One on One: A North Carolinian in Afghanistan to ‘the bitter end’

Published 6:39 pm Saturday, June 26, 2021

By D.G. Martin

President Joe Biden has ordered the troops in Afghanistan to be home by September.

Why does one North Carolina man promise to continue his work there?

David Zucchino, winner earlier this month of a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy,” lives in Durham. He plans to keep working in Afghanistan “until the bitter end.”

Why?

Zucchino, a former reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer and the Los Angles Times, currently writes about Afghanistan for The New York Times.

He explains, “I am fascinated by the place. I’ve been going there for 20 years and we’re at a really pivotal moment in Afghanistan. I was there for the tail end of the invasion and been going back and forth I don’t know how many times since then. I know a lot of people there, been to a lot of places there and really care about the country. I want to be there when things shake out, and later this year I think we’re going to see some big changes.”

In a May 6 article for the Times, Zucchino summarized the 20-year history of American involvement in Afghanistan, concluding, “A combat mission that has dogged four presidents – who reckoned with American casualties, a ruthless enemy and an often corrupt and confounding Afghan government partner – is at last coming to an end.”

Coming to an end, but not yet at an end, as Zucchino explained in two Times’ articles earlier this month.

In a June 5 article, Zucchino relates the story of Afghan air force Maj. Naiem Asadi who had been in hiding with his wife and daughter, age five, for seven months. The Taliban had threatened him, posting his photo online with instructions: “Find him and kill him.”

After initially being turned down for a refugee application for permission to enter the United States, Assadi was granted a “humanitarian parole” by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Assadi and his family have safely relocated to the U.S. aided by Kimberley Motley, a North Carolina-based human rights attorney.

But his story raises questions about other Afghan pilots, many of whom could be targets of the Taliban. Lt. Col. Jalaluddin Ibrahimkhel, an Afghan Air Force spokesman, stated, “It’s a pity. He did this to escape from serving his homeland” and that others were now more likely to “make excuses and escape.”

Zuchinno writes, “Many pilots and soldiers have been threatened by the Taliban. Most can only dream of relocating their families to the United States.”

Another group of Afghans whose service to Americans puts them at risk are those who served as interpreters.

In a June 10 Times article coauthored by Najim Rahim, Zucchino quotes former interpreter Shoaib Walizada, “I get phone calls from the Taliban saying, ‘We will kill you’  – they know who I am and that I worked for the Americans.”

Zucchino continues, “Now, as American troops depart and Afghans experience a growing sense of anxiety and despair, the visa applications have taken on renewed urgency. With the Taliban taking advantage of the U.S. withdrawal, many former interpreters say they are more likely than ever to be killed.”

Zucchino reports that more than 18,000 Afghans are awaiting decisions on their applications, for Special Immigrant Visas (“SIVs”) according to the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.  “Many say they are seized by dread, fearing they will be denied, or approved only after they have been hunted down and killed.”

The fates of Afghan military and interpreters will be only two of the many stories Zucchino will report as the American military withdrawal continues and after its completion.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.

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