As the Taliban take over Kabul, an Afghan poet, a journalist fielding desperate phone calls and an American veteran reflect on the past and future of Afghanistan. 

We open with a story from Aysha, a Kabul resident in her mid-20s, who we’ve been checking in with over the past few months. Aysha was born in Pakistan. Her parents fled Afghanistan after the Taliban rose to power in the mid-’90s. After the 2001 invasion by the U.S. and other allies, her family returned to Afghanistan. They saw the war as an opportunity to reclaim their country. Now, 20 years later, Aysha feels betrayed. She likens it to a doctor leaving in the middle of surgery: “I opened your heart. I fixed your heart bleeding. Now you stitch back yourself.” Our story follows Aysha throughout the final U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power. 

Then, Reveal host Al Letson talks with Fariba Nawa, an Afghan journalist based in Turkey, who is fielding calls from desperate people who are trying to flee. She talks about the uncertain future women face under the Taliban and the moral responsibility the U.S. has to accept refugees from the war we’ve waged for 20 years. 

Since the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, more than 800,000 Americans served in the war. James LaPorta is a former Marine who first arrived in Afghanistan in 2009 and is now an Associated Press reporter. He describes the fighting, fear and uncertainty he faced during two tours of duty and how after coming home, he has “the burden of memory.” He notes war doesn’t end with the signing of a treaty or the last day of combat, as everyone affected by the violence is still dealing with its aftermath.  Reveal producer Najib Aminy watched the fall of Kabul on TV, sitting next to his parents, who left Afghanistan for New York in the 1970s. Aminy talks with one of Afghanistan’s most treasured poets, Abdul Bari Jahani, who wrote the country’s national anthem. Jahani says the anthem carries a message of unity and justice for the Afghan people. 


Reporter: Najib Aminy | Producers: Najib Aminy, Anjali Kamat, Stan Alcorn and Ike Sriskandarajah  | Editors: Brett Myers, Taki Telonidis and Kevin Sullivan | Sound design and score: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode photo: Marcus Yam | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks: Brett Simpson, Claire Mullen, Steven Rascón, Elizabeth Shogren and Nadia Hamdan


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Speaker 1:Reveal is brought to you by Progressive. Are you thinking more about how to tighten up your budget these days? Drivers who save by switching to Progressive save over $700 on average and customers can qualify for an average of six discounts when they sign up. A little off your rate each month goes a long way. Get a quote today at Progressive Casualty Insurance Company and affiliates. National annual average insurance savings by new customers surveyed in 2020. Potential savings will vary. Discounts vary and are not available in all states and situations.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. America’s longest war is over and now 20 years after countless deaths and $2 trillion in spending, Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban. Many people are remembering the fall of Saigon in 1975, but this week’s rapid fall of Kabul has brought its own unforgettable images now seared into our memories. Thousands of Afghans flooding into the Kabul Airport desperate to flee, gut-wrenching scenes of crowds of people running alongside and clinging onto an American military plane as it gathered speed across the runway and that video that went viral of bodies falling off the plane and plummeting through the air seconds after it took off. This is how it ended.
President Joe B…:Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on America’s homeland.
Al Letson:But when President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan where the Taliban had been harboring Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, he had a very different vision about the US mission.
President Georg…:America not only fights for our security, but we fight for our values we hold dear. We strongly reject the Taliban way. We strongly reject their brutality toward women and children.
Al Letson:He promised the US would defeat the Taliban and help rebuild a stable and peaceful country.
President Georg…:America and our allies will do our part in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. We learned our lessons from the past. We will not leave until the mission is complete.
Al Letson:Some Afghans took that promise to heart. Today, we’re going to look at how that now-broken promise is affecting people in Afghanistan, the US, and around the world. We begin with a young woman named Aysha.
Aysha:Okay. We start recording.
Al Letson:She’s in her mid-20s and lives in Kabul. Our producer Najib Aminy has been talking to her over the last few months.
Speaker 6:Aysha?
Aysha:Hello. [foreign language].
Speaker 6:You can hear me, right?
Aysha:Yes, I can hear me. Can you hear me?
Speaker 6:Yes, yes, yes.
Al Letson:We’re not using Aysha’s full name because of concerns that the Taliban could come after her. Aysha’s family fled Kabul before she was born. They left when the Taliban rose to power in the mid-’90s, but after the US invasion, her family decided to come back.
Aysha:Peace will come. This was the concept of America coming here, that we will bring peace and we will remove Taliban.
Al Letson:At the beginning, Aysha’s family believed in the war and the hope that life in Afghanistan would change.
Aysha:Many times, many times, I was a supporter of this idea that this war would bring peace, this is the process of peace, this is how peace will come, but not anymore.
Al Letson:As the US began its final withdrawal of troops and the Taliban seized one provincial capital after another, Aysha’s life quickly changed. She’s a school teacher or at least she was until a few weeks ago.
Aysha:I decided that I need to give resignation from my job and stay home because the security is getting very bad now. I told this news to my students. They got very sad, very, very sad.
Al Letson:As the Taliban continued its march towards Kabul, she hunkered down at home, waiting for them to take over. A couple days before Kabul fell, Aysha stood on her small balcony and recorded the sounds of kids playing below.
Aysha:They’re playing hide-and-seek, running after each other, hiding beside the bushes.
Al Letson:There are about 15 kids in the small yard. Aysha gets lost in the moment.
Aysha:Do, don’t, you catch me, you didn’t catch me, this is not fair. Cute people. The kids are playing regardless of the threats and dangers that is coming towards them. I feel it’s their last moment of them smiling or laughing.
Al Letson:It’s been almost 20 years since Aysha and her family moved back to Afghanistan. Her dad drove them from Pakistan, hoping to arrive in Kabul before nightfall.
Aysha:It was a little bit dusk. It was getting sundown. So my father was driving fast on the way. There was one plastic butterfly. It had a thread and it was connected from the one part of the street to the other part of the street with a very small thread. Then I saw there was a ball and my father said, “Look, if you see such kind of thread and a butterfly and a ball, that is a hand grenade.”
Al Letson:At first, she was hopeful, especially with how the country was changing.
Aysha:We did have our country back.
Speaker 7:But first, an update on Afghanistan which has a new constitution today.
Aysha:We did have our lost home back.
Speaker 8:Artistic part of Afghan culture that stretches back centuries.
Aysha:We did have our lands back.
Speaker 9:A larger crowd than usual gathered on the shores of the [inaudible] River north of Kabul one recent Friday.
Aysha:But we didn’t have inner peace.
Speaker 10:It’s been another violent week in Afghanistan.
Speaker 11:Suicide bombing in Kandahar.
Speaker 12:Revolts in the countryside.
Speaker 11:Executions and ambushes, classic hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.
Aysha:10 years after 9/11, I remember going to school and that’s the day when my life changed.
Speaker 13:We are following a quickly developing story on the ground in Afghanistan this morning. Insurgents appear to have launched a coordinated attack in the heart of the city.
Aysha:I was studying in the class and we thought it’s an earthquake. One earthquake, it’s okay. It’s just an earthquake. Second earthquake, I’m like okay. Okay. Second earthquake, but once the third earthquake happened, it was shaking and that was not a normal one. It had a voice.
Speaker 13:Eyewitnesses said they heard perhaps three what they supposed might be suicide bombs as insurgents apparently stormed-
Aysha:They told us that some terrorist has took over three blocks away from us. They are aiming the US embassy, the hospital, and some other near areas. So the next blast happened, they were firing with rocket launchers like RPGs.
Speaker 14:RPG. Get down.
Aysha:Literally felt like it passed out from [inaudible] school building. So that time, we started to fall on the ground and we were so scared that what if these people come and take over our school? What would we do? I was constantly thinking how to run away, how to run away. After some time, the police force, army, black helmets, guns. They came inside and took 10 students out and we started running. I started running and running and running.
Speaker 15:The shooting is all but over. No Americans have been killed or wounded, but the enemy sure made its presence felt in the Afghan capital today.
Aysha:We lost two or three students in this incident. They were cute girls. They were very young to lose their lives and everyone has this type of stories and they have even worse than this. When I think of the Taliban, I always get curious about who are they, where do they belong from, what do they want, and if someone is supporting them, all these years of hard work, these billions of billions of dollars, these people, the American soldiers, the Afghan soldiers, the American citizens, the Afghan citizens losing their lives were just because to bring peace, it didn’t do its promise. It doesn’t fulfill its promise that we will remove Taliban.
Speaker 16:The Taliban is on the March, overrunning a dozen provincial capitals in just a week.
Speaker 17:The Taliban are closing in on the capital.
Speaker 18:They are literally right on the doorstep of Kabul.
Aysha:So much happened in 24 hours. Every second was a news. Every single second, there was a rumor that would turn to a breaking news. The first thing that I heard was that the banks are getting closed. If anyone has any assets or money, they should take it out. Then my brother, he picked me up and he told me the Taliban are here from two sides. They are coming inside. So he said, “Come, let’s go.” I held his hand and I ran with him.
Speaker 19:Panic, chaos, and fear. Smoke rising over the US embassy. Chinook helicopters taking off. Afghanistan’s capital and what was the last government stronghold.
Aysha:The statement of Taliban came over the social media and everywhere that they would not harm anyone and that did give us a little bit of relief, but because of the experience that they have left over the other provinces, the women, the children, boys, their fear is always available in our hearts and it started with everyone running towards the airport, running for their lives. Later on, I discovered that Taliban had started removing female women’s pictures from the public. It showed how they will treat women. I packed my clothes to nowhere. I have no place to go. I just packed my clothes and I told my mom, “Mom, if I die, give this to the beggars. If I go somewhere, then I will take them with me.” She told me to keep quiet, don’t say such things, but I packed my clothes. I kept myself busy.
Aysha:I know I will face them. I know, I know I will face them. It’s facing your fears and the only way that you can face your fear is to be brave, braver than your fear. The meaning of war of US and Afghanistan, what does it mean to me? I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s a disappointment. If we knew this would happen after 20 years, we would have never come. If we knew we would be back to the place that we had run away from, we would have never come back. It is just giving fake hopes. If we knew.
Al Letson:Aysha has turned to writing poetry to help her cope with a lot of what she’s experienced over these past two decades. Poetry is something special not only to her, but a lot of Afghans.
Aysha:We in Afghanistan, we really appreciate poetry a lot. It hits you hard.
Al Letson:She wrote a poem she wanted to share with us. It’s called I Dare You.
Aysha:I dare you. I dare you to live the life that I’ve lived. I dare you to sing after me the poem that I sing today. I dare you to hold your broken pieces of your heart and walk with me. Come live the life that I have lived. I dare you. I fear you. I fear you. I fear you that one day, there will be no more me and all I will see is you. I fear you. Oh, I wish I could never see, but I feel you. I feel you when I close my eyes. I hear the children. I feel them shouting. Mothers screaming. Bullets firing. Humans dying. Men bleeding. You are so terrifying. I hope. I hope that one day, the plastic butterflies will turn into colorful butterflies where I play. I hope my childhood playing with the spent bullet could turn into dolls and flowers. The 20 years I saw no peace, but fake promises everyday. I dare you. I dare you today to live the life that I live.
Al Letson:Aysha misses being a teacher. She wants to go to graduate school and get a Master’s. For now, she tells us she’s trying to stay safe and hoping for a day when it’s possible for her to follow her dreams. That story was produced by Reveal’s Najib Aminy. Since the start of the war, more than 40,000 Afghan civilians have been killed according to Brown University’s Cost of War Project. When we come back, we talk to a journalist who is trying to get fellow Afghans out of the country.
Fariba Nawa:We know that we’ve lost Afghanistan and people are connected because we all have family there. So the phone has been ringing off the hook. Messages keep coming calling for help. I don’t get much sleep these days.
Al Letson:That’s coming up next on Reveal. (silence)
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The other day, I got to sit down with one of our friends here at Reveal, reporter Fariba Nawa. Her stories have taken us to places we’d have never gone otherwise. Last year, she brought us the story of two women journalists who were murdered in Istanbul and before that, an intimate portrait of an Afghan woman fleeing a forced marriage. Lately, she’s been glued to the events unfolding in the country where she was born.
Fariba Nawa:This is not just a story for me. I’ve covered Iran. I’ve covered Turkey. I’ve covered Germany. Of course, I’ve covered Afghanistan, but this is personal.
Al Letson:Fariba’s family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the early ’80s when she was just a kid. When she grew up, she would cover the country as a journalist from a distance in the ’90s when it was ruled by the Taliban and then on the ground after the US invasion in the 2000s. In 2011, she published a book, Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan. These days, she based in Istanbul, but has been visiting family in California not far from the Reveal offices. So we were able to talk face-to-face.
Al Letson:So Fariba, I understand you’ve been with family here in California. What have your days been like?
Fariba Nawa:Well I’m from Little Kabul which is Fremont, California. It’s the largest community of Afghans in the United States. So it’s been a mourning process, I guess. We know that we’ve lost Afghanistan and people are connected because we all have family there. So the phone has been ringing off the hook. Messages keep coming calling for help. People I’ve worked with, relatives. I don’t get much sleep these days.
Al Letson:Yeah. Specifically, these are people calling you trying to figure out ways out of Afghanistan?
Fariba Nawa:Exactly. Yeah, how do we get out? What’s next? What’s happening? Let me see. I can play something.
Speaker 22:[foreign language].
Fariba Nawa:The first messages are all, “How is everyone?” They name them one by one by one. It’s a cultural thing.
Al Letson:Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Speaker 22:[foreign language].
Fariba Nawa:This is someone who helped me write my book, helped me with the Reveal story. She’s a mother of three kids and she’s saying, “I really just want my daughters to go to school because when I was 13, I was married off.” This was under the Taliban. “I didn’t even know what marriage was and I want my kids to have an education, especially my daughters.” They’re so desperate. She’s suggesting that she come alone with her husband or just alone and leave her kids if that’s what it takes to protect her kids.
Speaker 22:[foreign language].
Fariba Nawa:She’s saying, “You know how much I love my kid as a mother. You know that if they’re five minutes late from school, I put on my burka and I go to the school. That’s how afraid I am of what’s going to happen to them, but I would be willing to leave them alone, I’ll go to America, and then I’ll sponsor them so that they’ll have a future.” That’s what she’s saying in that message.
Al Letson:Yeah. That’s a very, very risky plan.
Fariba Nawa:Yeah, I didn’t advise it and I told her it would be possibly hopefully to get her out with the family.
Al Letson:Your family left Afghanistan 40 years ago. Can you compare the situation that Afghan refugees will face today to what your family faced?
Fariba Nawa:People were nice to us when we came to America. They thought of us as the good refugees. We were not the enemy. We were not the terrorists. They barely understood what we are. I joke about this. When I was growing up in Fremont, California, they thought an Afghan was either a breed of dogs or a blanket. So there was a lot of ignorance, but I don’t think there was the same type of discrimination and racism that we see today post-9/11. That’s what’s different.
Al Letson:Did you see this coming during the initial invasion 20 years ago?
Fariba Nawa:No. I supported the intervention. That’s what it was called then. I saw it as an opportunity for us Afghans. I had no rose-colored glasses about why the US was going in there. I didn’t believe that they were there to improve women’s rights or that they were there to save Afghans. All you have to do is read books on foreign policy and what the US has done. That’s not why, but I thought it was up to us Afghans to come together and a lot of people like me moved back and tried to change things. For a while, it looked like we could make something happen. We saw, during these 20 years, maybe not the politicians, but people did get along. In Kabul, you had a youth movement where Hazara and Pashtun and Tajik women and men worked together and the government and aid organizations and schools and it was an amazing thing to see for me because I had lived there during the Soviet invasion, I subsequently moved there and worked while the Taliban were there, and then afterwards after the fall of the Taliban.
Fariba Nawa:I haven’t been back for a very long time, since 2007, but I’ve been in touch and I’ve been in Turkey covering the migration of Afghans there. So for me, the last 20 years was a success, not a failure. A failure in the battlefield, yes, but the generation that came from this two decades has been amazing, I mean amazing, and they are now the ones who are going to suffer and lose.
Al Letson:What do you think the United States should be doing to help? What’s our moral responsibility?
Fariba Nawa:Right now, we do have a moral responsibility just like we did after Vietnam that we need to bring these refugees here and we need to make sure that they are given opportunities and safety. That’s the first thing. The second thing is to put pressure on the Taliban not to go back to what they were. There’s some hope now seeing that the Taliban are kind of like, “All right. We’re going to let people do what they do on an average day.” [inaudible] TV had a woman on, the same anchor as usual, a woman and she was interviewing a Taliban analyst or whatever. I was in shock. That gives me hope, but I don’t know if this is all for show. When the cameras are turned off and the international reporters are gone, what’s going to happen next?
Al Letson:You think ultimately their true colors will shine through?
Fariba Nawa:Yeah, I mean they have an ideology. They believe in a very strict interpretation of whatever it is. It’s not my Islam. It’s theirs, one in which women are second-class citizens and Shias are not equal to Sunnis and everybody is an infidel who doesn’t do what they say. That’s not how I grew up. That’s now what my family or millions of other families in Afghanistan believe in. How can we stop that? How can we keep them in check? I think it’s not just the US’s moral responsibility, but internationally, I think we need to have an international coalition that cares about human rights.
Al Letson:Well let me ask you this though. If the Taliban has been winning on the battlefield and ultimately the United States has withdrawn, it would just seem to me that maybe they’re not scared of the United States anymore. So what would be the valves that we could turn in order to put pressure on them?
Fariba Nawa:Well see, that’s what’s curious to me. They could have come in and they could have done anything they wanted, but they are not. They’re putting women on TV. They are asking Afghans not to leave because they need their help to govern. They don’t know how to govern. Even back then, they didn’t. Their idea of governing was cutting off hands and executions in football stadiums. So they’re not fighting anymore and now they want to make allies. I do think they care about international recognition and allies now. I do think they need humanitarian aid money.
Al Letson:So you think that’s a shift?
Fariba Nawa:I think that’s the shift, yeah. But let’s see by the time this interview airs if the universities are closed to women, if women working in parliament in the offices are going to be told to go home. Let’s see what happens next. We’re all waiting.
Al Letson:Fariba Nawa, thank you so much for coming in and talking to me.
Fariba Nawa:Thanks for having me.
Al Letson:You are the first person that’s been in the studio with me in a year and a half.
Fariba Nawa:I feel privileged.
Al Letson:The privilege is all mine. So thank you. That interview was produced by Stan Alcorn. As we were wrapping the show, we checked back with Fariba about the family she was trying to help leave Afghanistan. Fariba told us that they had made a long and dangerous bus ride to Kabul, but so far, they hadn’t been able to make it any further. When we come back, we hear from a Marine veteran on the cost of war for the people of the US and Afghanistan.
James LaPorta:Now that the Taliban have taken power, what now? I’ll tell you. A lot of the veterans I’m talking to, they feel a little bit helpless because they really do care about the people of Afghanistan.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal. (silence)
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Since the US first invaded Afghanistan, more than 800,000 Americans served in the war. Nearly 2500 service members lost their lives. James LaPorta is a former Marine infantry rifleman who first arrived in Afghanistan in 2009. While on patrol, he would sometimes take videos of what was happening.
James LaPorta:This is a pretty typical day in Afghanistan. It’s about 110 degrees outside, but as soon as you walk into the fields, the fields are irrigated and so they’re incredibly humid. It’s almost like someone turns up the temperature. So when you start to walk through those fields, it’s almost like someone’s taking your breath away.
Al Letson:During two tours of duty, James held many jobs, including infantry squad leader and working in intelligence. Today, he’s an investigative reporter for the Associated Press. James, thanks for joining me.
James LaPorta:Thanks for having me.
Al Letson:So how long had you been in the Marine Corps before you got sent to Afghanistan?
James LaPorta:It was about three years at that point. I had come in in the summer of 2006. Basically 10 days after high school, I showed up to boot camp.
Al Letson:Was being in the Marine Corps at that point what you thought it would be when you were in high school dreaming about joining?
James LaPorta:No. I was in JROTC in high school which is Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps which was a lot of fun and you wear uniforms and you march around. I was sort of naïve. When I joined in 2006, the focus was still on Iraq. They’re still looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So Afghanistan was sort of an afterthought.
Al Letson:When you first got deployed to Afghanistan, were you excited? Did you want to go?
James LaPorta:I volunteered, yeah. I was with 2nd Marine Regiment and 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, the battalion that I became a part of, they didn’t have enough personnel to go to Afghanistan. So they came over to 2nd Marine Regiment asking Marines, “Does anybody want to jump on a deployment?” I had not been to Afghanistan so I volunteered. About two or three weeks later, I was heading off to Afghanistan.
Al Letson:What did Afghanistan look like when you arrived? Can you kind of paint a picture for us?
James LaPorta:So in my particular area, I was in Southern Helmand Province. Helmand at that time in 2009 was one of the most dangerous provinces in all of the country, particularly where I was which was a place called [inaudible] which is on the outskirts of Garmsir. It was a lot of farming, a lot of poppy fields. Poppy gets turned into heroin. Tons of marijuana fields. I mean we’re talking three or four or five football field long and marijuana plants that are six, seven feet high. The running joke at the time was I hope we don’t hit an IED because we’re all going to be too high to fight.
James LaPorta:I was an infantry rifleman in an infantry squad and so I carried a machine gun for a Marine fire team. The job of an infantryman is very simple. It’s find and kill the enemy. In July, I mean we were getting into firefights two or three times a day. So at this point, I’m sort of used to getting shot at. We had headed out on patrol south of what was called Combat Outpost Sharp. It was named after Lance Corporal Charles Seth Sharp of Adairsville, Georgia. He was the first Marine in our company to die. He died on July 2nd, our first day in combat. So we were patrolling south of there. A machine gun opens up on us and sort of splits the squad into two. So me and my team, we were on the left side of a field and then the other half of the team were on the right side of the field. Then we sort of move into trying to flank around the machine gun nest to take it out.
James LaPorta:I move to the backdoor of this courtyard and that’s when I saw this individual who, to me, they looked like a teenager. I would have been really surprised if they were over the age of 18. They were shooting an AK-47 and I fired rounds into them and I watched them fall. We were still getting shot at from this machine gun. Our platoon sergeant, he called in [inaudible] which are these helicopters with hellfire missiles on them and machine guns. They came in and started hammering the position with missiles and bullets. Then that was sort of the end of the day. It later bothered me a lot. Was this person really a Taliban member? Was it someone who was forced to fight? I wanted to put myself in their shoes. If someone was invading my country, would I pick up a weapon and shoot at someone like me?
Al Letson:Yeah. What was your last day like?
James LaPorta:There was a point in right around the tail end of August going into October, I was over getting shot at. I was over it all. There was … How do I describe this? I had started to do things that were not safe. For instance, I was at a vehicle checkpoint. I started to not put on my Kevlar. I started to not put on the rest of my gear. I would go out there with just a .9mm and search them. I started to act real stupid and that stemmed from, by the tail end of August into October, I had been in so many different firefights and been shot at so many different times, bullets were literally coming in with mere inches of my head and I wasn’t getting hit. I had walked through tons of IED fields at that time and I wasn’t stepping on IEDs. I wasn’t getting shot.
James LaPorta:I was tired of surviving these moments. It was almost torturous to keep surviving time after time these moments. I came to the point where I was like if I’m going to get shot, can we just get it over with? I didn’t want to keep going through these moments time after time again of coming so close to death and then nothing happening. I was over it.
Al Letson:Just hearing you describe it after constantly facing death, at some point you just get tired.
James LaPorta:Yeah, I was tired of it. If it was going to happen, I wanted to get it over with. So I remember my last day, I don’t have a record of it in terms of like writing it down. What I do remember is getting onto the helicopter that picked us up from Combat Outpost Sharp and it was almost surreal looking out the back of the helicopter and seeing the dust cloud pick up as the rotors wind and wondering would I ever be back here again, wondering what was going to happen to the place after I leave.
James LaPorta:I went back to Afghanistan in 2013 and I was working in the intelligence community. I looked up how was Sharp doing in 2013. Basically from 2009 to 2013, the area had reverted back to where it was when we first went in in 2009. In fact, it had gotten even worse. We lost 14 Marines in 2009. That’s not even counting the Afghan soldiers that we lost. So then the question becomes what was it for?
Al Letson:How have you changed after going to Afghanistan?
James LaPorta:There’s the pre-2009 version of me and the post-2009 version of me. If I was speaking honestly, the pre-2009 version of me is a way more optimistic person. They seem to be happier. They don’t have the weight of memory and the burden of memory. The post-2009 me is weighted down by moments that I can’t forget and there are reminders, constant reminders of those moments. Anytime there’s a birthday or any sort of life milestone after I came back from that deployment, I really felt that I was on borrowed time. I know it was just overwhelming survivor’s guilt, but I guess that’s how I’ve changed. I am weighted down by those experiences.
Al Letson:Yeah.
James LaPorta:And I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what they all mean, if they mean anything at all. Tim O’Brien, the author who wrote The Things They Carried, he’s often written about how wars do not end with the signing of peace treaties. Wars don’t end when troops come home and with withdrawal. They continue on in the minds of the people that were there and the families who have experienced permanent shattering. So even though US is pulling out of Afghanistan and we signed a peace treaty under the Trump administration, the war continues in the people that had to live through it and it’s going to continue for as long as that question is sort of out there. Was it worth it? That question, you can spend a lifetime trying to figure out what the answer is.
Al Letson:Are you in touch with other vets this week?
James LaPorta:I have. A lot of the messages have been from veterans who are trying to get people out of Afghanistan. I got tons of messages from veterans who are just looking to try to get their Afghan interpreters out of the country before it’s too late. I’ll tell you that a lot of the veterans I’m talking to, they feel a little bit helpless because they really did care. A lot of the veterans really do care about the people of Afghanistan. There’s just this lingering question of what now?
Al Letson:Yeah.
James LaPorta:Now that the Taliban have taken power, what now? The only thing I would close on is me as a veteran, I lost friends and I think about them constantly, but the burden that I carry is nothing compared to the burden that both American and Afghan families have to face who have lost loved ones in this war. The burden that they carry is a permanent one. Afghan families, American families and British families and Canadian families, I would keep those what we call gold star families in your thoughts because they’re permanently affected by these wars. I’m one of the lucky ones that got to come back and have a family. So I think that’s the only thing that … My thoughts have been on them over the past couple of days, what they must be going through at this moment.
Al Letson:James, I thank you so much for talking to me today. I know bringing back the past is never easy, especially when the past isn’t that far away, right? When you have deep trauma like this, it’s always right under the surface. So I know it’s hard and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.
James LaPorta:Thank you for giving me the opportunity to.
Al Letson:James LaPorta is a former Marine who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. He’s now an investigative reporter with the Associated Press. As the city of Kabul was falling into Taliban hands, Reveal’s Najib Aminy was watching it all happen live online and on TV while sitting next to his parents in their home in New York. His parents left Afghanistan in the late ’70s just before the Soviet invasion. They’ve seen governments rise and fall in Afghanistan, but this is the first time Najib’s been old enough to really grasp what’s happening. As an Afghan-American, he’s been trying to make sense of some of the starker images that have come out of the country and he’s been thinking about what it all means for Afghanistan and its people. Here’s Najib.
Najib Aminy:I recognize the privilege I have of not needing to leave any country out of fear, of not worrying about what a group like the Taliban might do to me personally, or dreading an uncertain future caused by upheaval. Afghan people have lived with this sort of upheaval throughout history. Governments, ideologies, and leaders have come and gone and that’s meant the country has had a lot of different flags. The story of Afghanistan is woven into the fabric of those flags. I’m 32 years old and in my lifetime, the country has had five very different versions. The flag I associate with is the one adopted in 2002. It has three vertical stipes: a black one representing the dark days of the country’s past hopefully left behind, red for the blood spilled mean Afghanistan won independence from the British in 1919, and green for the future, one filled with promise and prosperity. In the middle is an emblem of a mosque surrounded by pieces of wheat. It’s a symbol of what Afghanistan has always strived and struggled to be, united. This is a flag that’s supposed to be for everyone.
Speaker 26:The camera has been trailing those fighters as they make their way through-
Najib Aminy:So when members of the Taliban went inside the ARG, the presidential palace, the Afghan White House, and slowly took down this flag-
Speaker 26:I’m just going to stop there. What we’re showing you, our viewers, now was images of the Afghan flag being taken down. That is Taliban fighters have down the flag of Afghanistan.
Najib Aminy:This, for me, was when it all really started to sink in. This is a moment. This is history. This is not a good feeling. I know I wasn’t alone.
Abdul Bari Jaha…:I feel sad and I am feeling sad inside my heart when I see that my flag is coming down and another flag is going up. It’s a tragedy and it’s sad news for every Afghan.
Najib Aminy:This is Abdul Bari Jahani. He’s one of Afghanistan’s most treasured poets. He’s written scores of poems, books, and anthologies, and I interviewed him a few years ago for an indie podcast about the role of culture for those of us in the Afghan diaspora. What role does culture have in possibly solving, correcting, helping aid the situation in Afghanistan?
Abdul Bari Jaha…:If people are enlightened, they won’t leave their country destroyed by foreigners and terrorists and suicide bombers. Enlightening the people are the job of the writers and artists.
Najib Aminy:When I saw the Taliban roll up that flag, I couldn’t help but think of Abdul Bari Jahani because he’s responsible for another symbol of Afghanistan.
Abdul Bari Jaha…:[foreign language].
Najib Aminy:He’s the author of the national anthem.
Abdul Bari Jaha…:This land is Afghanistan. It’s the pride of every Afghan. The land of peace. The land of sword.
Najib Aminy:He’ll tell you it’s not his proudest work and that there were some creative differences about what to omit and what to include between him and the Karzai administration that asked him to write it back in the early 2000s.
Abdul Bari Jaha…:I didn’t like it.
Najib Aminy:No one likes an editor, right?
Abdul Bari Jaha…:Yeah.
Najib Aminy:You can’t see it, but over the Zoom, he’s cracking a smile. While he might not view it as his greatest work, for me, it’s a relevant piece of poetry, especially right now. What was the message you were trying to communicate?
Abdul Bari Jaha…:It was just that the unity of all the people of Afghanistan, that we are trying for justice and we are trying to go forward.
Najib Aminy:But Abdul Bari knows what’s likely to happen to his anthem.
Abdul Bari Jaha…:I think Afghanistan might be the only country in the world that has so many flags and so many anthems and so many names and so many currencies. I expect another currency, another constitution, another flag, another anthem. I won’t feel sorry for it because I expect it 100% and I think I am lucky that my anthem survived these 15 years. I didn’t expect that it will survive 15 years this long.
Najib Aminy:Have you gotten any calls from the Taliban about writing a new anthem?
Abdul Bari Jaha…:No. I am 100% sure they won’t call me.
Najib Aminy:If there’s one line from the anthem that you’d like for it to stay, what would that one line be?
Abdul Bari Jaha…:The first line. This is Afghanistan and this is the country of all of the people and this is the pride of all the people. I am an Afghan. I am proud of my country. I want this country for all the people who are living in that country. I want them to be proud of their country. If not, they won’t defend it.
Najib Aminy:The anthem and the flag, they’re symbols, symbols that try to transcend politics, corrupt leaders, and old warlords. These symbols help point to a future for Afghans that is inclusive, a future where Afghans are united. I think this is why watching the flag come down was so powerful and why it was even more powerful to see Afghan protestors across the country pick it up again in defiance of the Taliban. It shows that these symbols for many Afghans are still worth defending.
Abdul Bari Jaha…:[foreign language]. (singing)
Al Letson:That story from Reveal’s Najib Aminy. He was our lead producer for this week’s show. Stan Alcorn, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Angelique Comet also produced the show with help from Elizabeth Shogren and Nadia [Hamdan]. Nadia just stared with us this week. Nadia, welcome to the team. Brett Myers, Taki Telonidis, and our executive producer Kevin Sullivan edited the show. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mustafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo J-Breezy Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando My Man Yo Arruda. They had help this week from Steven Rascon, Claire Mullin, and Brett Simpson. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal is our interim editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by [Commorado] Lightning.
Al Letson:Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 1:Support for Reveal comes from Odoo. Meet Dan. Dan built a kickass bike company, but his old software made it impossible to keep up with demand. It took so much time just to make things work, it was sucking the life out of him. Then he found Odoo. Odoo automated his business by integrating inventory, manufacturing, accounting, and marketing. Now, he can meet the demand and grow even faster with the ecommerce app. Thanks to Odoo, Dan doubled his revenue and can focus on what matters. Go to to start a free trial. That’s
Speaker 28:From PRX.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Stan Alcorn is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg.

Anjali Kamat was a senior reporter at Reveal until summer 2022. She previously was an investigative reporter at WNYC, a correspondent and producer for Al Jazeera's current affairs documentary program "Fault Lines," and a producer, correspondent and host at Democracy Now! She's reported on global uprisings and wars, including the 2011 Arab Spring, and has investigated Wall Street's ties to predatory subprime auto loans, the Trump Organization's business deals in India, exploitation in Bangladeshi garment factories serving major U.S. brands, the trafficking of contract workers on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and police impunity in Baltimore. Her work has won several major awards, including a duPont Award, multiple Emmy nominations and National Headliner Awards, an Overseas Press Club Award, a Peabody Award, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Kamat grew up in Chennai, India, and is based in New York.

Ike Sriskandarajah was a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.

Brett Simpson (she/her) was an assistant producer for Reveal. She pursued a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism.

Brett Myers is an interim executive producer for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Sarah Mirk (she/her) was a digital engagement producer for Reveal. Since 2017, she has worked as an editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication focused on political cartoons, graphic journalism, essays and memoirs about current affairs. She works with artists to create nonfiction comics on a variety of complex topics, from personal narratives about queer identities to examinations of overlooked history. Before that, Mirk was the online editor of national feminist media outlet Bitch, a podcast host and a local news reporter. She is also the author of several books, including “Year of Zines,” a collection of 100 handmade zines, and “Guantanamo Voices,” a collection of illustrated oral histories of the world’s most infamous prison.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) was the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is a former executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.