Book excerpt: “The Fifth Act,” on one American’s role in Afghanistan

In “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan” (published by Penguin Press on August 9), Elliot Ackerman, who served four combat tours in Afghanistan with the Marines and the CIA, writes how his mission continued, in seeking to save an Afghan and his family since the country’s fall to the Taliban.

Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss David Martin’s interview with Elliot Ackerman on “CBS Sunday Morning” on August 7!


Penguin Press


The US Naval Academy

It has been twenty years to the day since September 11. As planned, Josh has flown off with his son, Weston, six, and we’re up early to get ready to take our boys to the Navy/Air Force football game. Josh had arrived the night before, from Wilmington – not far from Camp Lejeune – where he had settled after medically retiring from the Marine Corps. Without his leg injury, I always imagined that Josh would have stayed in the Corps and taken care of the organization; he would have made a good general. Instead, he turned into a successful businessman. He once joked with me that he had done all the essential things a person could do as an American: he had gone to war; he had founded a family; he had built and taken over a public company. He laughed as he told me this, but also admitted he wasn’t sure what was next.

The night he arrived, after we had put the boys to bed, he and I had stayed up late, talking over drinks about the same subject. Specifically, we were talking about the future of Afghanistan, but that conversation had a subtext; it was tied to what was to come next for all of us now that our war was finally over. This summer, about a week before Kabul fell, Josh sent me a video. It was a battalion of Afghan commandos as they prepared for one of their last offensives, a desperate helicopter assault on Lashkar Gah, the then besieged capital of Helmand province. The video was shot in dark midnight tones. The heavily armed commandos march in formation towards the helicopters waiting for them on the tarmac. In Dari, they shouted: “God is great! followed by “Long live Afghanistan!” It had been years since Josh had been to Afghanistan, but he said seeing this video made him want to come back. He felt like he should have loaded onto those helicopters. Watching this video made me want to come back too. Or, in other words, it had reminded me that no matter how far my life had progressed beyond the war – in family, at work, in friendship – war had always had its hold on me, reminding. Josh was, as we sat at my table, giving me some shit for the video I sent him in response, which was a favorite scene from The princess to be married. It’s at the end of the film, after Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya kills the Six-Fingered Man and avenges his father’s death. He turns to his good friend Westley, the stable boy turned pirate, and says wistfully, “You know, it’s very strange. I’ve been in the revenge business for so long, now that it’s over , I don’t know what to do the rest of my life.” To which Westley replies, “Have you ever considered hacking? You’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.” Josh was in 2001 at the Naval Academy. He had been in the revenge business for a long time.

After the Abbey Gate bombing, our ability to get Afghans into the airport stopped; however, the number of Afghans trying to leave only seemed to be increasing. As it became apparent that the departure window had shrunk, Afghans who had thought they were biding their time until conditions at the airport improved now seemed willing to take risks that they did not. wouldn’t have considered a week before. Josh was curious to know how the last days of the evacuation had gone from my perspective. Most of my efforts, I explained, were now focused on helping a family that Admiral Mullen was trying to rescue. They were nine in total, including four young children. The family patriarch, whom I will call Aziz, had worked at the United States Embassy. His brother, who had worked as a driver for a senior government minister, had already been assassinated by the Taliban, while the minister himself slipped away, boarding a plane from HKIA earlier this year. ‘evacuation.

Aziz mainly sends me voice notes. I play a few for Josh, starting with the one Aziz recorded on Abbey Gate night. He was nearby, like so many others trying to enter the airport, when the bomb exploded. “Hello, sir, I hope you are well,” Aziz begins, with a tremor in his voice. “We just got back and we’re trying to go somewhere else. We don’t want to get caught by the Taliban, because they’re looking everywhere, place by place, house by house, street by street, looking for us. We don’t want to je want to be recognized by them. I was so close to that explosion and the blood mark is all over my clothes. The whole family is so scared. Sir, I am waiting for your next call. If it is possible, sir, it It would be so good to, uh, uh…” Aziz stumbles over his words for a moment before regaining enough composure to say, “I’m in no condition to speak clearly. approaching the airport. If it is possible to pick us up, that would be good. At the moment the whole family is in very bad condition. They are so scared. The children are so scared. Everyone is in good health. bad condition.

I’m playing Josh another message from Aziz, this one from just a few days ago. After the last flight of Americans left Kabul airport, Aziz traveled north, with all nine members of his family crammed into a taxi, to Mazar-i-Sharif, where his family and others hide in a safe house, waiting for a robbery that may or may not come. The hideout is not really a house, but a wedding hall rented at an exorbitant price by private donors who foot the bill for this evacuation. He’s been there for about a week. There is about a week of funding left to pay for the safe house. The Taliban went to his home in Kabul. Once that funding runs out, if he hasn’t flown, he won’t have anywhere to go. Aziz’s post is accompanied by a video as he films the squalor of the wedding hall, with children wandering aimlessly, families sleeping under the stairs and others sleeping in the open hall itself, on dirty carpets, with empty water bottles and other bits of trash strewn about. “Please sir, please,” he said, “I want you to help me, my family, my children. This is not a safe place. I will turn off my cell phone and put it somewhere. I’m completely lost. I don’t know what to do.

Josh asks if I think Aziz will come out. I describe some recent complications. Kam Air, the largest private airline based in Afghanistan, is the only one the Taliban allows to fly. A few nights earlier, Aziz’s flight had been cleared. But in a corrupt scheme, Kam Air pilots had offered their seats to the highest bidder, effectively reselling the flight twice for millions in profit. This caused a delay. Then, once this problem was solved, the flight was authorized again, but at the last moment a local Taliban commander blocked its departure because he had not received payment. The next day it was a problem with Qatari landing permissions in Doha. Currently, the US State Department was suspending the flight requiring every Afghan on board to have a passport, including children over the age of one. Aziz’s children do not have passports. After listing these difficulties, Josh asks how often I get messages like this from Aziz.

I tell him every day.


From “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan” by Elliot Ackerman, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Elliot Ackerman.


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