The Afghan Army’s Last Commander On How His Country Really Fell

Haibatullah Alizai recounts the final five harrowing days of his government and how he reluctantly became the Afghan Army’s last general.

byHoward AltmanJun 9, 2022 1:08 PM
Haibatullah Aliza
Haibatullah Alizai/Howard Altman
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Though his President and Defense minister fled hours earlier, and with the Taliban fast approaching Kabul, Haibatullah Alizai was not ready to surrender.

It was the evening of Aug. 15, 2021. Alizai, a lauded special operations commander, had been given control of Afghanistan's remaining army just days before. And now he was trying to convince the American Navy SEAL two-star admiral in charge of Kabul security to let him declare martial law and allow his small band of the best troops remaining in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from entering the city.

“‘Are you going to support us with martial law?’” Alizai says he asked Peter Vasely, the former SEAL Team Six member. “‘I'm going to declare it.’”

Nearly 10 months later, Haibatullah Alizai is living in a suburban Maryland home, where he still hasn’t given up his goal of getting rid of the Taliban. He spends his days talking to former Afghan generals and politicians in an effort to one day form a new government.

In a wide-ranging series of exclusive interviews with The War Zone that began with a visit to that home in April, Alizai confirmed much of what was in a recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report laying out why the nation fell so quickly. It was a report he contributed to as one of the people interviewed by SIGAR.

As he tells me about his desperate attempt to save his country, Alizai leans forward in a blue armchair in his sparse living room. He works a black tasbeh - Islamic prayer beads - in his right hand.

He is living here rent-free. The use of the home was donated to him after an image taken of him, sitting forlornly on the curb of a Virginia military base serving as a camp for Afghan refugees, went viral.

It is midday during Ramadan, but despite his hunger, thirst, and overall unease at being in a safe place while so many of his fellow Afghans still suffer, Haibatullah Alizai wants to talk. He spends nearly three hours explaining how he got to be the head of Afghanistan’s army for its last five days despite his protests, and how his daring and dangerous mission to rescue Afghan forces stuck in Kandahar on the night his nation fell. He prevented Hamid Karzai from taking charge of Afghanistan again, and still believes the Taliban takeover could have been avoided. 

If only someone had listened.

The final blow

To many, the two-decade effort to create a stable, democratic Afghanistan was already a lost cause by the spring of 2021, one that cost 2,400 U.S. lives and $2.3 trillion. But to Alizai, the beginning of the end really came on April 14, 2021.

That’s when President Joe Biden announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, starting on May 1 and ending September 11.

Alizai, at the time commander of Afghan Special Operations Forces, was in Kandahar leading an operation against the Taliban when he heard the news of Biden’s decision on the radio.

Afghan security forces were floundering for a myriad of reasons. The stalled peace talks, negotiated under former President Donald Trump, were a major blow. But Biden’s announcement still took Alizai by surprise. And caused him a great deal of consternation.

He told me he was concerned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would cut off the ability to conduct the kinds of rapid strikes against the Taliban that had proved most successful. And that it would diminish the Afghan military’s ability to support itself after the pull-out.

“The Afghanistan war was not regular war, that you could use an army with big numbers and heavy machines on the ground,” he said. “It was irregular war. It was guerrilla warfare. And in guerrilla warfare, you needed to have quick reaction tools, quick reaction forces. And we were not in a stage to take that responsibility.”

Biden’s announcement not only meant would there be no more U.S. troops in the country - of which there were only about 2,500 left at the time. It also meant there would be no more contractors to repair Afghan helicopters, night-vision goggles, and all other accessories and equipment they had. 

“It became a big challenge for us,” Alizai said. “We were not expecting that it would be stopped that way. We thought there will be some flexibility with this from the US side, that okay, if the troops are leaving, the companies stay in Afghanistan to make our helicopters and aircrafts run smoothly and help us with conducting operations. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.”

Afghan Defense Minister, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, promotes Haibatullah Alizai to lieutenant general on Aug. 11, 2011. (Haibatullah Alizai photo)

But Alizai still had a job to do, so he pushed aside his disappointment because he was still a believer.

“As a soldier, as a general, I had the confidence that we can keep up Afghanistan because one day US troops will withdraw,” he said. “That's [the] reality. After 100 years, they will withdraw. They will go. So if still [sic] we are not ready to take responsibility, what will happen?”

Alizai said despite his concerns over Biden’s withdrawal announcement, his confidence in the ability of Afghans to defend themselves was well-earned.

Afghanistan's “armed forces are fully prepared to crush any hostile move by the Taliban once the U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from the country,” he said in an April 28, 2021 interview.

"At that time, we were really crushing [the] Taliban," Alizai told me. "Arghandab was cleared, with at least 2,000 to 3,000 casualties to the Taliban side. Lashkar Gah [the capital of Helmand province] was cleared."

The victories were aided by U.S. airpower, said Alizai.

“They helped us in Kandahar and Helmand, in Kunduz and Nangarhar,” he said. “So that was also giving us a hope that yeah, that things are going in the right direction.”

That hope didn’t float for long though.

By May, U.S. airstrikes began to taper off, down to 72 sorties from a 2021 peak of 142 in January. On May 4, the Taliban launched a new offensive in Helmand and six other provinces. Local Afghan leaders, seeing the Taliban advance and now knowing the U.S. was about to cut and run, began negotiations on their own, Alizai said. That exacerbated the unfolding collapse and led to the last five days of the Afghan government, during which Alizai served as the last Army Chief Of Staff.

Aug. 10

With much of Afghanistan in control of the Taliban, Alizai received a call from Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan.

Alizai was in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, helping his good friend, Sami Sadat, who used to be the 215 Corps commander in the southwest of Afghanistan.

“He said, ‘Alizai, what do you think if I send you to the north?’” Alizai recalled Ghani telling him.

The initial plan was to install Alizai as a corps commander based out of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. But Alizai said he balked.

“‘If you put me as the corps commander there, it is not going to work out,’” Alizai said he told Ghani, "'because still, I will have to ask for commandos, I will have to ask for air force, and no one will provide that to me. So I will automatically fail there.’”

Instead, Alizai said he suggested heading up north in his role as SOF commander.

“‘I will call you back in a half-hour,’” Alizai said Ghani told him.

A short while later, he received another call, only this time from Hamdullah Mohib, the controversial former Afghan National Security Adviser.

He was calling to tell Alizai that there was a new plan.

Ghani wanted to make Alizai the new Chief Of The General Staff, replacing General Wali Ahmadzai, under whose command Afghan forces were reeling.

But once again, Alizai said he did not want this wartime promotion. He thought he could do more good for Afghanistan leading the best of its forces in the field.

“I told him, ‘Mr. Mohib, this is too late. Don't put me anywhere else. I'm on it. I have commandos and special forces. Worst case scenario, I can keep Kabul safe.”

Mohib said no.

“It’s the President’s order,” Alizai said he told Mohib.

Alizai again pushed back.

“I said, ‘look, please tell the President, don't push me for this. This is now a different situation than the last two weeks.’”

Then Alizai presented a different option.

“‘I need to stay here to command and control the SOF community,’” he told Mohib. “I said, ‘put Sami as Chief Of General Staff.’”

Mohib asked where Sami Sadat was.

Sadat was right next to him, Alazai said.

“‘Talk to him.’”

After a short discussion with Sadat, Mohib reached a conclusion.

“‘Okay, Sami will be Chief Of The General Staff.’”

But Alazai’s relief was short-lived.

Despite his protests, Haibatullah Alizai was named Chief of the General Staff of the Afghan army on Aug. 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy Haibatullah Alizai)

“A half-hour later, again, I got a call,” he tells me, his voice rising ever so slightly. “And the President says that ‘you're going to be the Chief Of General Staff. And we will put Sami in as commander of Afghan National Army Special Operations.’”

With a sigh of exasperation, Alizai tells me he still disagreed with that decision and wanted Mohib to know.

“I just had to have my voice about the situation,” he said.

“‘If you want to do this, I’m not happy,’” he said he told Mohib. “‘But still, if you want to do it, it’s okay.’”

His protests exhausted, Alizai prepared to travel to Kabul, resigned to the reality that whatever happened next, he was going to be the man in charge of the Afghan Army.

Aug. 11

There was a high threat to helicopters out of Lashkar Gah during the daytime, so Alizai waited until the cover of night, leaving sometime after 2 a.m. for Camp Bastion in Helmand province. After another long wait, he hopped on another flight, arriving in Kabul around 1 p.m., where he headed to his old office at Hamid Karzai International Airport to get the latest update from the rapidly collapsing front lines.

As he was traveling, Reuters and the Washington Post came out with what was big news at the time.

The Taliban - who controlled 65% of Afghanistan and had taken or threatened 11 provinces - could isolate Kabul in 30 days and potentially take it over in 90 days, a U.S. defense official told Reuters that day, citing a U.S. intelligence assessment.

The pace of the Taliban advance - capturing eight provinces in six days - had taken U.S. officials by surprise, Reuters reported.

Alizai did not see either story. He was too busy trying to save his country. But as soon as he arrived at his office, Alizai found out how bad things really were.

That U.S. intelligence assessment, dire as it may have appeared outside of Kabul, was relatively rosy compared to what he was being told.

“I was busy with the Kunduz situation and northeast of Afghanistan,” he said. The Taliban had captured the city of Kunduz, but troops from the 217 Corps were holding out at a nearby military base. Taluqan, the capital of Takhar province, had also been recently captured.

And then there was the ceremony, during which he was introduced as the new Chief Of The General Staff and promoted to lieutenant general.

But there was no time to celebrate. 

During the ceremony, the 217 Corps pulled out of Kunduz.

“And this was the start,” he said. “I lost my focus on a specific elite force that could keep Kabul safe.”

Instead, Alizai was dealing with seven or eight Afghan Army corps commanders across the country who weren’t fighting back.

“There was not a call that ‘we have fought in this area,’” Alizai said. The only thing the commanders were telling him was “‘we can’t resist.’”

Alizai was angry. He was angry at the commanders who were not fighting, but also at those commanders who had ignored a plan he put on their desks months before to prevent the collapse.

It boiled down to withdrawing Afghan forces from between 85% and 90% of the country and consolidating in four to six places, forming a defensive bubble around Kabul. Otherwise, with his forces too thinly spread out and local leaders working deals with the Taliban, there was no way to stop the onslaught.

“The analysis I put on the President’s table, and the [Afghan National Security Council]’s table back in June became reality,” he said. “No one was fighting. And everyone wanted to find a way to negotiate with [the] Taliban, and surrender. And it became a subculture.”

The departure of foreign troops and the advance of the Taliban contributed to mounting political and economic insecurity in the country. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It started, he said, from local forces, then to the National Police and the National Army. 

“The only troops that never surrendered to Taliban, never negotiated with Taliban, was the SOF community,” he said.

It was at this moment, on his first day as Chief Of The General Staff, that he knew Afghanistan was lost.

“When I realized that we can't resist anymore in such a way, it was already too late,” he said.

With his original plan now outdated, Alizai said he had to come up with a new one.

“I had to think different[ly],” Alizai said. “To think different[ly] was to keep Kabul safe. And for how long? At least for two or three years.”

Taking an inventory of Taliban advances and his rapidly diminishing forces, Alizai was convinced this was the right option.

“When I realized that, okay, the 217 Corps is gone. We don’t know when the 207 Corps in Herat will go. When the Kandahar corps will go. When the Laskhar Gah Helmand corps will go and the south and east corps go. So now we need to put Kabul as the top priority.”

So on his first day in his new job, Alizai shifted his focus on Kabul and called a meeting with the Kabul leadership that included a Capital Division Commander, the Chief Of Police, the Head of the National Security Directorate, some of his operational generals, and troops and members of the intelligence community.

They decided to put rings of security around the capital.

“We needed to keep the Maidan Wardak, Kapisa, Logar, and Lachman fronts active,” Alizai said. “And then we could put two or three more rings around Kabul City and then districts of Kabul.”

Aug. 12

Alizai held his first security meeting as Chief Of The General Staff at the presidential palace.

Ghani attended, as did two of his deputies - Amrullah Saleh and Sarwar Danesh - National Security Advisor Hamidullah Mohib and several leaders of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces.

The Taliban onslaught continued unchecked, with both Herat and Farah provinces falling. So one of Alizai's first moves was to shake up the Afghan military leadership. He asked Ghani to fire General Turyalai Farahi, the operations director, who he said was failing.

Taliban militants are seen inside the Ghazni city, eastern Afghanistan, Aug. 12, 2021. (Photo by Str/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Ghani agreed.

After the meeting, as Ghani was about to drive away, Alizai approached and asked him to appoint General Mustafa Wardak to replace Farahi.

"In this moment, the President turned around and said to Hamdullah Mohib, 'put anyone Alizai says in that position,'" Alizai said.

He also reached out to his logistics and training team and told them that any soldiers on leave from any corps should come to the Kabul Military Training Center. There they would be fed, given weapons and ammunition, and trained to secure Kabul city.

Aug. 13

The internal drama continued.

Despite Ghazi's assertion that Alizai would have his choice of operations director, Vice President Saleh rejected Wardak. That left Alizai to find someone else, so he suggested General Mir Asadullah Kohistani.

Internal politics, however, wasn't Alizai's biggest concern that day. Kandahar, to the south, had also fallen to the Taliban, which presented another dilemma.

Alizai received a call from U.S. advisors telling him they needed help evacuating about 2,000 members of Counter Terror Pursuit Team 03, along with three American advisors who were stuck at the base in Kandahar as the Taliban approached.

Taliban militants are seen inside the Kandahar city, southern Afghanistan, Aug. 13, 2021. Taliban militants on Friday claimed to have taken control over key southern Afghan cities of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, after weeks of heavy clashes between the Taliban and government forces. (Photo by Str/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Wanting to bring as many SOF teams from around the country as possible to defend Kabul, Alizai arranged for Afghan Air Force C-130 cargo planes to begin evacuating them that night.

It was mostly successful.

But it would take a daring and dangerous mission two nights later to retrieve the remaining troops.

Aug. 14

Senior Afghan government leaders were engaged in back-channel negotiations with the Taliban, trying to keep them from taking Kabul by force in exchange for an interim power-sharing deal.

Even though a deal was secured, one that would also allow for the evacuation of foreign nationals, Alizai was sticking to his own plans. He said he was able to gather about 3,000 SOF troops and another 10,000 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to keep the Taliban out of Kabul by force, if necessary.

“Dr. Mohib messaged me and said Mr. Rahimi is negotiating with [the] Taliban and you should contact him to be briefed,” Alizai recalled. “I did try Mr. Rahimi’s phone, but it was showing switched off so I decided to continue defending Kabul anyway.”

But just as he was finalizing those plans, President Ghani called again.

It was 5 p.m.

Ghani wanted Alizai at the presidential palace in a half-hour, for “an urgent meeting.”

U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson was there from the American side. So too were Vasily and the CIA Chief of Station.

Alizai was a little late and the men were waiting for him.

“What’s the plan?” Ghani asked him.

“We have a good plan for Kabul,” Alizai responded.

There were only three corps remaining, one in Mazar-e-Sharif, another in Nangarhar, and one in Kabul.

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani speaks in a televised address in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, Aug. 14, 2021. President Ghani on Saturday vowed to prevent instability in his war-battered country amid the intensified fighting and the Taliban's advance toward major cities. (Photo by Rahmatullah Alizadah/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Alizai told Ghani that he wanted to consolidate troops arrayed in provinces around Kabul, as well as in the city itself.

Those forces would be supported by Afghan SOF units already in Kabul, as well as the counterterror troops known as “Zero Units” that were working with U.S. and Afghan intelligence agencies.

Alizai’s last-ditch plan also involved what was left of the Afghan air force - A-29 Super Tucano and AC-208 Eliminator light attack aircraft and MD-530 Little Bird helicopters

The aircraft would launch from HKIA and conduct support strikes for the ground troops.

Afghan Air Force personnel practice assembling and loading laser-guided bombs onto the A-29 with an inert weapon. They have not employed this capability in combat. (Photo USAF)

The plan, Alizai told those gathered at the presidential palace, could buy Afghanistan two or three years of resistance, turning the capital city into a version of Panjshir in the 1990s when the Taliban first took over.

Alizai received one question from the American side.

“‘How long do you need for this plan to work, Alizai?’” he remembered Ambassador Wilson asking him. “‘Because it doesn’t look easy.’”

“‘Seventy-two hours to a week,’” Alizai responded.

Ghani liked the plan.

But after the meeting was over, Mohib, the National Security Adviser, was less optimistic, acknowledging that there was no time left to implement Alizai’s plan.

For Alizai, the grim reality had finally sunk in.

“‘Look, this is too late,’” he told Mohib. “‘I can’t make a big difference. But I will do my best to stop this.’”

By the time he got back to his office, there was more bad news.

Mazar-e-Sharif was in the hands of the Taliban. So too was Nangarhar.

Staying in his office all night, Alizai fielded messages from the front lines.

“Every message was [a] disaster,” he told me. “[There] Was panic. [There] Was a problem. [There were] No solutions.”

Aug. 15

As the hours melted into the next day, the 201st Corps in the east surrendered.

Later that day, Alizai had a meeting with Rear Admiral Vasely at Resolute Support, the Kabul compound hosting leaders of the dying 20-year-effort to defeat the Taliban and establish a democratic Afghanistan.

U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, meets with U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Capt. William Urban)

On the drive over, Alizai noticed the panic in the streets.

“Even in Kabul, the panic is rising every minute,” he said.

It was around this time that Alizai’s wife of a decade and their three children took off on a flight out of Kabul, heading to India.

Alizai told his commanders that after the meeting, he would give them directions on how to resist the Taliban.

But when he arrived at Resolute Support headquarters, he learned that the situation was deteriorating.

Kapisa province, about 40 miles northeast of Kabul, had fallen. 

Despite that, Alizai continued to push for the defense of the capital by relying heavily on the Counter Terror Pursuit Team's 02 unit.

During the meeting, Alizai said the Americans asked him about the security of the road to Bagram Air Base and whether there were any existing Taliban threats at the time.

“‘If you drive there, you will be safe and you will save the entire area,’” he said he told the Americans.

But when he came out of the meeting, Alizai learned it was too late.

Afghan forces, who were given control of the huge Bagram air base outside of Kabul in July, evacuated while he was still in the meeting.

After nearly 20 years the U.S. military left Bagram airfield, the center of operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban in the country. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Shortly after noon, Alizai returned to the Ministry of Defense, where, he said, “there was a high level of panic.”

In an effort to establish some degree of calm, he decided to call a press conference, to counter the growing public perception that the Taliban had already entered Kabul in force.

“Our intelligence agency was saying that none of the Taliban forces have entered, except for maybe some of the Taliban leaders who came to Kabul City to coordinate things with the previous Afghan government officials.”

At 1 p.m. the press conference went live.

“We told everybody to stay calm,” Alizai said.

About a half-hour later, he received a call from the President’s Office. Ghani wanted to talk to him in a group call with the directors of the NDS and MoI.

But before Ghani got on the call, the line went dead.

“I thought maybe the President didn’t want to talk,” said Alizai, who went back to planning Kabul’s defense, and then to his office around 2:30 p.m. for the afternoon prayers.

That’s when the Minister of Defense called and asked him to come to his office.

When he got there, a panicked Bismillah Khan Mohammadi had some startling news.

“He said the President has left Afghanistan,” Alizai recalled, adding that he was surprised. Just a day earlier, he’d assured Ghani that his plan to save Kabul would work.

Still, Alizai said he smiled when he heard about Ghani’s departure.

“He left,” Alizai told me. “Good. If he doesn't want to do it anymore, it made it easy. Let's announce martial law. We'll keep Kabul. And we will expand in the future.”

But with Ghani only recently departed, Mohammadi was in no position to approve Alizai’s plan.

Moments later, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Mohammadi.

Alizai said he stopped former Afghan President Hamid Karzai from returning to office as the Taliban advanced on Kabul. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Karzai had also heard the news about Ghani.

“‘What do you think?’” Karzai asked Mohammadi in a conversation Alizai said he could hear because it was conducted on speaker phone. 

And then Mohammadi asked Karzai, “‘What do you think?’”

Karzai seized on Ghani’s departure.

“‘Don't you think we should go to the palace?’” Alizai remembers Karzai telling Mohammadi. “Meaning, ‘take me to the palace. I will become the President.’”

Alizai shook his head in disapproval.

Mohammadi told Karzai that everyone was going to the Kabul airport.

“‘I am going there,’” he told Karzai. “‘And you can come there and we will discuss what to do because some other leaders are there.’”

Karzai hung up and Mohammadi left for the airport.

During Karzai’s call, Alizai said he thought of all the reasons why having the former president return to power was a bad idea.

“I thought President Hamid Karzai is not anymore a good fit for the Afghan leadership, because he had his chance from 2001 to 2014,” said Alizai, who ticked off a list of grievances.

During that time, there were 150,000 U.S. and international troops and billions of dollars flowing into Afghanistan, Alizai noted.

“And in that situation, he could not leave a good army for Afghanistan. He did not establish a good government system in Afghanistan. He was always throwing all of the faults on the international community, regardless of thinking there were options that he could use to make good governance and good governance in Afghanistan.”

Instead, Karzai put all his “problems and faults on the people who came to Afghanistan to help you. To serve you. To put billions of dollars in your pocket. So why should we bring this guy in such a crisis situation that he surely can't manage that situation?”

Instead of a return to the corrupt old ways, Alizai said he wanted to establish an interim “disciplined military government” that would be replaced by elections after the situation stabilized.

“So all of these things were just circulating in my mind,” Alizai told me. “And that's why I stopped Karzai from becoming president." I told the minister, "'no, don't make this mistake again.’”

With his president and defense minister gone, Alizai said he stayed in the Ministry Of Defense offices to think about what to do next.

He was in a tough spot.

“It’s a really hard situation where you are alone and have to make some decisions,” he said. “And even then, you can’t discuss things with others, because you don’t see them in a situation they will listen to you.”

So around 3 p.m., he called his good friend, Sami Sadat, who didn’t know Ghani had left, and made plans for a meeting to figure out the next moves.

Alizai called an urgent meeting of his remaining commanders and told them Ghani was gone and Mohammadi was in no position to make decisions.

“I told them this and I told them we need to declare martial law,” said Alizai.

Sadat was in the room. So too were generals Haseeb Nasiri, Qayum Salary, and a couple more.

“They just said, 'okay, we will do this,’” Alizai said.

A short while later, he took another trip to Resolute Support, to see Vasely. But first he stopped at the joint special forces operations center (JOC).

He wanted to conduct strikes in Kabul, but could see from the information at the JOC that there was no way he could. There weren’t enough troops or equipment.

The police had left Kabul city and troops had withdrawn from Maidan Wardak. But to the east of the city, Afghan special forces and the 111th Capitol Division were still in the fight.

Alizai pulled out his phone and showed pictures of what he said were Afghan forces engaging with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Alizai shows photos on his phone shared by his commanders in the field before the fall of Afghanistan. (Howard Altman photo)

“They were sending me pictures, saying that 'we killed five Taliban in this place. We took over Humvees from them.’”

That, he said, was why he had “confidence that we can keep Kabul.”

With that in mind, he went to visit Vasely. It was about 5:30 p.m.

But before going into the SEAL’s secure office, where he would not be able to have his cell phone, Alizai told Sadat to go in first because he still had to reach out to his field commanders.

He had to give them orders and tell them that the president and defense minister were gone, but that he was still in charge and they had to stay calm. The Taliban had yet to enter Kabul in force.

“They were saying, ‘yes, sir, we are already doing that.’”

Satisfied that his commanders had things under control as much as possible, Alizai walked into Vasely’s office and told him he was going to declare martial law and defend Kabul.

'Are you going to support us with martial law?’” he said he told Vasely. “'I'm going to declare it.’”

Alizai said he told Vasely he was going to make that declaration regardless of American support.

“I said 'look, Admiral, even if you don't support me, I'm going to do this,’” Alizai recalled. “So it would be good if you support us because I can't leave and I have a plan for Kabul.’”

That plan, he told Vasely, included utilizing U.S. Marines and special forces troops who arrived in Kabul assigned to assist with the massive non-combatant evacuation underway.

Alizai said he suggested using those troops in different parts of Kabul as he built new checkpoints around the city. Along with those Afghans who hadn’t yet surrendered, Alizai told Vasely he could form “'a ring of steel’” around Kabul and keep it out of Taliban hands for at least until 2024.

The world, Alizai added, “promised they will give us $3.2 billion.”

That money, he said, would help fund a standing force of upwards of 120,000, raised from Kabul, a city of about 7 million residents.

Vasley was incredulous, said Alizai.

“He was telling me that, ‘no, Alizai, you are crazy. You can’t do these things. There's no one left.’”

But Alizai said the Americans knew he was persistent.

“They knew me,” he said. “I could do it. Because most of the time, our American colleagues thought I can't do things and I would do it. And one time, General Miller came and said, 'Alizai, you know what’s weird about you? You never wait, fine. You do things. But the good thing is we're doing the right, not the wrong thing.’”

Vasely told Alizai that he was leaving Resolute Support to head to HKIA and that if he wanted a flight there, it could be arranged.

'Why should I fly to HKIA?’” he told Vasely. “'I can drive to HKIA anytime.’”

Leaving Vasely’s office, Alizai said the weight of the situation was closing in.

“I was really in a bad position, like it was so much stress,” he said. 

He told his commanders they should head to Dar Ulaman, in the western section of Kabul, to continue planning the defense of Kabul.

'So let's do this,’” he told his commanders, including his close friend Sami Sadat. But at around 8 p.m., with the Taliban closing in, Alizai was the last believer.

They told him that it was all over. And instead of Dar Ulaman, they drove him to HKIA instead.

Afghan people wanting to leave the country waiting around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26, 2021. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Once inside, Alizai received a call from Asadullah Khaled, a former Afghan Defense Minister. He said there was an Emirati C-17 that would pick him up and take him to Dubai.

Alizai refused, but Khaled kept calling.

He also ran into Bismillah, the most recent Defense Minister. Once again, Alizai said he was not leaving, that he wanted to find a way to fight on.

“These guys are not looking to fight and resist,” Alizai told me. “I don't know why. They are afraid or something.”

Around 8:30 p.m., Bismillah hopped on a flight out of Kabul.

An hour or so later, Alizai said he received a call from the Americans, asking for a favor.

Despite the rescue effort that began two days earlier, there were still more than 125 Afghan special forces troops, belonging to CTBT 03, left behind at Kandahar Airfield, where the Taliban were trying to get to them.

The Americans were asking Alizai if he could send a C-130 to rescue those troops, who faced certain death if captured by the Taliban.

At first, Alizai refused to help.

There was no one left, he told them.

But they were persistent.

“They said, ‘you need to do this,’” Alizai recalled. “'You can do it.’”

Exhausted and without any strength left, Alizai relented.

“I tried my best to help our brothers,” he said. “We have done a lot of things together in the last 20 years. Breaking the bridges [sic] is not a rational way. Now that we have lost the gamble, I don't want to lose the partners and friends.”

Alizai said he first had to find pilots. And the aircraft.

There were two C-130s at HKIA. One was good to go, but it was loaded with more than 200 people, many of them families of pilots waiting to leave Afghanistan.

The other Herk had recently suffered an engine failure.

Faced with a difficult decision, Alizai ordered everyone off the operable Herk.

“I told them I could have that one pick up the SOF guys,” Alizai said he told the Americans.

But first, he wanted some Marines to accompany him.

That request was turned down. Then the pilots had one.

“They told me 'we will go with the condition you fly with us,’” said Alizai, who began to weigh some uncomfortable options.

There is no maintenance in Kandahar. No fuel either. A mechanical problem in Kandahar would be “a total suicide.” 

They could also be caught by the Taliban. 

“Just imagine if something happened in Kandahar, what would happen to us?” he pondered. “But I took that risk.”

So at around 10:30 p.m., the C-130 rumbled down the long runway at HKIA and headed south toward Kandahar.

There was a lot of shooting upon landing, said Alizai, with one bullet hitting the Herk’s nose.

But Alizai said about 125 Afghan SOF troops clamored aboard, and by about 1 a.m. they returned to HKIA, the rescue mission a success.

In the interim, however, everything had changed.

Around the time Alizai took off on the rescue mission, the Taliban had entered the posh presidential palace and announced that they were now in control of the country.

"When we got back in Kabul Airport, my aide told me that [the] Taliban took over Kabul and by the time I was feeling we lost everything and we are defeated," Alizai said. "Now we need to find ways to get stood on our feet in the future and serve the Afghan nation."

Miller's recollections

In an exclusive interview with The War Zone, retired Army General Austin "Scott" Miller, the last four-star U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recalled Alizai as "a commander of action."

"He had a plan and he executed," Miller, who worked with Alizai, told The War Zone. He was "very much about trying to maintain the initiative and as much as possible avoid the political interference."  

Alizai "was one of those officers we were in search of throughout our time in Afghanistan — while corruption was always a problem for the Afghan Security Forces —the other problem was [a] lack of leadership that really cared about their soldiers, as well as [leadership which] understood how to fight the Taliban," Miller said.  

But Alizai and others were challenged because they were younger, said Miller — "and in some cases, seen as too close to the United States in the way they thought about this fight. This oftentimes put them at odds with their seniors."

However, he said, "from my viewpoint, we needed a real core of these younger officers — properly guided by the political leadership for this army to be successful. Unfortunately, we found them a little late in the campaign, and it was exceptionally difficult to shield them from some unproductive political interference from their leaders."

As noted earlier, Alizai expressed frustration with the way the withdrawal announcement was handled and feared losing continued U.S. support. He also wanted continued training for Afghan pilots. 

Miller said that while there were some training options in the works, everything changed when the Afghan security forces fell apart.

"There was an option to get pilots and CLS to UAE for continued training," said Miller. "It was in the works, but once the security forces collapsed it all became a moot point." 

As for continuing U.S. support for Afghan security forces, Miller said there was nothing to be done once Biden made his announcement.

"The U.S. announcement stipulated a full withdrawal of U.S. forces," he said. "Thus the means to directly support the Afghan Security Forces with advisors and air support was going to be gone." 

As for what Afghan military leaders like Alizai should do about leaving their country, Miller "was careful how I spoke to the Afghan Security Leaders post the decision to withdraw all forces."

The U.S. military, he said, "did build lists of those people we thought should be granted a legal pathway to settle in the United States based on their contributions to supporting our efforts in Afghanistan. Alizai was certainly on that list. Even after I departed I kept in contact with him and other senior officers. I know the situation was tenuous and prone to collapse quickly. What I didn’t want was for him and others to wait too long."    

Miller said he concurred with Alizai's advice about pulling back Afghan forces from far-flung provinces.

"My advice to both Alizai as well as President Ghani was that they had to decide where they would defend," he said. "Defending 'everywhere' was making the security forces exceptionally vulnerable—and prone to piecemeal defeat and or surrender."

And there are three key points with which Miller and Alizai fully agree.

Alizai said that the Doha deal, Biden's announcement, and the U.S. troop withdrawal were keys to the rapid Taliban takeover.

"I agree here," Miller said.   

Epilogue

After a number of failed attempts to link up with resistance fighters still holding out in Panjshir province, Haibatullah Alizai finally left Afghanistan, spending a week in Kuwait. While he was there, the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on Aug. 31. The chaotic end to 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan saw more than 120,000 rescued, but included the deaths of 13 U.S. troops and nearly 200 Afghans after an Islamic State suicide bomber blew himself up at the Abbey Gate of HKIA.

A view of the entrance of a hospital after an ISIS-K suicide bomber carried out an attack outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26, 2021. (Photo by Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

That incident took place on Aug. 26, the day Alizai arrived in Kuwait. He said before leaving Afghanistan, he shared information with U.S. intelligence agencies that ISIS-K was preparing some kind of attack, but he did not have specific details about where or when.

"I was not 100 percent sure they will attack," he said, "but I had information D'aesh was getting prepared to conduct attacks."

People attend a vigil for Navy Corpsman Maxton "Max" W. Soviak at Edison Middle School in Berlin Heights, Ohio on Aug. 29, 2021. Soviak was killed during the Aug. 26 terror attack outside of Kabul Airport in Afghanistan along with 12 other American service members and more than 100 Afghans. (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

Three days after the U.S. left Afghanistan, Alizai arrived in the U.S., at a Virginia military base on Sept. 3, 2021.

That’s where Alizai was captured in a now-iconic photo, sitting on a curb, looking forlorn.

It was actually a rare moment outside.

“I was feeling very bad,” he said. “I was getting calls from my soldiers left behind, from my brothers fighting in different parts of Afghanistan. And they were all suffering with really tough situations. It was giving me a hard time. It still gives me a hard time. And I was thinking. What should we do? What can I do? Why can't I help them? It was really difficult.”

The picture drew the attention of locals supporting Afghans and eventually Alizai was invited to move to suburban Maryland, where he is helped out by friends, along with a small stipend from the U.S. government.

“I don’t have a lot of expenses,” he said.

Haibatullah Alizai still has the uniform he wore as the last Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army. (Howard Altman photo)

He spends his days going to the gym and planning for a better future for Afghanistan.

A few months back, he spoke with SIGAR.

“I told them what were our failures and what were U.S. failures,” he said.

Much as Alizai told me back in April, the one-two punch of the Doha peace talks and Biden’s withdrawal announcement destroyed the morale of Afghan’s military, the SIGAR report found.

Alizai doesn’t believe that U.S. intelligence agencies were all that surprised by the rapid Afghan military meltdown.

“I think they pretend to be surprised,” he said. “But for us, it was a surprise why they are surprised.”

The reason, said Alizai, is that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, should have known.

“Mr. Khalilzad was talking to us, talking to Taliban and talking to those traitors, insiders,” said Alizai. “Everyone.”

“I would tell him that whatever you have done, you made a disaster. Stay away from Afghanistan, and from advising about Afghanistan, because you are not a good advisor for Afghanistan.”

Efforts to reach Khalilzad for comment were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Alizai said he is working to establish a new Afghan government.

“I am trying to keep in touch with those who are in different parts of the world, that I know who are the right people, and those who are left behind in Afghanistan,” he said.

Alizai said he might continue his pursuit for a better Afghanistan from Maryland.

Or he might leave and find another country to host his efforts.

One day, he might return to Afghanistan. But not now. 

He is looking for “all the right people, not corrupt...”

His intent, he said, “is that Afghanistan needs something new, and an Eastern situation. Too much democracy is also a problem. So you need to balance it. To balance that you need a disciplined government.”

Alizai said he is trying to form a military party.

“A party which is mostly from those military elites,” he said, “plus those civilians even [sic] that could be helpful in the future for us after that.”

Should that work out, and should there be no split or civil war in Afghanistan, Alizai said he could see talking to the current leaders there.

“We would love to start negotiations back with the Taliban,” he said.

A Taliban fighter poses in front of a replica of Al-Aqsa Mosque at Kampani Square on the outskirts of Kabul on May 23, 2022. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

But should the Taliban balk at such an offer, there will be trouble.

“If the negotiation doesn't work, it will definitely be a civil war,” he said.

“I don't want to start it, because the people of Afghanistan are already tired of a lot of fighting and overthrowing governments with fight and force. I can't tell you in my life that I've seen any of the governments come without a fight.”

Alizai said he prefers a rational way forward. But, if things don’t work out that way, “fighting is easy. And for us, it’s getting more easy every day, based on the Taliban’s actions. Based on the way they are treating the people. Treating the democracy [sic]. Treating the economics. Treating the policy.”

Alizai estimated that a civil war will take place in Afghanistan sometime within the next six to eighteen months.

But toppling the Taliban is one thing.

Setting up a stable government is something quite different.

“I don't want to make that same mistake the Taliban made,” he said. “I don't want to make the same mistake the mujahideen made. I hope we will find a way to shape the government in the right way. And then you still have a democratic Afghanistan in the favor of the entire world.”

No longer, said Alizai, should anyone feel any fear from Afghanistan. 

“And it's the Afghans' right as well, after half a century,” he said. “Something good should happen.”

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

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