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The Escape Artist

6 1 0
16.10.2021

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 steered 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 steered 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........

© Foreign Policy


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