It's been a year since the chaotic end of America's war in Afghanistan, and it doesn't look any better in retrospect to Elliot Ackerman: "This was a collapse of American morals and how we treat our allies," he said. "It was a collapse of American competence, our ability to execute this mission."
For Ackerman, who served four combat tours in Afghanistan (both with the Marines and the CIA), the collapse was also personal. "Suddenly, I'm right back in the war. I thought I left the war."
He had been away from the war for a decade making a living as a writer. Now he has written a book about 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 outlasted the world's greatest superpower and were looking to take their revenge on Afghans who had sided with the Americans. A war that had begun before the iPhone existed was imploding in an endless stream of viral videos. "Through your phone you could hear the collective voices of all of these Afghans who had believed what we told them, crying out 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 got, you know, probably over 200 people out."
U.S. troops had taken control of the airport in Kabul, and Afghans swarmed the gates, looking for some way, any way, to get past the guards and onto a plane.
"It would be the equivalent of going to a Rolling Stones concert and walking into the back and getting the band to call you up on stage," Ackerman said. "You had to know someone in the band."
Or someone in the Marines who guarded the gates. Ackerman's network texted them photos with arrows pointing where to look for specific Afghans with handmade signs. Most of them were strangers. All of them were desperate.
Like the man Ackerman calls "Aziz." He had once worked for the U.S. government and was now sending anguished voice messages about his dread of the Taliban:
"Bless you, sir ... please do something for us. Please save my kids. … We don't want to get caught by Taliban because they are looking everywhere, this place by place, home by home, street by street, looking for us.
"All the family's in a very bad condition. They are so scared. Kids are so scared."
Ackerman said, "How do you ignore something like that?"
Martin asked, "What did you think the chances were?"
"Low, that we were going to be able to help him. And then the bomb happened at the Abbey Gate, and that shut everything down."
A suicide bomber slipped into the crowd and.
Four days later the last American soldier flew out of Afghanistan. Ackerman could do little 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 it's our luck to die by the Taliban.'"
Then, Ackerman heard about a flight leaving 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 quickly as you can."
"You need to hurry. All flights are leaving today. Hurry."
Aziz sent videos of the drive north. He made it to Mazar-i-Sharif in time. "But then," Ackerman said, "the flight doesn't go that day, and it doesn't go the next day, and days and weeks are passing, and he is in a safe house which is really just a wedding hall. … He sort of stays in this limbo for about a month. And then one night I knew that he was manifested for a flight, and I went to bed" – and woke in the morning to a video sent to him by Aziz, who had made it out of Afghanistan with his family and into a refugee center in Qatar – safe at last from the Taliban.
"Hello sir, how are you?" Aziz said. "I have no idea how to thank. But I am thankful of everyone, every single person of U.S. America, because we never dreamed such a thing. But their love, their mercy. Thank you, thank you for everything."
Ackerman said, "I was amazed that after going through the ordeal that he had been through and seeing how disastrously it had all ended, his impulse was to thank us. And he says, 'I thank every single American.'"
Aziz now lives in California with his wife and children. "Sunday Morning" is not using his real name, and he did not want to be interviewed on camera because he still has family in Afghanistan.
Ackerman said, "Just because we've decided as Americans to turn the page, that doesn't mean that the page gets turned for all the people who are still in Afghanistan, or all the Afghans who have come to America whose families are still there."
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan" by Elliot Ackerman (Penguin Press), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available August 9 via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound | Author tour info
Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Mike Levine.
for more features.