A desperate road trip to remind America about its Afghan allies
The Washington Post December 11, 2022
OMAHA, Neb. — The pitch was well practiced by the time they reached Sen. Deb Fischer's Omaha district office. "I'm only alive talking to you today," Army veteran Matt Zeller explained to the two-term Republican's staffer, "because my Afghan interpreter shot and killed these two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me in a battle 14 years ago." The woman, dressed in a leopard-print top and wearing a slight frown, listened silently from behind a plexiglass security partition.
It was day eight, mile No. 1,240, of a cross-country road trip hastily organized to win over Republican senators. At stake: a stagnating effort to permanently resettle tens of thousands of Afghans brought to the United States when America's longest war came to a catastrophic end last year. But with Congress preparing to adjourn for the year, and temporary permission for the evacuees to be in the country nearing an end, Zeller said time was running out.
He and his three partners — another former soldier, James Powers, Navy reservist Safi Rauf and his brother Zabih — needed the support of seven Republican senators to get the Afghan Adjustment Act passed. It was not just the right thing to do, Zeller said. America made a promise to these Afghans: "We got to finish this mission."
The woman behind the glass asked them to write down their contact information and promised she would relay the message to colleagues in Washington. A success, the group concluded, thanking her as they saw themselves out. The four men said they were hopeful. A spokesman for Fischer declined to comment on the meeting, or disclose her position on the legislation.
Last year, lawmakers from both political parties assailed the Biden administration for its handling of the withdrawal. Fischer was among the Republicans who, at the time, implored the White House to do more to protect America's Afghan allies, saying she was working aggressively to help people escape the Taliban takeover. "The United States made a promise to these brave Afghans. If you work with us, we said, then we will take care of you and your family," she said as the airlift operation came to an end.
Others whose commitment Zeller hoped to secure had made public statements admonishing President Biden to "reconsider the onerous requirements for Afghans" seeking to flee and provide "all the resources necessary to process and resettle these refugees."
The Afghan Adjustment Act would eliminate the looming possibility of deportation or joblessness for the nearly 73,000 evacuees who entered the United States under "humanitarian parole," a two-year refuge that expires in 2023. The legislation would offer them the opportunity to receive green cards after undergoing additional vetting and broaden the government's options for extricating hundreds of thousands of others who were left behind. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the bill along with five co-sponsors: Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
But some of the same Republican lawmakers who once championed America's responsibility to its allies have begun to question whether those guided onto U.S. evacuation flights last year had sufficiently demonstrated their allegiance. Others have come to view the idea of citizenship for thousands of Afghans as part of a larger liberal immigration agenda that they oppose. Republicans in recent days stripped a provision from the annual defense policy bill to extend a special visa program for Afghan allies.
Advocates want the "Triple A," as they call it, included in a massive, full-year funding package that Congress was expected to vote on this month. That is its best shot, they say, before Republicans take over the House majority and bring fresh uncertainty to its prospects there, although there is no guarantee Congress will pass such an omnibus bill in time either.
Zeller and his traveling companions took their message across 25 states this fall, driving 7,600 miles in five weeks with the hope that, if they could rally the support of local veterans groups and other constituents, senators still uncommitted might also embrace their sense of urgency. A Washington Post reporter rode along through Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
Their journey was fueled by notions of military honor, loyalty and obligation. Out on the road, though, they found no guarantees that such convictions still resonate in a postwar America. Often, they encountered — both from the public and lawmakers' staff — an uncomfortable reality in which the moral code that united so many amid the withdrawal had given way to an indifference toward those at risk of abandonment all over again.
From Omaha it took three hours, most of it barreling along highways lined with shorn yellow corn fields, to reach Manhattan, Kan., home to Kansas State University and a local pub where Zeller had arranged to meet with a district staffer from Sen. Jerry Moran's office. He is the top Republican member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
They traveled in three SUVs: Zeller, 40, at the wheel of one followed by 38-year-old Powers, and then Safi Rauf, 28, and Zabih Rauf, 40, who belong to a sprawling Afghan American family that settled in Omaha in the 2000s.
Each brought experience working to convince politicians of a greater good. Zeller, a senior adviser to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has spent years advocating on behalf of Afghans who aided the U.S. mission. Powers, an Iraq War veteran, has campaigned for veterans' rights and benefits, including the PACT Act approved this past summer to care for those exposed to toxic burn pits. The Rauf brothers have been focused on Afghans left behind after the U.S. airlift concluded. But the idea for a road trip through red America, a group of Washington-attuned activists door-stepping local Senate offices and veterans' bars, was hatched more from desperation.
They called it a "firewatch"- a 24-hour "accountability" vigil, they explained - after just such an action on the steps of the U.S. Capitol had helped push through the PACT Act when Republicans stalled over the summer. It was Safi Rauf's idea to do an Afghan version. Then Congress went on recess and it became a "firewatch on the road."
"All we are asking is for a promise to be kept," Zeller said in an interview. For 20 years the U.S. government told the Afghans, "You work with us, we take care of you," and Congress needs to be reminded, he said. "That is why we have to be out here doing this. Whatever it takes."
It was midday on a Tuesday when they brought the firewatch to Kansas. "I saved you a seat," Zeller said to Moran's staffer when he walked into the restaurant and found not just Zeller, but his entourage, including a couple of local veterans plus some Afghans and journalists he had invited.
The theme Zeller leans on is moral injury: the idea that when Biden withdrew from Afghanistan, it was not only the Afghans who suffered. American veterans of the war did too, he explained, as the group settled into a lunch of biscuits and sliders.
It is personal, he said, describing his inability to sleep at night knowing that Afghan "brothers and sisters in arms" have been left in limbo. And it is the issue he believes is most likely to hit home with Republicans, the party that has long cast itself as a champion of the U.S. military and the importance of honoring its veterans.
"I know five guys who killed themselves last year during the evac. I don't want to know of any others," Zeller said. "So I look at this as a national security issue, as a veterans' mental health issue. As the right thing to do."
But they needed Moran to get the Afghan Adjustment Act passed, he added pointedly. He and Powers listed other senators whose vote, at that point, they were hopeful they could secure. "But I think your boss is key," Zeller said. "I really do. And I want to know: How do we get him on board?"
Moran's staffer appeared sympathetic. He told Zeller he would do his best.
During the withdrawal, Moran and other Senate colleagues appealed to Biden in writing, pleading with the president to accommodate those fleeing who "may not have been able to collect or gather appropriate documents." Immigration attorneys said it is the lack of proper documentation preventing many evacuees from gaining asylum and a major reason the AAA is necessary.
At the pub, the staffer said he was not authorized to speak to the media, and referred questions to Moran's office in Washington. A spokesperson there did not respond to a request for comment on Moran's position on the bill.
For all of the passion that galvanized so many lawmakers as Kabul collapsed in August 2021, public attention has also long since shifted to other problems like soaring inflation and the war in Ukraine.
"There is so much going on right now, the temptation is to be drawn to other issues that seem more urgent," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the bill's sponsors, said in an interview. "But this bill is a moral imperative." On Capitol Hill, "we are in active discussions, literally day-to-day," he added, voicing optimism it would become law.
Some Republican opponents of the AAA have argued the bill is unnecessary because the Department of Homeland Security is prioritizing Afghan parolees' asylum applications, with the intent of providing a decision within 150 days of receiving them.
But asylum is an onerous process. There are tens of thousands of Afghan applicants. Moreover, success typically requires help from lawyers, English fluency and extensive documentation, things most evacuees lack, said Helal Massomi, a former adviser to the Afghan government and an evacuee who has spent the past year lobbying for the AAA on Capitol Hill. Her own asylum application was approved in March with significant help from a pro bono lawyer, she said.
But she knows "a lot of people who don't have documentation because they came with only backpacks," she said. "They had to burn their documents," to avoid getting stopped by the Taliban.
American Legion Post 1 was mostly empty but for a small group of women and the bartender, who eyed Zeller and Powers closely when they walked in, signed the guest book and announced what was already evident to all: that they were from out of town.
Colorado was not a crucial stop because the senators, both Democrats, were already on board with the bill. But the state contained an active Afghan American community to help spread the message, and plenty of veterans' bars like this one, which Zeller and Powers saw as a crucial prong of their strategy.
The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, two of the oldest and typically conservative veterans' organizations in the country, still wield outsize influence with Republicans in Washington, even if many of their posts — once popular watering holes and support networks for the Vietnam generation — are largely empty now.
Surely, fellow veterans would find the mission of "keeping America's promise" to its wartime allies as compelling as they did and could lend their voices as local constituents, Zeller and Powers reasoned. Still, a palpable anxiety tended to follow the men through the doors of these establishments.
They would talk about skiing, football, the weather. They would talk about the PACT Act — which most of the Vietnam veterans they encountered seemed enthusiastic about — and mention the other posts they had visited, hoping that someone would then ask what the road trip was for.
"Are you guys going all the way to the West Coast?" one woman inquired, and Powers detailed the next stops on their route. "So you're not going to Yellowstone or Jackson Hole?" she asked with disappointment. "That's the only reason to go to Wyoming."
"Well the reason," Powers began, and that was his cue to tell them about the AAA. He would talk about how the legislation came to be and mention that Zeller's interpreter saved his life. Then Zeller would jump in and tell his personal story, bringing it all home.
But they never got there. Another woman who seemed like the ringleader broke in. In New York, they were giving free housing to immigrants and doing nothing for the homeless people, she said, after Powers talked about a duty to Afghans.
"We can't just ignore the ones we evacuated," Powers continued, trying to steer the conversation back to those who helped America. "We look out for our allies."
"Yeah, yeah, a lot of messed up policies in our country right now," the woman responded.
They crossed into Wyoming at midmorning, Zeller shouting their "firewatch update" video into the wind on the side of the highway with the "Welcome to Wyoming" sign and its bucking bronco as their backdrop.
The social media videos, which they filmed at various stops along the route, were meant to keep supporters apprised of their progress and generate interest from others along the way. The Twitter account had only a few hundred followers. But already, a veteran in Idaho had contacted Powers after seeing the posts, and was now helping secure a meeting with the offices of Idaho Sens. James E. Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Mike Crapo, also a Republican.
The men were looking forward to Montana and Idaho, but they were apprehensive about Wyoming, which consistently ranks as one of the most conservative states in the country.
Safi Rauf had departed the road trip suddenly the day before. He said there was other Afghanistan-related business in New York, but there was tension within the wider network of AAA activists over its strategy and lack of central leadership. This included debate over who was best suited to represent the mission: a White man like Zeller, or an Afghan American like Rauf, who had served in Afghanistan as a contract interpreter, but who tended to hang back as Zeller took the lead in veterans' bars and with legislators.
And now Cheyenne, the state capital, felt empty and uncertain. "This is the one place on the trip that I'm not confident about," Zeller said as they arrived at the federal building where both Republican senators kept district offices.
Zeller said he had a friend in Wyoming Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis's Washington office, but her district staff had not responded to his request for a meeting, and he had not bothered with Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. Zeller invited local veterans groups and local media to meet them outside the federal building, but none responded.
They filmed a video there anyway, and Zeller asked local constituents along the route ahead to help them get meetings. Behind him, Powers and Zabih Rauf held a banner that read "#AAAfirewatchroadtrip Veterans Support the Afghan Adjustment Act."
"Some of the press here asked, 'Why is it that none of us are going to be able to get a meeting here,' and I said, 'Well, we need a local constituent to come.' And, uh, I'm gonna be honest, sometimes when we stop, as you can see, it's just the press and us," Zeller added, turning the camera around to show The Washington Post reporter and photographer embedded with them.
"That's okay," he continued. "Not every place is going to have a huge, huge number of folks. And this is Wyoming. There are only about, you know, half a million people who live in the whole state to begin with."
Lummis, who a year prior had urged Biden to evacuate Afghan allies, never agreed to a meeting with the group, even after they returned to Washington. Her office did not respond to questions from The Post about her position on the bill. Barrasso, who had previously denounced the Biden administration for "abandoning our allies," also did not respond.
The drive north took them through straw-colored prairie, stands of cottonwood with bright yellow leaves and past billboards that read "Marines fight to win."
"What do you think people do out here?" Zeller wondered as they passed small settlements.
Despite its comparatively small population, Wyoming has the most veterans per capita of any U.S. state, according to Census figures. Beneath their optimism, Zeller and Powers were aware that not all veterans in 2022 saw the world as they did.
Many older vets in particular had voted for former president Donald Trump, who pushed policies to limit immigration — especially by Muslims — and Zeller seemed unnerved as they stopped at six veterans association bars along the way.
"Is Zabih coming in?" Zellers asked Powers as they walked that evening toward the entrance of Casper Mustang VFW Post 10677. Rauf was holding back, as the brothers often did during such stops. "He is fine," Powers said. "You are way too worried about that. Maybe if we were in Alabama."
"It's the most conservative state," Zeller replied. The people inside each bar usually were friendly enough, but the men often stopped short of requesting direct action.
"Barrasso is very supportive. He comes to all our Marine Corps balls," a man told them at this VFW, asking if they had spoken to the senator, who is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, after Powers told the small group at the bar about the bill. Powers explained that they had not because it was difficult to get meetings without a constituent present. They handed off their contact information and left.
Then they did the same at the next VFW, just a few blocks up a hill.
Zeller said it was an intentional strategy: Requesting specific help up front could put people off. So they try to make contact with post leaders to tell them about the AAA and exchange contact information, with the intention of following up when the group returned to Washington.
"I want it all to crescendo at the end with this final thrust, where you have all these people pinging offices to push it across the finish line. We can't have it peak too early," he said.
Sometimes their public interpretation of the visits seemed rosier than the muted response they received. "Last night we spent a really great time at both of the VFWs here in Casper," Zeller said the next morning in another video, this time in front of the Dick Cheney Federal Building, where both senators had district offices, and where the men again had no expectation of meeting with them.
"James, you were talking to a lot of the folks last night. Did you meet anyone who didn't want to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act?" Zeller said, turning to Powers.
"Not one," Powers replied.
As they recorded, a man on a motorcycle pulled up about 100 feet away. He wore a black leather jacket that read "USA" on the back and a helmet that read "Marines." When the group returned to their cars, the motorcyclist drove off, never saying a word.
Interstate 90, Montana
The landscape grew rocky the next day as they approached the Montana state line, and a rise of mountains — part of Bighorn National Forest — appeared on the western horizon.
"There were mountains like that," Zeller said of his 2008 deployment to eastern Afghanistan and the day that changed his life. The high plains in Ghazni were the same color. "But it wasn't this grassy," he added. "It was much dryer. Moon dust."
In Zeller's mind, the fact that an interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved his life, should be the most compelling case for evacuating allies, for giving them special visas so they are not slaughtered by the Taliban for aiding the United States, and for giving those who were evacuated the promise that they can stay. Shinwari had pushed Zeller to the ground, and shot dead two Taliban snipers before they could shoot him.
How, he wonders, could you turn your back on someone who saved your life? Shinwari still had to wait nearly three years for a Special Immigrant Visa.
Whenever the message seemed to resonate, he felt vindicated, relieved, hopeful. There were people like Jeff Brown, the son of a Vietnam and Desert Storm veteran, whom they met at a VFW in Wyoming, who thought the group's AAA road trip was "awesome" and said he would "absolutely" help them lobby Wyoming's senators. "This is why we stop into places like this! This is how we build a national movement to get a bill passed!" Zeller exclaimed afterward.
And there was the moment in Denver, a few days after the lunch in Manhattan, Kan., when the Moran staffer texted Zeller to say that he had been deeply moved by the conversation, and was making good headway convincing his boss to support the bill. "Firewatch works! Road trip works!" Zeller declared, shaking his fist, ecstatic.
But more often along the way, the response seemed to range from lukewarm to indifferent, like the man who listened silently at the American Legion post in Cheyenne as Powers and Zeller spoke at rapid clip about duty and promises made. "Sounds exciting," the man said nicely as he paid his bar tab and then left as they were still talking.
"What am I missing? Something exciting?" asked a bearded man who had poked his head out the door of VFW Post 1634 when he saw Zeller, Powers and Rauf taking pictures of the sign and flags outside.
"Get moving on," said a scowling older man when the group approached. Inside, there were a few friendly conversations, followed by an angry confrontation with a woman who was having none of it and wanted them to leave.
The men had high hopes for Montana, but Zeller was frustrated.
"Guys, can we?" he yelled at Powers and Rauf who were slow to get out of the car when they arrived at VFW Post 6774 the next day. "We make a horrible impression every time we stand out here and look like morons," he muttered. But soon they were back in the parking lot.
"Not worth it. I don't want a repeat of last night," Zeller said after a man at the bar had made a racist comment about Native Americans.
"I only speak so much Montana," Powers said. "But hopefully the post commander sees my business card."
The group that morning had met a handful of local resettlement advocates and recently arrived Afghan families, who stood with them outside Sen. Steve Daines's shuttered office to record another video. Daines, among the Republicans who called on Biden to do more last year, had given no indication he would support the AAA. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
But the gathering had seemed to momentarily buoy Zeller's spirits. They had two weeks left of the road trip and six more states where they hoped to convince senators. Idaho and Utah would yield meetings with all four Senate offices, leaving Zeller as optimistic as ever.
That night in Billings, they decided to make a video in the VFW parking lot, despite the lackluster reception inside. "We've come 2,500 miles across the country, spreading awareness of the Afghan Adjustment Act," Zeller said to the camera. "Still I've yet to meet a person who doesn't want to get it passed. Just overwhelming support from folks who want to get this done."