The names of the fallen in yesterday’s attack outside the Kabul airport are being published this afternoon but it’s the photos accompanying the stories written about them that’ll stop you cold. We have five names as I write this — Kareem Nikoui, Max Soviak, David Espinoza, Rylee McCollum, and Jared Schmitz — and every one had a babyface. Ages haven’t been provided for all five but the oldest appears to have been 22. Several were 20.
They were so young that not one of them had any recollection of the event that inspired the war in which they were killed, I’m sure. Their biographies are heavy on memories shared by high-school classmates because high school represents the bulk of the life they got to experience after childhood.
Young as he was, McCollum was married. And his widow is about three weeks away from delivering their child.
Nikoui’s father Steve lived a waking nightmare yesterday when he heard of the bombing at the airport. He knew his son was stationed there and decided to skip work for the day, camping out in front of the TV to wait for news. He told the Daily Beast that if the worst had occurred, he wanted to hear it before his wife and other son came home. At 7:15 p.m. he looked down at his phone and saw a group of Marines standing on his porch, visible through his doorbell camera. Imagine.
The Marines who came to deliver the news of Kareem’s death were “more choked up than me,” Nikoui said. “I was actually trying to console them. But at the same time, I just wanted them to get out as soon as possible so that no one from my family came back and saw them. I thought it appropriate that I be able to tell them.”…
Through tears, Nikoui expressed flashes of anger along with his anguish. He said he wants to “respect the office” of the president, but doesn’t have much love for President Joe Biden at the moment. A Trump supporter, Nikoui was happy that Trump was in office when Kareem joined the Marines. “I really believed this guy didn’t want to send people into harm’s way,” he said.
“They sent my son over there as a paper pusher and then had the Taliban outside providing security,” said Nikoui. “I blame my own military leaders… Biden turned his back on him. That’s it.”
It’d be understandable, if unfair, for a father swallowed by grief to blame the president for his son’s death if the withdrawal process had been well-planned and well-executed. But under the circumstances, what possible response is there to Nikoui? If Bagram hadn’t been foolishly abandoned, if the rapid withdrawal hadn’t left the Afghan army without crucial logistical support, if the withdrawal deadline had been renegotiated and extended to later this year, if the evacuations had begun months ago in order to avert a crisis like the one we’re in now, there’s every reason to believe Kareem would be alive. His death was avoidable.
How does the Nikoui family live with that?
The killing of people who’ve had America turn its back on them has only just begun, though. Today Pro Publica has the story of an Afghan who won the U.S. “visa lottery” two years ago, making him one of 55,000 eligible for immigration to the U.S. out of a pool of 23 million applicants. Two years later he’s still stuck in Kabul and is so convinced that he’ll be killed that he let the news outlet publish his name.
He has already burned the letters of commendation his relatives received for their work with American contractors or allied militaries. The Taliban already know, he says, that he’s part of a pro-American family. His neighbors have told him they’ve been visited by strangers asking about him.
A March 2020 ban signed by President Donald Trump, citing a need to protect the American economy, prevented Akbari and visa lottery winners from entering the U.S. In response to a lawsuit by immigration lawyers, a federal judge ruled earlier this month that the government has to move ahead on processing thousands of last year’s lottery winners. But the U.S. has told the judge it can’t even start until fall 2022 at the earliest.
He has a wife and three-year-old daughter. Whether they’ll be killed too or reduced to sexual slavery instead is unknown right now. But the stories of Nikoui and Akbari in tandem are a reminder that the Afghanistan war is a bipartisan failure.
I’ll leave you with this viral clip of Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, who felt moved by yesterday’s attack to call out his leadership for its failures knowing that that sort of criticism while in uniform would mean discipline. He was willing to risk his career, said Scheller, because he couldn’t understand how commanders could have rubber-stamped a plan as half-assed as the order to abandon Bagram knowing that that might turn the evacuation into a fiasco. He has in fact been disciplined as of today: He wrote within the last few hours that he’s been “relieved for cause based on a lack of trust and confidence.” Which is ironic, since that was precisely his grievance with the brass. “The first person held accountable for the failures in Afghanistan is a military leader who called out the failures in Afghanistan,” said Matt Whitlock of Scheller’s firing.