The Foreign Service Journal, May 2023

78 MAY 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Afghanistan Evacuation: The Human Dimension The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan Mitchell Zuckoff, Penguin RandomHouse, 2023, $28.99/hardcover, e-book available, 336 pages. Reviewed by P. Michael McKinley Contentious hearings on the August 2021 American withdrawal fromAfghanistan are underway in the U.S. Congress; there is unlikely to be a timelier reminder or better exposition of the human dimension of what happened during those weeks than The Secret Gate by Mitchell Zuckoff. The American-led evacuation of more than 120,000 people from the airport in Kabul as the country fell to the Taliban is seared into the memories of everyone who lived through it—Afghans, Americans, and the nationals of the dozens of countries that had assisted Afghanistan since 2001. To that list we should add those who had served in the country over the previous 20 years and responded from wherever they were and in real time to the desperate pleas for help fromAfghans they had come to know—and from those they did not. In The Secret Gate , Zuckoff tells the story of the evacuation fromAfghanistan through the eyes of Ms. Homeira Qaderi, an Afghan author and feminist activist who resisted leaving her homeland, and of SamAronson, a Foreign Service officer who volunteered to help with the evacu- ation. He relies extensively on interviews with both and makes clear none of the dialogue in the book is a fiction. (Zuckoff is also the author of Thirteen Hours , a best-selling account of the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American officials.) Zuckoff does not spend much time explaining the history of the U.S. engagement with Afghani- stan after the terrorist attacks on 9/11—or on the politics of the withdrawal. He assumes a certain familiarity among readers of a wrenching event that is still fresh in so many minds. The Complexity of Individual Choices In any case, he is not interested in scoring points; the book is an accessible account of how peoples’ lives are upended in a moment and how they choose to react in extreme circumstances. The author’s attention to detail helps crystal- ize the complexity and unpredictability of individual choices, from the moment the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15 to two days before the final departure of Ameri- can forces on Aug. 30. One-sentence vignettes and observa- tions expertly illuminate the universe of people caught up in the tragedy of the fall of Kabul: certainly that of Qaderi and Aronson, but also of Afghan families deep in indecision and fear; concerned friends trying to assist from afar; Ameri- can security personnel both helping and constrained by a dangerous security envi- ronment; and State Department officers balancing the physical and emotional toll of implementing the guidelines on who qualifies for evacuation under an impos- sible deadline. As Zuckoff describes Homeira Qaderi’s growing awareness of just how dangerous the Taliban takeover of Kabul is becoming, he brings to life a residential quarter of the city where families live largely undis- turbed in apartments and watch events unfold on still-uncensored news channels, where children continue to attend school, and where women walk the streets to go to mar- kets—until by the second week, the streets of Kabul grow quieter, shops close down, and the Taliban pres- ence becomes more evident. This is also a twilight world, where Qaderi continues to speak out against the Taliban on her social media accounts with half a million followers and in interviews on Afghan TOLOnews, and where she is in touch with her American literary agent. As Qaderi struggles with whether to leave Afghanistan, Zuckoff highlights how the conflict between political activism and personal safety is front and center. She directs anger at the Taliban—and the United States. At one point, she observes that “those who are leaving are leaving for the future. My future is now” in Kabul, in the fight she still believes possible against the Taliban. The contrast with the experiences and motivations of SamAronson, the Foreign Service officer who helped her escape, is inspired. Aronson had spent seven years in the State Department, the first two with Diplomatic Security, and was between assignments when he seized the opportunity to volunteer for service at Kabul Airport. His motivations, candidly described as being a mix of wanting to be where the action was and doing important work, morphed into a compelling drive to help people. Zuckoff’s descriptions of the condi- tions inside the airport, and of the effort to provide some structure to the days will be recognizable to readers who have served in other conflicts around the world. The personal toll is significant at the airport gates, as officers decide who will be evacuated, and who will not, wondering if those they turn away will face retaliation or worse. BOOKS