The Afghan translator who helped rescue
Aman Khalili – who assisted US troops who convoyed to rescue Biden after his helicopter made an emergency landing during a snow storm back when he was a US senator visiting the country – made it out after a harrowing journey involving multiple safe houses,
‘It was as clandestine as it gets,’ Safi Rauf, who helped oversee the successful evacuation, told DailyMail.com.
The US government did not organize his escape, say those who helped orchestrate it. But in a reversal of the government’s inability to respond to Khalili’s initial desperate pleas for help, a top aide to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the deputy secretary of state helped arrange his documents and secure his passage out of the region aboard a military aircraft.
Aman Khalili, who helped rescue Joe Biden when his helicopter made an emergency landing in Afghanistan in 2008, made it across the border into Pakistan. With intervention by top US officials after he was out of the country, he flew aboard military transport to Doha, say those who helped get him out
Khalili is now with his immediate family in Doha – although his rescuers had hoped to bring out other Afghans who were with him in Pakistan.
He was among about 200 Afghans who had made it across the border to Pakistan at the time he left.
‘We didn’t want to create a situation where all of the other families that traveled with him were … left behind,’ said Rauf, who helped found Human First, which works to extract Afghans from the country.
‘We treat all of them the same. And we wanted all of them to go together, just to be fair. And that’s what we asked.’
But he said the State Department response was that ‘we will only take this family now,’ with the promise to arrange a charter for those remaining later.
With Khalili, his wife, and four children now out of the country, military vets from the Arizona National Guard who helped get him out are offering to pool resources to help him get a fresh start in their home state.
Then-Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel in Kunar Province rescued in eastern Afghanistan on February 20, 2008. Aman Khalili, the interpreter who helped the senators, was finally able to make it out of Afghanistan
Brian Genthe, an Afghan war vet with the Arizona National Guard, assisted the effort to get the former interpreter out of the country
A handout photo made available by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (R) walking towards a meeting room at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office in Islamabad, Pakistan, 08 October 2021. People who helped get Khalili out say Sherman negotiated for a US military plane to fly him to Doha, Qatar
Sherman’s visit came during a tense time in bilateral relations
‘He wants to come to Arizona here,’ Brian Genthe, an Afghan war who helped drive the effort, told DailyMail.com. He said the vets who helped rescue Biden and three other senators during a heavy snowstorm are working with Afghan relocation programs to help engineer a ‘smooth transfer’ for the interpreter and his family.
His rescue – which came after he made it through checkpoints and across the border into Pakistan – came with assistance by former vets, an Afghan businessman, a special group that organizes safe houses and evacuations, and an intervention by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with the Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Paperwork woes – and a high-level assist
After months of working through channels to try to get a special immigrant visa to come to the US as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, Khalili was left behind when the last US troops left the country August 31.
He urged Biden to come through for him in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, going by his formal name Mohammad for security reasons.
‘Hello Mr. President: Save me and my family. Don’t forget me here,’ he told the paper.
The plea got the administration’s attention, at a time when the White House was getting hammered over the evacuation.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki vowed: ‘We will get you out.’ But it was a collection of informal, private, and unofficial sources that brought Khalili across the border for the most challenging part of the journey.
Genthe says following the report, Suzy George, Blinken’s chief of staff, phoned to offer her support.
‘She was like: what do you want me to do? What can I do to help you?’ His response: ‘Can you get him out?’
She told him ‘we don’t have any assets to do that but I can get all his paperwork started,’ he said.
With the high-level help, she says Khalili’s visa issues would eventually get solved within days.
Shared panic on Facebook
Genthe, who had already worked to try to get Khalili a special visa, stepped up his efforts when Khalili reached out repeatedly through a Facebook group for the veterans of the deployment.
‘Aman was like panicking: “Please help me. I was over there. I need help.” He was spamming the page to the point where everyone kind of quit the page except for me. I’m like you know what, it’s been a while, but let me look into this,’ he said.
Khalili ran into problems because he had been employed through a private contractor that then merged with another company, and was rejected when he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa.
‘All of a sudden Aman’s paperwork just got locked,’ he said.
He tried to make it out of the Kabul airport before the US troop withdrawal. But his wife and four of his five children lacked a passport.
At first, Genthe says he helped hook up Khalili with Mercury One, which is helping get people out of Afghanistan.
They were able to get Khalili out of Kabul and put him in a safe house in Mazar-y-sharif. But getting him on an outbound flight was another matter, with a series of false starts.
It was a struggle, as planners would tell him: ‘Oh you’re going to go tomorrow. Tomorrow comes, nothing happens. Are you ready, are your bags packed? You’re not going,’ Genthe said. Then, when the Taliban clamped down, the issue of family documents proved decisive.
‘The Taliban just changed everything and said no passport, no fly,’ he said.
After about two and a half weeks, Genthe ended up hooking Khalili up with another group, Human First, which brought him to Helmand province on the southern border with Pakistan.
He said Khalili lost his nerve twice ‘because he thought they were going to catch him.’
‘Finally I’m like: Aman, you have to trust me. This is the start of your new life. All you have to do is get across the border,’ he said. During one leg of the journey alone there were 12 Taliban checkpoints, said Rauf.
Tough choices and high-level intervention with Pakistani spy agency
Having made it out of the country, Khalili was faced and his handlers confronted some of the difficult choices that thousands faced during the evacuation.
Human First first hooked up the interpreter with about 200 other Afghan evacuees – including judges, LGBT individuals, and sports figures who had their own security reasons for leaving the country.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was in the country to meet with top Pakistani officials, at a time of deep tension in the bilateral relationship over Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
According to Rauf and Genthe, she met with the head of Pakistan’s ISI, the state intelligence agency, to help secure safe passage for Khalili and his family out of the country.
A group of evacuees were also in Islamabad after fleeing Afghanistan with the help of Human First.
Khalili was confronted with a wrenching decision. The group hoped he would stay to serve as leverage to help others get out. Some Afghans feared they might get sent back to Afghanistan.
‘I told him, you have to make a decision. You can stay here and save these people or you can get your family out.’ Khalili decided he needed to get his family to safety.
Rauf, having helped get Khalili out of the country, criticized the State Department for giving special treatment once the translator reached Pakistan, rather than waiting and bringing more people out together.
‘This family had way less documents than all the other 200 people that are in Islamabad. They all have proper documents, visas, and the reason to be on that plane. I guess the State Department only wants the publicity and not actually want to help human life,’ he said.
What resulted were ‘tensions’ between Khalili and the other families. ‘They were upset,’ he said.
‘They knew that once the story comes out it’s going to be all over the place, and again, that puts the rest of the people that are staying there at a big risk.’ He said the Pakistani government was ‘instrumental.’
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The government sent a C-17 to pick up Khalili and his family and fly them to safety in Doha, where many Afghans were relocated during the evacuation. Within about three weeks, Khalili should be able to make his way to the US.
The high-level assists continue. Despite an outside group coordinating the exfiltration, the White House ‘has already reached out to Aman and said we’re going to do your paperwork personally’ now that he is out of the country, said Genthe.
Genthe says the efforts were well deserved, due to Khalili’s service to US troops during the war. He described one difficult period after US and Afghan forces purged Afghan police forces of Taliban sympathizers. ‘Every single day we were in a firefight. And Aman was in there with us every day,’ he said.