The Afghan interpreter who helped rescue then-senator Joe Biden and other senators following a forced helicopter landing in 2008 is now safely housed with his family in a military base in Doha, Qatar. But a month and a half ago, when a group of armed men who “looked like the Taliban...with beards and turbans” came to Mohammad Aman Khalili’s safehouse in Kabul, he feared for his life and the safety of his wife and five children.
“It was very scary for me,” Khalili told BuzzFeed News during a video call on WhatsApp. He asked himself, Was it a trap?
As it turned out, a special forces team, dressed like the Taliban, were in Kabul to secretly escort the family out of the city. His rescuer, whom he called "Rollin," spoke perfect English.
But Khalili, 50, was still nervous about putting his faith in a man he’d never met.
Rollin, who appeared to lead the crew of about 10 men, pulled Khalili aside and assured him he was there to help. To prove it, he called his cellphone, showing he’d been given his number.
BuzzFeed News had a two-hour conversation with Khalili late Monday night until early Tuesday morning, much of which still cannot be reported to ensure the safety of those still trying to flee Afghanistan. Khalili laid out the dayslong trek that led him to Pakistan and then ultimately Doha, where he and his family are receiving COVID-19 shots and other necessary medical attention.
The United States began evacuating American citizens and their allies from Afghanistan in late July as the 20-year war began to come to a close. But as Taliban forces took control of the country and drew close to Kabul, it became evident that many Afghan allies of the US who were still waiting on the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program would be left behind. Khalili is probably the most famous example of someone who became trapped in his country.
In late August, President Biden committed to evacuating Afghans who worked with the US government, but he reiterated that the US’s top priority was to help Americans leave the country as thousands waited outside Hamid Karzai International Airport.
A day after the US evacuations ended on Aug. 30, Khalili made a public plea to Biden in the Wall Street Journal: “Save me and my family.”
Although the administration has not been clear about the exact number of Afghans who worked with the US government who are left in the country, the New York Times reported in late August that at least 250,000 Afghans who may have been eligible for expedited visas remained.
Khalili worked for a total of nine and a half years as an interpreter in Afghanistan and was part of Operation Nazrahal, according to Brian Genthe, a Purple Heart recipient who played a major role in Khalili’s escape. Khalili left his position after he fell sick and became, he said, “unfit for the job.” Before going into hiding, he said he worked as a taxi driver using a car older than his 24-year-old son.
Khalili said he applied to the SIV program 16 years earlier but was denied, something he characterized as a “misunderstanding.” In July, he reapplied.
“I understood the situation [would] become very tense and horrifying in my country and a crisis would happen,” he said. “I was worried about my life very deeply.”
The Khalili family's departure from Kabul was controlled chaos. The family spent days in hotels and safe houses and rode for hours to different parts of the country, including taking multiple trips to the Afghanistan–Pakistan border within a 24-hour period. Khalili recalls the speedometer reading 120 kilometers per hour as they moved through Afghanistan.
The entire journey lasted about six weeks, filled with moments of uncertainty and an uncomfortable level of trust in strangers. The travel routes were swarming with Taliban checkpoints. At times, members of the Taliban would board the buses two at a time scouring the passengers to match photos on their phones.
“They have some pictures on their cellphones,” he said. “They are not showing you the pictures. They are kind of turning their cellphones and looking at the people's faces.”
Khalili never witnessed anyone being taken off the buses, and the Taliban did not bother him or his family. “Here in the culture of Afghanistan, when you are sitting with your wife, when you’re going with a female, they do not ask you any questions,” he said.
Along the trip, someone advised the family to get rid of any documents outside of a national ID and passport. So Khalili had to leave behind momentos from the US and Afghanistan militaries. Western clothes were also on the do-not-carry list.
“If they searched the luggage and saw these clothes, they would understand you are going outside of Afghanistan and you will face a problem,” he told BuzzFeed News. So the family threw away their jeans and T-shirts and took photos of documents before they burned them.
American allies in Afghanistan have had to make painstaking decisions in the last several months, most clearly exemplified by a photo from this summer's evacuations of an Afghan man handing a baby over a barbed wire wall to a military officer outside the airport in Kabul. Khalili was offered an opportunity to cross the Pakistani border separately from his family but declined. Who will protect my wife on the other side of the border if I’m here and they are over there? he recalled thinking.
In order to fit in, at the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, Khalili purchased Balochi pants, long dresses, and head wraps for his wife and daughters.
And after months in hiding and weeks of traveling, the family took a 10-minute walk across the border.
He expects to be in the US soon. The family received their SIVs on Oct. 11, per documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
"We are grateful for the continued support of our Pakistani and US partners for evacuating the family of Aman Khalili," said Safi Rauf, the founder of Human First Coalition, a team of volunteers assisting Americans and their allies exit Afghanistan.
Khalili does not remember much about Biden’s 2008 rescue, except that it was the only assignment where he felt like he was working as a US soldier. “My commander told me, ‘Whenever the fighting is getting intense, you are allowed to have a rifle from one of these guys’” with which he was to shoot at the enemy. Having that kind of access “was not normal.”
Khalili said he appreciates Biden for keeping his promise and looks forward to showing his appreciation in person and advancing their friendship.
“The first thing, if I get a chance, I have to meet my buddy, even if he is the president of the United States. I have to go and greet him. ‘Hey, this is me, Aman Khalili, I worked under the cover of the United States forces or the US Defense Department, but I was that guy. I came to rescue you and the other people.’
“This is my desire, if I get a chance,” he said.