Interview

The Escape Artist

In 2008, an Afghan interpreter saved Matt Zeller’s life. Now he wants to return the favor.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Matt Zeller, U.S. veteran of the war in Afghanistan
Matt Zeller, U.S. veteran of the war in Afghanistan Oriana Fenwick illustration for Foreign Policy

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In 2008, Matt Zeller served in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province as a U.S. Army advisor. He survived a close call on his life when his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, grabbed a rifle and killed Taliban fighters who had surrounded Zeller.

Shinwari is now a U.S. citizen and lives in Virginia. And Zeller, 39, has been on a very different deployment: to his northern Virginia living room. From there, he helped to steer a group of veterans, ex-diplomats, immigration attorneys, refugee advocates, and concerned citizens called Evacuate Our Allies. Since U.S. President Joe Biden’s April withdrawal announcement, the group has lobbied the administration to evacuate as many interpreters and their families as possible. 

Zeller feels he’s failed in his mission: more than 90 percent of Shinwari’s colleagues remain in Afghanistan—controlled by and at the mercy of the Taliban. 

In 2008, Matt Zeller served in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province as a U.S. Army advisor. He survived a close call on his life when his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, grabbed a rifle and killed Taliban fighters who had surrounded Zeller.

Shinwari is now a U.S. citizen and lives in Virginia. And Zeller, 39, has been on a very different deployment: to his northern Virginia living room. From there, he helped to steer a group of veterans, ex-diplomats, immigration attorneys, refugee advocates, and concerned citizens called Evacuate Our Allies. Since U.S. President Joe Biden’s April withdrawal announcement, the group has lobbied the administration to evacuate as many interpreters and their families as possible. 

Zeller feels he’s failed in his mission: more than 90 percent of Shinwari’s colleagues remain in Afghanistan—controlled by and at the mercy of the Taliban. 

“That’s going to be a moral injury that I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” Zeller told Foreign Policy in September, just days after the Biden administration’s evacuation efforts wrapped up. 

Zeller is a northern Virginia-based entrepreneur I first met through Twitter earlier this year when his calls to rescue Afghan interpreters began to dominate my newsfeed. He and I spoke a half-dozen times during and after the withdrawal, and on each call, his voice cracked with emotion.

Through the summer, Zeller had gritted his teeth and hoped for the best as the Taliban marched through province after province. But in August, as Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, gave way, he knew a Taliban takeover was imminent—and the lives of everyone who had helped the United States’ forces would be in danger. 

“We sat everyone down and had a very sober conversation, and I said, ‘look, we’re now at the point where this is inevitable,’” Zeller told me in September. “It’s not a matter of if but when.” He knew the days to come would be difficult, especially for the volunteers in his organization who hadn’t seen combat.

Day and night, Zeller was either on his phone exchanging messages with increasingly desperate Afghans or on TV trying to get the message out. On cable news shows, he was forced into the uncomfortable position of criticizing Biden, the leader of his own party. “I’m a fucking Democrat, but I want my own side to get this right,” Zeller said. He sounded even more exasperated than usual. 

A couple of weeks later, when there was a rush on Kabul’s airport by Afghans desperate to get out, Zeller’s group and others helping the evacuation effort faced a new problem. His coalition had built a Facebook group that had verified 20,000 Afghan special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants—including 23 applications he was working on personally—but had no way to get them into the airport and on flights. 

Evacuate Our Allies decided to pool its resources with other groups of volunteers across the United States. Zeller had spent months hounding U.S. officials to speed up the evacuations. Now, he and the other volunteers had to take matters into their own hands. So-called hedgehogs would provide safe houses in Afghanistan for vulnerable Afghans. From there, émigrés would be picked up by “rabbits,” who would bring them to the airport gates to “moles,” who would help get them inside. The “eagle” would get an evacuee on a flight manifest and out of the country.

The Taliban, seizing hand-held devices containing iris scans and fingerprints of Afghans on their sweep through the country, had access to NATO biometric data. That meant—in some cases—they could root out interpreters. They could also strangle internet and cell phone coverage, which were the volunteers’ only lifelines to escaping Afghans. The day after Kabul fell, Zeller got word that the Taliban were looking for former U.S. and Afghan government employees. A week later, one of Zeller’s contacts, the 17-year-old son of a former interpreter, was taken away by Taliban forces when he went to the grocery store. He hasn’t been heard from since.

Afghans outside the city had even fewer options. They’d have to dodge hundreds of miles of Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport, with no help from the United States. Months earlier, Zeller had posted a Google Form for former Afghan interpreters to be interviewed on his so-called Wartime Allies podcast, where Zeller and Shinwari spoke with Afghans still trapped in the Taliban-controlled country. Nine hundred people signed up. On Aug. 14, the night Mazar-i-Sharif—Afghanistan’s biggest city in the north—fell to the Taliban, Zeller started reaching out to people on the list. Zeller told me just one man responded. The man’s name was Hamid. 

Talking to Zeller on a phone line marred with Taliban gunfire, Hamid asked if anyone was coming to save him. Zeller didn’t think there was. The U.S. State Department had announced it would collapse its embassy to Kabul’s airport and hadn’t committed to carrying out rescues of Afghans beyond the capital. Meanwhile, the Taliban had begun doing door-to-door searches in Mazar-i-Sharif. 

Hamid resolved to flee. On MSNBC later that day, Aug. 16th, Zeller read a letter from him, a farewell of sorts to his U.S. comrades. “He said he still loved us, he was still proud of the service he did with us, and he wouldn’t change it. And he thanked us for a good life,” Zeller told host Rachel Maddow.

With guidance from Zeller, Hamid put on a burqa and, with his family in tow, dressed as a woman for the roughly 250-mile bus journey from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul. He took the last seat, the one place he thought Taliban fighters wouldn’t check. 

Zeller talks quickly and with urgency, but he took an uncharacteristic pause as he recounted this story to me over the phone. “Look, what I’m about to tell you, if I pitched this to you as a TV show or a movie scene, you’d go, ‘fuck you, that didn’t happen,” he said. “It’s too perfect.”

Militants jumped aboard the bus and started searching seat to seat, lifting the burqas to see who was underneath.

I am not a movie producer, but it’s not a stretch to say that what happened to Hamid on the journey was right out of a Hollywood action flick. As his bus pulled out of the station and into a checkpoint, Hamid’s heart sank. Militants jumped aboard the bus and started searching seat to seat, lifting the burqas to see who was underneath. The Taliban fighter doing the checks was one seat away from Hamid when he was pulled outside. The former interpreter made it through 10 more checkpoints on the way to Kabul. 

Hamid and his family went right to the airport. “[They] got the crap kicked out of them in the scrum,” Zeller said. He instructed Hamid and his family to move to a safe house provided by another volunteer while he cooked up a plan.

Zeller knew the window for evacuation flights was closing. He calculated it would take mere days to get 5,000 U.S. troops guarding the airport out of Afghanistan. The airlift would almost certainly end days earlier. “It’s just like some sick game of musical chairs,” he said of the evacuation effort.

Eight-and-a-half time zones away in a Washington office building, Zeller’s group finalized a course of action. Hamid was one in a group of 500 Afghan SIVs and their families told by Zeller’s friends to get ready to leave the country. They were instructed to meet at the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs, basically across the street from the airport, and would be escorted through military checkpoints and onto the tarmac on buses, 20 people at a time.

Waiting for texts on his phone, Zeller saw the first truck go from the Ministry of Interior Affairs past Taliban and U.S. military checkpoints without a hitch. Hamid was waiting for the fifth round of buses when members of the Taliban’s Pakistan-linked Haqqani faction, which had started taking over security near the airport, showed up at the ministry’s building. “They’re putting Americans and green card holders to one side,” Hamid texted Zeller. “The rest of us have to stay right here.” It seemed as though Zeller was out of options: He had burned Hamid’s safe house, and the Abbey Gate, the one route to the airport still open, felt miles away. 

Hamid fled on foot in the direction of the airport, and back in Virginia, Zeller worked the phones. He knew if Hamid could get a hold of a large, brightly colored object, the Marines at the airport gate—some of whom were in touch with Zeller’s group—would be able to pick him out from the crowd. Luckily, one of Hamid’s children had a bright yellow backpack. And Zeller armed Hamid with a code phrase to use when he got there.

“So one of the [Marines] comes out to pick them up. They walk up and say, ‘hey, my name’s Bob. What do you like to drink?’ He says, ‘I’m Hamid. I like to drink orange juice.’” Hamid and his family were whisked into the airport and onto a flight to Qatar. They’re now at Fort Bliss, Texas, one of several U.S. military bases where SIV applicants, mostly interpreters and their families, are being processed. 

Zeller is proud of the role he played in getting Hamid out, but he doesn’t dwell on it because most of his other cases didn’t. This has been a long journey for Zeller. He and Shinwari first went to Capitol Hill to warn the late Sen. John McCain that Afghans who helped the United States could get left behind in 2013. As far as Zeller is concerned, the SIV program has been kneecapped by a string of systemic failures dating back years: trivial visa applications denials for misspellings of transliterated names under former U.S. President Barack Obama before reforms were made to expand the program, former U.S. President Donald Trump cutting admissions to the low triple digits, and the Biden administration only beginning evacuations after Kabul fell. Now he’s calling for a 9/11-style commission to investigate the failures of the last several weeks.

During the evacuation, Zeller put his day job on hold to fully focus on the task at hand. When he returned to work—and for weeks after U.S. troops left—he was still receiving panicked texts from Afghans who used to work for the Americans, with footage of Taliban fighters trying to hunt them down and exact violent revenge. The last time we spoke in late September, he was full of self-recrimination. For more than an hour, he spoke in anguished tones about the United States leaving more than 60,000 Afghan allies behind. 

Sometimes, Zeller has taken months, even years, away from the fight when the mental burden has been too much. But his phone never stops dinging in the background of every conversation. It’s clear he’s not going to give up. 

“Now we’ve shifted into phase two, which is the Afghan underground railroad,” he said. “It’s going to take the rest of our lives to get these people out.”

Correction, Oct. 18, 2021: Matt Zeller began warning Capitol Hill of problems with the Afghan special immigrant visa program in 2013; this story previously misstated the year. 

Update, Oct. 18, 2021: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Zellers role in the Evacuate Our Allies coalition.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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