The dramatic rescue in Afghanistan happened under the cover of darkness. The Taliban were closing in, and Americans were running out of time to save Mohammad Khalid Wardak.
The high-profile Afghan national police officer spent years working alongside the U.S. military, and after the fall of Kabul, he went on the run, moving from safe house to safe house, at one point running barefoot to avoid capture. The U.S. and its allies had only minutes to get Khalid, as his friends call him, and his wife and their four young sons to the safety of a waiting helicopter.
As part of Operation Promise Kept, the family was whisked away to an undisclosed location in Kabul and then to Kuwait, where Khalid was treated for a wound from a mortar attack. Less than three weeks later, the warrior who once directed resistance against the Taliban from a hospital bed has settled with his family in the United States.
“I’m a free man,” Khalid told The Associated Press through an interpreter after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., aboard a U.S. military flight 15 days after his rescue. “It’s like a dream for me.”
During a 90-minute conversation from a U.S. government official’s home, Khalid, who left Afghanistan with a few important documents and the clothes he was wearing, recounted his final firefights with the Taliban, the brotherhood he developed with U.S. special forces and the prospect of a new life with no need for bodyguards, thanks to the generosity of friends and strangers.
“Every single minute I was, like, ‘They’re probably going to kidnap my children or my brothers and kill them,’” he said, still worried about relatives in Afghanistan. “Everybody was looking for me.”
Khalid is one of the thousands of Afghans starting over in new countries after the American withdrawal. His friends said he had no intention of leaving and planned to defend his homeland after U.S. forces were gone. But the government collapsed with stunning speed, and the president fled the country.
He was widely known because of his position as police chief in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province and from television appearances, including one in which he challenged the Taliban to a fight, his friends said.
“There’s no price in the world to be able to see Khalid and his family,” said Robert McCreary, a former congressional chief of staff and White House official under President George W. Bush, who worked with U.S. special forces in Afghanistan. “You’re talking about human lives and whether they live or die. We’re so happy that we were able to get this done for them after everything they’ve done for us.”
McCreary told the AP last month that Khalid originally sought protection only for his family while he kept fighting.
He said Khalid came to the rescue in March 2013, when a special forces detachment in eastern Afghanistan’s Wardak province suffered an insider attack. Someone dressed in an Afghan National Security Forces uniform opened fire, killing two Americans.
When the outpost was almost simultaneously attacked from the outside, a U.S. commander called on Khalid, who within minutes raced into the valley with a quick-reaction force to defend his American partners.
In 2015, when Khalid lost part of his right leg in a rocket-propelled grenade attack, friends in the U.S. military helped get him medical care and a prosthetic leg outside the country. A month later, he was again leading special police operations alongside Americans, said Army Special Forces Sgt. Major Chris Green, who worked with Khalid in Afghanistan.
Along the way, he helped apprehend al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. He went on to serve as police chief in Ghazni province and then Helmand province, where he was wounded in July in the mortar attack.
Khalid said he left a “very tough situation” and “returned from the dead.”
“I served my country for 20 years. We had a government. We had a military. Everything is gone. Sometimes I cry about it,” he said. “These brothers helped me. I wasn’t expecting to be alive. But they saved my life and my family.”
Khalid spent his first days in Washington walking around the city and spending time with his family at a park. The children of a government official baked his family dozens of cookies. He was taken over the weekend to Walmart to buy clothes.
He hopes to meet this week with Sen. Chris Coons who, with McCreary, helped lead the effort to rescue Khalid, McCreary said. He also plans to meet with immigration attorneys to begin the process of becoming an American citizen.
Khalid said he wants to learn English, pursue a degree in computer engineering and spend more time with his family, something he wasn’t able to do in Afghanistan.
“I spent a lot of time at war,” he said. “This is the first time that I’m home safe with my family.”
Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded Dallas-based DeliverFund, a nonprofit that’s secured housing for 50 Afghan families in the United States, said that Khalid’s story, while dramatic, is not unusual among Afghans.
He helped find Khalid a host in Washington and made sure he and his family had clothes and food.
“Khalid is a very smart man, a very capable man,” McKinley said. “The whole community is wrapping around him to make sure that he has the things that he needs and, more importantly, as new needs pop up in the future, he has a community that he can lean on.”
McCreary said he planned to be there for Khalid every step of the way.
“This is a great way to show him how much we love him for everything that he’s done with us and for us and how many American lives he saved and his time working alongside us,” McCreary said. “It’s a true honor to keep that promise for him.”
Follow Alex Sanz on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/alexsanz