Tenacity on the tarmac

The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan by Mitchell Zuckoff

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The narrative is irresistible – given the central personalities, the still-hot topic, and the American reader’s desire to understand what happened in Kabul during the last full week of August 2021.

The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan doesn’t try to be definitive history. The focus is tighter. Addictive, also. You quickly want to know how the book ends – even though you already know, in general, what happened.

Author, journalist and professor Mitchell Zuckoff includes “True Story” in the subtitle and “This is a true story” in his three-sequence opening note. The descriptions titillate but also emphasize that the book is nonfiction – a fact you might overlook as you devour the report. Why?

Because Gate has the tense drama of a thriller. Zuckoff places you inside and outside the Kabul International Airport (KIA) quagmire, where he depicts the life-threatening and life-saving quandaries an American man and an Afghan woman face. Their situation, like Afghanistan, is complicated, but the exposition is clear in “Gate.”

The two players’ stories alternate, chapter by chapter, to form the structure of the book. You might see them as emblematic of two nations, or you might view them as humans in horrible situations – one personal, one professional.

– Homeira Qaderi is not a nobody, which makes her a target. She is a published author (her 2020 memoir is “Dancing in the Mosque”) with a doctorate in Persian literature and was writer in residence at the University of Iowa. In Kabul she taught at the University of Kabul when she was not speaking publicly against the Taliban.

Also setting her apart in Afghan circles: She “waged a bruising court fight” (something that could use for more detail) for custody of her son, Siawash, which sets a “precedent” (something that merits more context) for other women in Afghanistan.

When the Taliban reaches Kabul, she believes, “they will kill me, too. But before I die, I must do something.” She does, including news-media interviews.

– Sam Aronson is a State department employee who was a bodyguard for Samantha Power when she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He has a master’s from London School of Economics, served in diplomatic security (Niger), as a Foreign Service Officer (Nigeria) and married another diplomat, Liana Cramer, who is in Mali when Sam volunteers to help at Kabul International Airport (KIA).

“Knowing that Sam could be headstrong, with an abundance of confidence and a potent sense of justice,” Liana asks Sam to keep three promises:

Avoid leaving the airport. (He doesn’t.)

Avoid anything unnecessarily dangerous. (He doesn’t.)

And avoid being a hero (Unwittingly, he becomes one.)

Homeira and Sam meet as the city collapses in defiance of “nearly unanimous predictions by international diplomatic, military, intelligence, academic and media experts, who expected a monthslong siege and a stout defense of the capital.”

The “months” are now minutes at KIA.

Sam befriends Asad, 20, who was a translator for U.S. Special Forces and has a “California surfer accent.” Asad is approved for a flight out, but his family is stuck at the airport. Meanwhile, he becomes Sam’s ad hoc righthand man, and the two are what Zuckoff calls “lifeguards in a tsunami,” a fair analogy.

Like Homeira, Asad “has no memory of peacetime.”

Homeira, Siawash and Homeira’s brother Jaber are among 3,000 names on a to-go list compiled by the international White Scarves Campaign because Homeira faces “extreme risk of assassination by the Taliban.” When the trio arrives at Abbey Gate, Homeira tells a Marine she is on the White Scarves list – which means nothing to him. Instead, he needs to see a U.S. passport or Green Card.

Exasperated and exhausted, Homeira goes home. Turns out, only “a single U.S. military official had the White Scarves’ list, and he rotated among different airport gates and didn’t share copies with others.” The elusive list appears to illustrate disorganization in the U.S. evacuation effort.

Meanwhile, Sam transfers to an out-of-the-way, “unofficial entrance” – Secret Gate, where the people desperate to leave are “no different from him, Liana, and their families and friends. People like his mother’s great-uncle, who stayed too long in Poland and was killed by Nazis.”  Sam also knows about Hiram Bingham IV, who defied State and allowed Jews to leave France in 1940 and 1941.

Sam can’t help everyone, he decides, “but maybe he could save a few.” He bends protocol, and his colleagues and he admit 13 families in one day – at the risk of losing his job, which you figure is likely to happen. (It doesn’t. Instead, he and the rest of the evacuation team receive State’s Award for Heroism.)

Among those saved by Sam’s tenacity is Homeira.

She has been adamant – or obstinate at times, some might observe – about staying and defending herself, her city, and her country. Finally, she relents after her father persuades her to go “so your brothers are safe” with their sister out of the Taliban’s sight. She returns with son and brother to KIA on the last day to fly out of town.

Through connections including Homeira’s literary agent, whose college friend is a now-retired U.S. ambassador whose former deputy is Sam’s boss, Sam learns about Homeira, whom he offers little hope by mobile phone – a device that appears to be mandatory for everyone in Kabul and in “Gate.”

 He is outraged when she arrives with a carry-on bag that includes her laptop, also a no-no for security reasons such as bombs. Each confronts the other. Sam with an expletive, Homeira with homeiric stance.  

“I’ll go back {home} if you take away my laptop,” she insists, while KIA disintegrates. (You want to tell her she can buy a new laptop later, for heaven sakes.)

You can guess how the confrontation ends.

You learn that “the only explosives in Homeira’s laptop were her stories about the subjugation of Afghan women.” The explosive metaphor might pop out in prose that – except for a thriller-esque “teetered on the precipice of depression” here or a “felt a heaviness in the warm morning air” there – is otherwise clean, including a two-page, immensely helpful map of KIA that would benefit only by showing its proximity to Homeira’s apartment.

Overall, “Secret Gate” conveys a catastrophic event concisely and emotionally. And if you enjoy Zuckhoff’s book, try former Marine and novelist Elliott Ackerman’s nonfiction The Fifth Act, his memoir about the same dog days of summer.

The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan by Mitchell Zuckoff, Random House, 336 pages, $29


Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He is secretary of the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).