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‘Everything fell apart’: Coalition forces interpreter Jamil Hassan’s harrowing escape from Kabul

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with former Afghan interpreter Jamil Hassan, who served with coalition forces as an interpreter for several years, including for General David Petraeus, the general who oversaw the coalition mission in Afghanistan.

They discuss his powerful new book, Promises Betrayed: An Afghan Interpreter at The Fall of Kabul, which tells the story of his experiences as an interpreter, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and the chaotic evacuation that followed. More information can be found at promisesbetrayed.com.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Jamil Hassan, an Afghan citizen who served with coalition forces as an interpreter for several years, including to General David Petraeus, who oversaw the coalition mission in Afghanistan. Hassan and his family were forced to escape Kabul in August 2021 as American forces withdrew and the Taliban retook the capital, as well as most of the rest of the country.

He’s documented these experiences in a powerful and striking new book, Promises Betrayed: An Afghan Interpreter at The Fall of Kabul, for which General Petraeus has written the foreword. I’m grateful to speak with Jamil about the book and his extraordinary experience, as well as his perspective more than a year after the West’s withdrawal from his country. Jamil, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

JAMIL HASSAN: Thank you so much. I’m grateful to you for having me on the show.

SEAN SPEER: Let me start with a question that I’ve been thinking about since we first scheduled our conversation. Why did you join the coalition forces in the first place? What ideas or values caused you to raise your hand and assume the risks associated with supporting the international mission in Afghanistan?

JAMIL HASSAN: Well, there were three basic reasons. First, in the Taliban’s first regime in the late 1990s, I was a kid and I was selling water on the streets in Jalalabad City in Eastern Afghanistan. One day, as I was preparing to start my business, the Taliban traffic police chief slammed all my stuff into the air. He got off his car and slapped me very hard on my face. Making it very clear to me that I should not block the street, though I was not blocking the street. Back then, there were no vehicles at that time in Afghanistan.

I was so upset. I decided with my heart that if I have power one day, I will resist them and I will try my best to get rid of them whenever it’s possible. I prayed for them to be toppled at that time. That’s one of the reasons that in 2008 when I got the chance, I thought this is the proper moment to join the fight against the Taliban as an interpreter.

Second was the idea of serving my country. My family did not allow me or my brothers to serve in the ranks of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Instead, serving as an interpreter alongside them to help the coalition forces establish a proper Afghan defence and security force was another thing that prompted me to start working as an interpreter with coalition forces.

The third thing was, of course, the financial incentive. We were not in a very good economic and financial condition back then. The fact that interpreters were paid a good amount in salaries back then was the third reason that I started working with coalition forces.

SEAN SPEER: You interpreted my next question. What did your family think about the decision? Were they supportive, or did some question you’re thinking?

JAMIL HASSAN: Of course not. My oldest brother already served with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Southern Kandahar, Afghanistan on the battlefield. My other brother was away in China working as a translator and as an administrative officer with a private company there. I was the family guy there. I had to be at home, but then I got this chance. Of course, they did not agree, but I encouraged them to let me go and test my English because I studied English for three years and I taught English for two years. Let me go and talk to foreigners to see if they understand me and if I understand them.

When I passed all the tests, the details of all are in my book, and I was assigned to the corps commander of the Afghan National Army’s 207th corps, it was a very high-level position. Then when I came home, no one believed me that I was assigned with the corps commander. They gave me the chance to work for one year because this was a great opportunity to add to my CV in the future.

SEAN SPEER: Tell us a bit about the experience. How did you carry out your work as a so-called “Terp”? What was your typical day like?

JAMIL HASSAN: I worked in two phases. First, from 2008 to 2012. That was a direct engagement with the coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts. The second time I worked was from 2017 to 2021, exactly one month before the fall of Kabul back to the Taliban.

In the first assignment, I was working with the Afghan National Army’s 207th corps commander. I worked directly with two advisors of him. One, a U.S. Army colonel, and an Italian army colonel. I was there translating for him whatever advice came from the coalition advisors of the corps commander.

Later on, during that first assignment, I had to go back to finish my two classes at school. I shifted to another place that was called a Regional Coordination Center where elements of all Afghan and foreign security forces were gathered to evaluate the security situation. I worked there a night shift, translating the intelligence reports and operational reports for the coalition forces.

Then from 2017 to 2021, I worked at the headquarters of the NATO and U.S. forces mission, a resolute support in Afghanistan. I was engaged in what’s called simultaneous interpretation. It’s a real-time interpretation for providing linguistic support for the highest-level officials of the NATO and U.S. forces and their Afghan counterparts, which included the Afghan Defense Minister, the Afghan interior minister, and the National Director of Security, which is equivalent to the FBI and the CIA combined.

SEAN SPEER: As you mentioned, you came to work for a number of high-profile figures, both on the coalition forces side and within the Afghan army and the Afghan government. Why do you think you were ultimately chosen for such important roles? What was it about you Jamil that these people saw something in?

JAMIL HASSAN: Afghanistan is a very diverse country. It has multiple languages that people speak, cultural-wise and population-wise. It’s all in the book. Again, I say that the reason I’m insisting on my book is that it’s the only and the first book that is written by an Afghan about the war in Afghanistan. It will give a unique perspective to readers. The reason I was picked both times for the first assignment and the second assignment was that I spoke three languages, English, of course, and then the two official languages of my country which is Dari and Pashto. Pashto is my native language. I studied and grew up in a Dari-speaking environment. I had full skills in both these languages and, of course, my English was good. That was the reason that I was chosen both times.

SEAN SPEER: Before we move on to questions about the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, what the book’s title describes as promises betrayed, let me just thank you on behalf of our listeners for your service. As General Petraeus writes in his beautiful foreword to your book, “Terps [like you] shared risk and hardship with our forces on the ground, provided invaluable service to them, and on a number of occasions even saved the lives of coalition force members with whom they were working.” Thank you on behalf of all of our listeners for your service.

I want to turn now to the books focused on the chaos and Kabul and elsewhere in the country, following the American withdrawal in August 2021. As a starting point, I want to ask in particular about the view reflected in the withdrawal and a lot of Western commentaries that basically progress wasn’t possible in Afghanistan, and it was too costly to maintain a military presence to sustain the gains that have been realized in the previous two decades. What would you say to those who make this case? Why are they wrong? What are they missing?

JAMIL HASSAN: First of all, it was an honour to serve along the U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan who were there to uphold democracy and freedom. They made significant sacrifices. We are grateful for their service in Afghanistan. We are also grateful for those who were there last August to evacuate America’s and the world’s Afghan allies. To come to the answer to your question, there was significant progress over the past 20 years in Afghanistan. We had over 6 million only girls going to school. Now, Afghanistan is the only country on earth that does not allow girls to go to school. We had a security force of 300,000. We had special forces that included women. That is not something that you can see in either of the Asian countries in India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and none of these countries you have female special forces and we had them. Those were the elite forces. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces were on the right track of defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda and ISIS-K and other terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, since the start of the Biden administration, and to be more specific, since the beginning of 2021, the current U.S. administration started pulling out all assets that were required for the operations of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces that include the contractors that provided maintenance for Afghanistan’s aircraft, that include providing critical ammunition and weapons for the Afghan Air Force. Those were withheld from the Afghan Forces and they were left alone to fight the enemy of the world, the Taliban, the Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. On the other hand, over the past two decades, the U.S. was deemed to be an ally of Afghanistan, of the Afghan people, and of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

Unfortunately, under the Trump administration, a peace deal was signed with the Taliban. That was one of the reasons that things started to go in the wrong direction. The second biggest mistake was that the Biden administration continued with that argument with the Taliban, despite knowing that the Taliban did not deliver their parts of the commitments that they had made to the U.S., to the Afghan government in Qatar in negotiations with both teams. When the U.S. completed its part of the promises made to the Taliban, the withdrawal, the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan prison, which included suicide bombers, and on, and on, and on.

When it was time for the Taliban to deliver their promises, President Biden said, “We are done, we are going, we are leaving Afghanistan.” The Taliban got that as a very good incentive to not stay committed to their promises and start attacking very severely and furiously the Afghan Defense Forces and running over Kabul. I, again, want to specify that Afghanistan was going in the right direction. We had very good people. We had very good achievements that are all mentioned in my book again, I say, and they’re all gone because of a political decision to improve somebody’s ratings for the presidential election or for the midterm election in the U.S.. It’s not me who says that the decision was wrong. It’s the U.S. army generals. It’s the former commander of the CENTCOM who says that he advised President Biden against his decision, and at least to leave 2,500 troops there but the president did not listen to him.

Let me tell you this, in my book, in the introduction part, there’s a very clear calculation of the costs of the war both for the Afghans and for the Americans in terms of human casualties and in terms of the financial cost of the war. Since 2014, when the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces took full responsibility for operations across the country, the level of the coalition forces’ casualties and the costs that were sustained by the international community dropped significantly. With a minimum of foreign forces there to support the Afghan Forces and with a very small amount of financial cost, the world could hold Afghanistan as a safe place but, unfortunately, everything fell apart

SEAN SPEER: Well said. Just a ton of insight there. Let me ask a follow-up question. You mentioned that some of these decisions may have been motivated by domestic political calculus, which suggests that there was a sizable constituency within the American voting public, to say nothing of the Canadian voting public and other Western countries, that supported withdrawal from Afghanistan and that in effect, politicians were following popular opinion.

Do you think though that had a leader like the American president or the Canadian prime minister or the British prime minister or others had made the case that you’re effectively making, that the costs were low in exchange for supporting the ongoing progress in Afghanistan, do you think that Western populations would’ve ultimately responded positively to that message and vision?

JAMIL HASSAN: In my book, I have listed all these mistakes that were committed by the international community, particularly by the coalition forces in Afghanistan. To come directly to your question, the war in Afghanistan was not a significant issue in the past two presidential elections in the U.S. That’s for sure I know. It was not something that would favour voters for either president the Democrat or the Republican.

There were other significant issues, COVID-19 was there and other issues. The international community and the coalition forces, unfortunately, since the very beginning was feeding wrong information to the populace and to the administrations, to their president. You can look into the many articles that say that the data that came from Afghanistan was not correct. There was a huge campaign of misinformation and the U.S. generals were telling the U.S. president that we were winning, and they were telling the U.S. Congress that we were winning in Afghanistan.

That is not the reality. On the other hand, the war in Afghanistan had turned into a campaign of large contracts for big companies. It was no longer a war on terror. It was a financial source for many big contracting companies in the West. Again, I’m saying had the coalition forces, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., made proper calculations about the war in Afghanistan we would have prevented this disaster.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s turn to how this affected you personally. The book describes your harrowing experience of the Taliban taking Kabul. Let me ask two questions. First, how did you learn of the Taliban’s progress into the city? Second, what did you think in the moment?

JAMIL HASSAN: Well, since mid-July when I was released from my employment as an interpreter we were told that at the end of the day, we will have a peace agreement signed between the U.S., the Taliban, and the Afghan government. And eventually, we will have a power-sharing government that included the former Afghan government members and the Taliban, and we will have lasting peace. That’s when things started falling apart. Districts one after another, and then provinces one after another started to fall to the Taliban.

We did not expect such a quick run-over of the entire country by the Taliban, especially not in Kabul. Let me tell you this, 15 days from the fall of Kabul we were expecting to hold a wedding ceremony for my younger brother. I was at home on the 15th of August supervising a group of painters painting the house in preparation for this wedding. We had printed the invitation cards. We had booked a wedding hall and all this stuff. We were not expecting such a quick fall of at least the capital.

We thought that they will hold there and things will not fall apart that quickly. Around ten o’clock that day on August 15th I got a call from my brother-in-law who was at the passport directorate. He asked me actually where I was. I told him I was at home. He said, “Okay, do not leave home because Taliban are everywhere.” That’s when I looked into my Facebook page and then I saw there were Taliban everywhere and everyone was posting about them. When I turned on the TV, it was all there. When I look out my window at the headquarters of the NATO and U.S. forces where I work which is close to the U.S. embassy, they were burning sensitive stuff and smoke was rising from there. The sky of Kabul was full of chinook helicopters transporting people from here and there to the Kabul airport because that was the last stronghold for the international community, the embassies, the U.S. military, and others there.

It was unbelievable for me because there were tens of thousands of Afghan forces and foreign forces in Kabul because the people and the security forces in Kabul were fearful of the Taliban’s retribution and persecution. They did not want to sacrifice for some political leaders who had already left Kabul and they had escaped Afghanistan to sacrifice their lives for them. In this situation, they realized that it was not worth fighting the enemy on the streets of Kabul and thereby leaving thousands of people killed and buildings, everything that was constructed over the past 20 years, destroyed.

That was one of the reasons that the Afghan forces in the capital did not resist the Taliban. It was a horrible time. For three days I was hiding at home and then the fourth day, August 18th, I got a text from a friend about an evacuation by the Italians. I picked up my wife and young daughter and we went to the airport crossing multiple Taliban checkpoints. When we got there, we were told that there is no evacuation. You go back home. I decided against it. I stayed there overnight. At 11:00 am I showed all my documents to the U.S. Marines. Luckily they allowed me to go inside and then I had to wait for 36 hours amid the chaos inside Kabul Airport. It was a scene that I will never forget.

I served for eight years as a combat interpreter. I carried body armour. I walked in the sun in the desert. I resisted all that. But the scene at Kabul airport was too much for me. You can think of the women and children, the civilians who were there, who had never seen any experience of combat.

Then after 36 hours, we were evacuated to Qatar only to stay there on the tarmac for seven straight hours, under 50 degrees celsius, and every 30 minutes an Afghan fainting. There was an ambulance coming to take them to the hospital. Why? Because there were no buses to take us to our hangar to the places that we should be there.

You can think of the mismanagement of the evacuation only because there were few buses at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Every airplane had to stay there on the tarmac for 8 to 9 to 10 hours. Then we were taken to Germany for a week there that was terrible, very cold and unbearable for especially women and children.

Then we came to the U.S. and we were there for two months at Wisconsin, Fort McCoy. The story goes and on. Still, I haven’t received my documents. I am an eligible SIV applicant. I was supposed to have my interview at the U.S. embassy in Kabul on the 30th of August last year. My green cards haven’t been processed yet. The evacuation process hasn’t changed a lot. We have thousands of Afghans left behind in Afghanistan, interpreters, and former members of the units that the CIA trained. They are stuck there in Afghanistan.

The special forces are there. Taliban are looking for them. My colleagues, thousands of interpreters are in Pakistan, journalists, and civil society activists. They were told to go to a third country because the U.S. would withdraw on the 30th of August and they will be evacuated later. Everyone is there. They are in Iran. You will not believe but we have Afghans in Ukraine. They are trapped there because they were evacuated initially there and they’re still there.

SEAN SPEER: You describe a total and complete failure on the part of Western governments to honour the commitments that we made to people like you, who helped our troops in challenging and difficult circumstances, and in turn, we haven’t as you said helped many others who find themselves in similarly difficult and challenging circumstances.

If I can go back a bit, though, in the immediacy of the Taliban’s taking of the country, you describe destroying a lot of documents, including letters of recommendation from U.S. military officials, photos, et cetera. You write that these materials put you and your family in “lethal danger”. Do you want to elaborate a bit on the threat that you faced as someone who supported the collection forces in general and high-profile figures like General Petraeus in particular?

JAMIL HASSAN: Well, interpreters were at high risk from the very beginning when the mission started in late 2001 until it finished in 2021. Interpreters were the main targets for the Taliban, especially on the battlefield because they were the bridge between the coalition forces, the Afghan counterparts, and the local populace. They would initially target interpreters because they were wearing civilian clothes.

In order to counter that Taliban tactic, the coalition forces provided military uniforms to the interpreters. Again, they were easily identified because they did not carry weapons. Again, they were being targeted. In order to counter that the coalition forces would put the interpreter in between them when they were performing foot patrols in deserts and villages in Afghanistan. When things moved a little bit forward and then some interpreters started working in offices, they were tracked in different places. People would travel even a small distance; they would take airplanes because on the road it was not safe for the interpreter to travel. Not only for the interpreters but other members of the Afghan security forces and those who work with the Afghan government. The risk was very high for me, especially in my second employment.

Before I go to that, in my first employment, there is this story in my book that I was followed for one year by a Taliban group because I had translated in a meeting that resulted in the killing of their leader in Herat province. Me and my brother, we look alike. They followed my brother for one year and they were about to kill him, but suddenly things were under control. The story is in the book. In my second employment at the headquarters of NATO, I was working at the highest level of the coalition forces and the Afghan government as a trilingual interpreter translator. Sometimes I would disguise myself as a cleaner when I was leaving the base when the threat was high and I would take different routes when going to where I work.

When the Taliban took over, I was in contact with the Association of Wartime Allies. It’s an advocacy group that has been trying to help Afghan SIV applicants to process their cases. They were feeding us quick information on what to be done in order to avoid any retribution or risk of being captured by the Taliban. Their first advice was to destroy whatever documents you have. It took me and my wife and my sister 10 hours to gather them, take pictures, send them by email to my brothers here in the U.S., and then destroy them and then burn them in the kitchen bit by bit in order to prevent any huge smoke and then flush them to the toilet.

Then I had metal coins, I could not destroy them. I asked my brother to go and disperse them in trash cans around the area where I lived and my family was more frightened than I was because they did not allow me to leave home for three straight days. The risk that was posed to me was because of my employment, especially in my second employment of working with senior U.S. generals, and of course, because I had all the pictures and documents, especially my SIV documents. Every bit of that proved that according to the Taliban I was working with the infidels.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a penultimate question. What do you think the lasting consequences will be in terms of trust and respect for the west in the region? To put it bluntly, will the betrayal that the book documents push a generation of Afghans as well as others in the direction of anti-American and even Islamist forces?

JAMIL HASSAN: Yes, of course. It’s not only about the Afghan people or the members of the Afghan National Defense and security forces. It’s about those particularly who work as partners as interpreters, as contractors with the U.S. and Arab coalition forces in Afghanistan. We were all told that if something goes wrong we will evacuate you all safely to different countries across the world, to the U.S., Canada, Australia, U.K., and European countries. That did not happen.

We still have most of our elite Afghan forces. They feel betrayed. Their anger is way more than mine and everybody else’s because they were the ones who put their lives on the line. They put the lives of their families on the line to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda only in the end to see them come back but with the help of whom? America. Can’t you believe this? The U.S. brought the senior Taliban leaders from Qatar to Kabul on a U.S. military airplane, and these are the mistakes that the international community and the coalition forces made and the consequences of this chaotic and poorly mismanaged withdrawal goes beyond the region.

You see Russia attacking Ukraine only because America did not stay committed with its main ally in the war on terror, Afghanistan. You see China threatening Taiwan. I don’t know what the Japanese and people in South Korea think. Do they think that the U.S. is a trustable ally? You see, Saudi Arabia did not answer President Biden’s phone. What does that describe? That describes that the world does not trust the U.S. as the leader of the free world, as a trustable ally anymore.

Still, though it’s late, it’s not too late. Still, we have time. We need the U.S. administration and the whole world, especially the UN, to put more pressure on the Taliban to make them protect, preserve, and respect human rights in Afghanistan, the freedom of speech, women’s rights, and girls’ education rights, and all these things. One other thing that the international community can do, especially the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., as you mentioned earlier at the beginning of our conversation, is to help evacuate all these vulnerable people. We know that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to overthrow the Taliban again.

All these people who worked in the past 20 years alongside coalition forces, there are at grave risk, whether they’re former members of the Afghan forces, interpreters, contractors, or whoever they are. Those who are in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, are in a very bad economic situation, they cannot feed their families because there is no employment, there is no work, nothing, and half of the population are under the poverty line. If they are evacuated, at least, they will be safe, they will be able to earn a good amount of money here in the West, and they will be able to support the rest of their families in Afghanistan.

One other important thing is that regarding this evacuation is that during this evacuation, most families were separated from one another. I have information about hundreds of people who are separated. The women and two children are here in the U.S., the husband and two other children are in Afghanistan. The bureaucratic process of the immigration does not allow them to reunite in maybe two or five years so they can’t wait. They’re families, they live together, they need one another, and the children need their parents. There needs to be a significant change in the immigration policies, not only in the U.S., in Canada, and everywhere else so that they can help evacuate these people.

The last thing is that the international community should think of different ways to help the Afghan economy. I’m not talking about the Taliban. I’m talking about the businesses in Afghanistan to somehow allow them to import and export goods to and from Afghanistan around the world and have banks around the world to trade with Afghan businesses so that there is another, again, employment chances for Afghan there and the economy grows back.

SEAN SPEER: My final question, Jamil, is about how you and your family are doing today. What’s life like? How has been the transition to America?

JAMIL HASSAN: I’m one of the luckiest ones because I have two brothers and their families here. It has been very difficult though for other families because they have no relatives here. They’re put in an unknown environment. They have a psychological shock, what we call it here. To bring them from a very conservative Islamic Afghan community and put them in a Western community, that’s very difficult for them to adapt to that immediately. All Afghans, we are trying to adapt to this situation.

Me and my family, we are very happy here. The opportunity of living here gives me the chance to write this book, and to raise my voice, and ask others to help me, and draw the world’s attention back towards Afghanistan and to the plight of my people in Afghanistan and around the world. We are very happy to be here and we are very happy to be alive and grateful for the support of the government, the military who evacuate all those Afghans last August, and for the civilians and different charity organizations who are helping Afghans and lately, the Ukrainians, to transform and to resettle peacefully here.

SEAN SPEER: The book is Promises Betrayed: An Afghan Interpreter at The Fall of Kabul. Jamil Hassan, thank you for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.

JAMIL HASSAN: Thanks a lot for having me on the program. Just one thing, we also have a website with the same name, promisesbetrayed.com. Your listeners can go there and there’s plenty of information.

SEAN SPEER: That’s great. We’ll include that in the show notes. As Jamil says, not only there are excerpts, there’s the foreword from General Petraeus as well as Jamil’s other media interviews promoting this terribly important book. Thanks again for joining us today.

JAMIL HASSAN: Thank you.

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