United States Consulate, or the CBP building or the Afghan Embassy.

They were just trying the same thing as they were doing in Afghan airport, because there were all kinds of rumors that the United States will only take such-and-such and people, but not such-and-such and people. Then they will send some of the people to Brazil or to Uganda or some other countries. So everybody was still kind of in the mood or in the action of pushing each other, elbowing each other, try to make it first, so they get the chance or the ticket to fly to United States.

I mean, every rumor or news that was spread out, it was killing us. The children, every day, they were getting disappointed. My wife and myself, as I was the lead for all the Afghan immigrants inside the humanitarian city, I was the main contact between the U.S. Embassy, the NGOs, the Red Cross, all the UEE CIDs trying to create communications.

I worked really hard between all those buildings and the 17,000 Afghan immigrants on each floor, each building, each actually cluster I created communication channels through WhatsApp groups so when all these people come like the vaccine team, when they came in the middle of the night, they wake me up.

They’re like, “Mr. Aziz, we don’t know where to start, how to start, because the people are not respecting the line. They’re just pushing each other. There have to be some type of leadership. There have to be some type of management from among the immigrants so that we should be able to do our job in a best manner.”

But then finally we made it to United States like after nine months spending in a walled compound where there was no trees, no grass, no freedom of walking from one place to another place. It was just like spend the time in a lockup.

Renck: Wow. That is quite a story and quite a journey that you had to take to get here to the United States. Do you have family, or I know your immediate family got out, do you have any family members or friends that are still in Afghanistan? And if so, have you been able to get in contact with them to see what’s been going on there?

Aziz: Yes, my parents and my siblings are unfortunately still stuck in Afghanistan. They had to move from the capital right before the Taliban takeover the capital. They had to move to a different province, which I cannot name here for their security purpose.

And they move to different provinces and they’re just still in hiding because a lot of people at the capital and the provinces that are near the capital, they know them, who they are and whose parents or siblings they are because of what I did for the United States government and the military in Afghanistan. That’s also either directly or indirectly affecting their lives negatively.

Renck: Chad, I want to ask you a little bit about the evacuation efforts that you helped with. As I mentioned earlier, I remember getting this text message from you telling me that you had successfully evacuated Aziz and his family. And you also helped more than 17,000 Afghans and allies stranded in the country. Walk us through, if you could, the logistics of the evacuations.

Robichaux: It was obviously very complicated and very fast. And Samantha, you know I’m a person of faith, and so I’ll tell you that there’s no way to explain actually what happened other than it was divine, because the way things came together … was just miraculous. I mean, doors that were open for us, people that stepped in to help financially, logistically, the way it happened and the way it happened so quickly was just something that’s very difficult to even explain.

But initially we got together, myself and Sarah Verardo teamed up from Mighty Oaks Foundation and The Independence Fund to start Save Our Allies. I started contacting former special operations veterans that I knew and trusted very well, who had the experience to pull off initially the rescue of Aziz and his family. And as we were putting this together, one of the team members noted that there was a group of about 3,500 orphans; we kind of paused for a second. Instead of just getting Aziz and his family, why don’t we get other people? Because we have the skills, we have the experience, doors are opening to give us the ability to do this.

Sarah was able to get us access to go in the H Kaia Airport through the joint chiefs. So we started looking at different ways to help other people. And we knew that there would be vulnerable groups like women and children, Christians that would be persecuted, not only the interpreters themselves and their families, but Americans. And so we made the decision to help as many people as we could.

And in that effort, we reached out. One of our team members, Joe Roberts, had a contact with the royal family of the UAE, which is where the Abu Dhabi Humanitarian Center is. And we asked for assistance and they agreed. And they gave us access to the Humanitarian Center to move people to, which is very important because if you’re moving people country to country without a visa, they can’t just go into open population. You have to go into a humanitarian center. So we had access to that, which is a key, key element to the evacuations.

And additionally, they gave us access to their C-17 planes with pilots. Glenn Beck, who is a longtime friend of mine and supporter of Mighty Oaks Foundation, started raising money for flights and to be able to fly people out, but didn’t really have a system to fly people out. So he contacted me and again, another one of these divine kind of connections where he is like, “We have the ability to get people out, but we’re struggling to get flights. He has flights, but don’t have the ability to get people out.” So we merged with Mercury One and all these amazing people came together and it just happened so quickly.

And I’ll tell you that first 10 days at the H Kaia Airport, as Kabul was falling, the evacuation of people, it was all such a blur. It was very hard to even wrap your head around what was happening, because everyone, if you stopped and slept for 10 minutes, you felt like you were trading that for someone’s life. And so no one stopped, no one slept. Everyone just pushed through for 10 days straight. We didn’t know how much time we had; it just so happened to end up being 10 days. And when the dust settled, that’s when we realized we had actually rescued about 12,500 people at that time.

But as the U.S. military was withdrawing and shutting down the airport, we knew we couldn’t leave. We knew there was thousands of Americans still there. The news was saying there was a hundred, the White House was saying there was a hundred. We knew that was not true. And by the way, it didn’t matter if there was a thousand or a hundred, we don’t leave one American behind. And our interpreters, we knew there were tens of thousands of interpreters and their families there. We just knew too much to leave. We couldn’t leave. And so we chose to stay and through a coordinated effort with other nonprofits, we kept leading these efforts and got another 5,000 people out, totaling 17,000.

We had also seen as the flights dry up the effort, push to people with fleeing Kabul in a place called the Panjshir Valley, where people wanted to evacuate and flee the Tajikistan border to escape, but they didn’t know how to escape because you got mountains, treacherous mountains, and Taliban, and the Panjshir River, which is ice melt, category five rapids, river, and guarded by the Taliban, and Chinese military was there. The Russian military was there. So they didn’t have any information how to cross and how to pass.

So we made the decision to send a two-man team, myself and one other team member named Dennis. And we went into the Tajikistan and went to the Panjshir River, crossed over in Afghanistan and built routes to provide that information out, so people could have the information they needed to safely evacuate. And so, this all happened in very short period of time and so many amazing people were involved and it was just a miraculous thing.

And it’s a tragedy, it’s a tragedy where we are today, where they still have, according to the State Department. In a July 18 report, the State Department said that we still have 74,000 of our interpreters in Afghanistan. … And if you add their family members, which average 4.5 family members, we’re talking 330,000 families of our interpreters that fought alongside of us for 20 years, that are in danger and left there. And the State Department’s moving them out [at] 200 per week. And if they stay on that plan, they’ll successfully get all of our people out in 140 years.

So it’s a terrible system. They had no plan to safely evacuate everyone. And there’s no telling how many Americans are still there. We’ll never know. And this anniversary is a happy moment because I’m sitting here next to my friend Aziz. So it’s a happy moment in that he’s finally safe in America. But it’s also a sad moment to know that this didn’t have to happen. Our interpreters didn’t have to be left behind, our American citizens didn’t have to be left behind. And the world is not a safe place today because of the decision that was made to evacuate Afghanistan.

There was absolutely no reason for us to turn over Afghanistan and Bagram Air Base, the most strategic location in the world that sits between Iraq, Iran, Russia, and China, to turn it over to the Taliban, the world’s largest terrorist regime, a most dangerous terrorist regime. There was no reason to do that. We had 2,500 troops on the ground there. At one point 2,500; at the time we evacuated, we had 4,000 troops. We still have 80,000 in Japan and 40,000 in Germany and 35,000 in South Korea. …

We didn’t have to leave. The president’s advisers advised against it and they decided to do it anyway. It was a catastrophe. Many thousands of lives are lost. Who knows how many people’s lives are being lost now? Women’s rights in Afghanistan are gone. They’re living as, 20 million women are sex slaves in Afghanistan right now because of it. And the world is a much, much more dangerous place.

And the tragedy continues. That’s where we are not even moving our interpreters that have been evacuated. We still have thousands in places like Abu Dhabi right now that the State Department will not move. And it’s just a tragedy, Samantha.

Renck: It really is. And I wanted to talk a little bit more about the 74,000 number that you brought up. What are the consequences for those allies, if they were to get caught by the Taliban? I mean, what consequences are they facing potentially?

Robichaux: Well, I can let Aziz speak more to it. But to me, these people, this is the enemy of the Taliban. These are the people that fought alongside of us for 20 years against the Taliban. This is their enemy. They’re going to, and they have already, they’re going to torture them. They’re going to kill them, likely torture them in front of their families, kill their families, enslave their women, their wives,and daughters. And there’s no repercussions to it.

We gave—I mean the United States of America gave—Afghanistan to the enemy without consultation, by the way, of the Afghan government, without consultation of the international community that was using Bagram Air Base as an international hub to defeat terrorism, we gave all of that to the Taliban. So they have full authority to prosecute and persecute their enemies, which is our interpreters. And they’re still there, 74,000 of them, over 300,000 considering their families in Afghanistan. Vulnerable and being hunted down. The last we know being hunted down by the Taliban.

And it just troubles my soul to know what has happened to these people who, like Aziz—Aziz is an example of someone who fought alongside of us, bravely saved my life, saved U.S. service members’ lives. These are the people that we handed over to the enemy.

Renck: Aziz, do you have anything that you wanted to add?

Aziz: Obviously, as Chad mentioned, the Taliban are a group of people that are ignorant, uneducated. From the childhood, they are trained in Pakistani … they are given an ideology to kill anyone who doesn’t have a beard, who doesn’t have a turban or a beard is an infidel for them. Anyone who worked for the United States government or the ex-Afghan government, they are infidels. For them, killing us and the other interpreters or the contractors or the ex-Afghan officer [and] soldiers is like, it’s giving them the idea that they will … go to the paradise. They think that by killing of all of us, they will get the chance to go to paradise.

So what should we expect from such a group, such a terrorist group, that all they did was in the last 20 years, and even before that, they blew up people. They put bombs on their selves and just [were] killing, massacre. They didn’t have mercy on children. They didn’t have mercy on women. They didn’t have mercy on the children that were born in the hospital. I mean, there is not such a thing that gives legitimacy to Taliban to have our own Afghanistan.

Renck: Now, Aziz and Chad, I just have two final questions for you. First and foremost, do you have a message for President Biden one year after the Taliban takeover?

Robichaux: Well, I could sit here and point out all the mistakes that he’s made and [his] administration has made to create this situation. But the one thing that I would encourage the president to do, if I was given an audience with him today, would be to do the right thing and accelerate the process to get our interpreters safely out of Afghanistan, out of the humanitarian centers around the world and to the United States. These are people … that are in SIV [Special Immigrant Visa] processes. We know who they are, they’re contracted to the military. We made an obligation or promise to them that there would be a nine-month process to get them out.

And meanwhile, we have our southern border, 10,000 people that we don’t know who they are, crossing the southern border every day freely with open arms. Why can’t we in one week, in one week solve this problem and do the right thing? It impacts our reputation around the world. How could we ever trust a nation of people to lock arms and fight for us in any other future war in the world when we continue to abandon our allies?

So I would encourage [Biden] in that. I would also encourage him in the fact that the Taliban is not a government. They’re not someone to be trusted. We recently have seen this with [al-Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahri … walking around free in Kabul just weeks ago, violating the Doha Agreement—which is a ridiculous agreement, to have an agreement with terrorists not to support terrorism. But the Doha Agreement needs to be just scrapped. I mean, we cannot trust these people. This is a terrorist safe haven, and it needs to be treated as such for the sake of the American people and for the sake of security around the world.

Aziz: On my part, actually, it’s a moral obligation for the United States government to save and bring all those guys that served under the United States contract, either directly or indirectly in Afghanistan for 20 years or more than that. And as a result of that, they lost their house, their friends, they lost everything. Some of them are in Pakistan, their future is not clear. Some of them are in Albania, their future is not clear. Some of them are in Abu Dhabi, in Tajikistan, and some other neighboring countries like India and Iran.

So it’s a very good time that I’m asking the United States government that they should as a government … achieve their moral obligation towards all those people that served with their military and government people, shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan.

Renck: And finally, can you talk about the future of Afghanistan? What happens next? A year after the country fell to the Taliban, what lies ahead?

Robichaux: Not only is a safe haven for terrorism, it is the most strategic location on the map. I mean, Afghanistan sits between Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, and it has Bagram Air Base. They have access to billions of dollars, rumored to be up to $85 billion in U.S. equipment and technology. We would assume it’s being sold to the Pakistanis, to Iranians, to the Chinese, maybe to Russia, whoever’s the highest bidder. And we know that Chinese military has been occupying Bagram Air Base. China and Iran [are] able to trade sanctioned oil across Afghanistan, which is what they wanted all along. China has the mineral rights to the Hindu Kush minerals like lithium. … This is complete disaster in this area.

So the future of Afghanistan is a beneficial scenario to all of our enemies. When I say all of the enemies, to not just the United States, but to the free world. And that’s just from a security standpoint.

The future of Afghanistan, however, on a more personal level to the Afghan people. is a dark, dark place. Forty million Afghans have just become slaves to the Taliban and their evil ideology that Aziz mentioned. Twenty million women and little girls are going to be sexually enslaved; no more education in schools, no more women’s rights. They’re going to be sold off. We know for a fact they’re already being sold off for as low as $400, 9-year-old girls [sold] to 50-year-old men. Completely disgusting.

And while the world for the last few years, screamed about “Me Too” movements in Hollywood and things like this, the world has been silent on these 20 million girls. And my heart bleeds and breaks for them every day, seeing how happy they were about to go to school and about to pursue careers and work in government and have a voice and be journalists and doctors and all these things. All that’s gone.

And it seems like the world just doesn’t care and is silent about it because they’re worried about the pressure coming from censorship and these things. The future of Afghanistan is dark. The world is a much more dangerous place because of the decisions that we made in the exit of Afghanistan. I don’t know, Samantha, how it’s turned around with the current administration.

Aziz: Yeah, honestly, it’s actually … it will have a dark future. It’s a place where the radical tourist groups are reemerging. There was news that some Uzbeks, they are coming, crossing the border and coming to Badakhshan Province near China. There are some radical people from China, from Uzbekistan and Pakistan and Tajikistan; they made a radical group and they are reemerging over there. Al-Qaeda is over there.

The girls are oppressed. There is no education for the girls. In general, it will have a really bad, negative impact on the whole world if the world does not pay attention as quick as possible to Afghanistan. Because right now the control of the country is in the hands of such an ignorant people; they only think that they are the pure and blessed children of God, [and] the rest of the world is infidel for them.

Renck: Chad and Aziz, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about the one year anniversary of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban. I so appreciate your coming on and Aziz, telling your story, Chad, going over the evacuation efforts and the logistics of it.

Robichaux: Samantha, one more thing before we go: Aziz is now a proud Texan. We are here in [The Woodlands, Texas]—

Renck: Amazing.

Robichaux: And Jan. 17, we’ll be releasing the book through Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, “Saving Aziz,” which is the story of the withdrawal, Aziz and I’s long history, and answering some of the questions more in depth than we talked about today.

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