A New Mexico man stuck in Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban is back home, after getting whisked to safety in a clandestine rescue just days before the withdrawal of American troops from the country.
Ali Azimi, who was born in Afghanistan and has lived in Santa Fe since 2015, was in Kabul in mid-August, where he was working as a consultant for a bank on a hydropower project planned in the country.
During that time, cities and regions in the country were falling to the Taliban, which surged back to power ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country after a 20-year war. As the group took control of Kabul in mid-August, Azimi realized he needed to get out of the country.
But thousands of people from the rural areas had been flooding into Kabul for days, creating chaos at the airport. Azimi tried around Aug. 20 to have a driver get him to the airport, but he never made it to the entrance because it was too dangerous to navigate the thousands of panicked people surrounding the airport.
“So, I came home and sort of was in an (anxious) state,” he said in an interview. “I couldn’t understand ‘How did this happen?’ ”
It wasn’t long before Azimi said he received a call from an unknown number and a woman on the line asked him if he wanted to come back to America.
“She said, ‘We have a code word for you. The code word is Beirut.’ Somebody will be calling you and so you … respond back to it, using the code word,” Azimi said.
An hour later, Azimi got a text asking him if he wanted to go to Beirut.
“Yes, I believe Beirut has amazing restaurants,” he texted back.
Azimi was born in Afghanistan and raised in India. He was educated in America, earning a doctorate in environmental science.
Since the Taliban fell to U.S. forces in 2002, Azimi has traveled regularly to Afghanistan to work as a consultant for different groups, usually on renewable energy projects aimed at powering the vast rural villages around the country. He also helped develop the country’s first national parks.
“I was just fascinated by the kindness and generosity of the (Afghan) people,” he said. “And my (intent) was always to return to Afghanistan to help those folks to take part in its development.”
Azimi arrived in Afghanistan on July 17 for a hydropower project, which got delayed because other people involved in the work couldn’t get to Afghanistan in time. Then, the Taliban started surging back to power.
After giving the code word, Azimi was instructed to go to a specific location and meet an Afghan man, who would bring him to an American base. He was told to consolidate his clothes into small carry-on bags and to dress in traditional Afghan garb, as opposed to Western clothes.
The instructions led him to a truck, which drove him to Eagle Base, a compound used by the Central Intelligence Agency on the outskirts of Kabul.
The New York Times reported last week that the compound, which was used by the CIA to train Afghan counterterrorism units, was the hub for the country’s clandestine evacuation efforts in the days leading up to the troop withdrawal.
The Times reported that three Mi-17 helicopters made at least 35 flights to or from the compound after the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15. Hundreds of people were evacuated to the airport from that base over the course of a couple of weeks, according to the Times.
Azimi was one of them.
He said that, when he arrived at the base, he met two American men, dressed in Western clothes, who were coordinating the evacuation. They never identified which agency they worked for, Azimi said.
He had to turn over his passport and phone to the Americans while he was on the base, and was told to wait in a small room, where food was brought to him, for the day.
Azimi said he waited in the room as explosions went off around the base. He asked one of the Americans what the noise was.
“He said, ‘We’re just alerting the Taliban that we’re alive and well,’ but actually they were blowing up sensitive equipment at the base,” Azimi said.
That night, Azimi and others at the base were flown by helicopter to the airport, where he boarded a plane for Qatar at about 2 a.m. Aug. 26.
Hours later, a suicide blast outside the airport, carried out by an Islamic State affiliate, killed 13 American service members and about 170 Afghans.
After years working to help develop Afghanistan, Azimi said it’s depressing to hear how quickly the country fell back under Taliban control.
The Taliban enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law. For example, women under Taliban rule face restrictions on working and going to school.
Other problems continue for the country, too, Azimi said. He said Afghan citizens can’t access money from banks and that prices for goods are rising quickly. And this is all happening while Afghans are faced with an uncertain future.
“I’m very sad,” he said. “I’m in touch with former colleagues, and it’s a desperate situation.”