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‘When Will We Get Out?’ Parents Plead With California Son to Help Them Flee Afghanistan

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SACRAMENTO — 

Emal Salarzai woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago feeling like his skull was burning, a heat so real he went to the mirror and began shaving off his hair.

“I was thinking about my mom and my dad,” he said, “I am the only son, the only child.”

Kabul had fallen two months earlier, and his parents were trapped in Afghanistan. They still are. The Taliban is searching for his father and two uncles, he said, all of whom helped the American regime — as did he, working with the U.S. military to train Afghan troops in English and computing. His mother, Masoma, 56, incapacitated by heart disease and diabetes, could not understand why others have been able to land coveted seats on outbound flights when they have not.

When Salarzai, 34, speaks with her sporadically on WhatsApp and Signal from Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento that is his home, she asks him why he hasn’t been able to help.

“Every time, these are her words,” said Salarzai. “When will we get out?”

He has no answers.

The United States evacuated more than 120,000 people before the withdrawal of U.S. troops in August and the staggeringly quick takeover by the Taliban, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Thousands of Afghan refugees included in those airlifts remain in “lily pad” third countries, where they are waiting in transit to final destinations. More than 70,000 have arrived in the United States, many still living on military bases.

Emal Salarzai holds a photo of his father shaking the hand of retired U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

But thousands of at-risk Afghans remain inside the country, increasingly desperate to leave as options for doing so dwindle, say family members and aid organizations. A handful are U.S. citizens or visa holders. Many more, like Salarzai’s parents, lack official status or documentation but are at risk either because of their own activities in the country, or because their relatives helped the United States.

A U.S. Department of State spokesperson said it has continued charter flights to facilitate departures for U.S. citizens and residents, and remains committed to the “monumental” task of helping vulnerable Afghans who want to leave. It has evacuated about 600 people since its official withdrawal at the end of August, the spokesperson said. The majority of flights out, though, are now handled through American allies such as Qatar, and nonprofit and aid agencies that charter their own planes, create their own manifests, and work to gather the necessary governmental clearances both through the U.S. and the new regime in Afghanistan. It is a slow and disjointed process.

The State Department said it is working to “accelerate” the pace of charter flights and has created a cross-agency group to streamline its effort. But the removal of the U.S. government and the scramble to fill the void by myriad smaller players have left confusion and frustration for Afghans. With no central command and no clear information on who is involved and how charter flights are being filled, those seeking ways out are left depending on tips from friends, internet information and luck, said Salarzai and others.

“It’s not as simple as it used to be … when there were Army planes and people were hopping on and they were taking off,” said Ismail Khan, a volunteer with nonprofit No One Left Behind, which helps special immigrant visa holders — those granted entry into the United States for helping troops as interpreters or other critical roles. “There are a lot of folks that you need to get their approval to get someone on a flight.”

Emal Salarzai stands inside the warehouse at his e-commerce business in Sacramento.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Khan said that even with his connections through the nonprofit work, he is unable to get answers about his own family, who are also trapped in Afghanistan.

“There is not a follow-up,” he said. “You can’t get an answer from anyone that will tell you, ‘Hey, it’s going to happen in a month or two months or a year,’ or, ‘It’s not going to happen.’”

Recently, his 15-year-old brother was kidnapped and beaten by the Taliban, he said, freed after the family paid a ransom. Now, his family has split into four groups and is in hiding. But Khan fears that his high-profile work advocating for others will continue to make them targets. Like Salarzai’s family, they want to know why he can’t do more.

“The hardest part for me is I have been talking to senators and congressmen and news reporters and trying to do everything for others and my family as well,” Khan said. “My family, they call me every day and say, ‘Look, people are getting out and you are helping people get out and you are not helping us. What’s going on?’”

The pressure on those living in the United States to help family abroad is traumatizing Afghan communities — especially special immigrant visa recipients such as Salarzai and Khan who fear their families will die or be imprisoned if they fail to find a way out.

“I can guarantee you that everyone here already had PTSD and they are going through a mental issue right now,” Khan said. “I struggle at work. I can’t really focus. … It’s been a nightmare.”

Kerry Ham, executive director of World Relief Sacramento, a resettlement agency that works with Afghan refugees, said that mental health crisis is likely to grow. He receives multiple emails every day asking for help with evacuations, many from people who are refugees themselves and are just “getting up day by day, trying to figure out what they can do,” he said.

Emal Salarzai locates items on the shelves in his e-commerce warehouse and ships the items to his customers.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Thursday, Salarzai sat in the rented warehouse where he stores clothes to resell on Amazon. His dark eyes looked weary, his hair grown back to a short buzz. There were few lights on in the cluttered space, with boxes of shirts and shoes stacked to the ceiling. The room grew dim as the sun set on Veterans Day.

He was waiting for a call from his father but had no good news to give. He still had heard nothing back, except from a single source that was working to get his parents on a charter flight. The source said they needed to get passports first — theirs are expired.

But passports are hard to come by in Kabul, Salarzai said. Hundreds line up every day at the official office, now run by the Taliban. He is hesitant for his father to show up there, anyway.

Salarzai’s father worked as an intelligence liaison for the ousted regime and is known to his neighborhood as “Dagarwah” — the colonel — even though he is retired from military service. The family fled to Pakistan with nothing when the first Taliban regime took over. Salarzai was 4 and they lived in camps until his father could get established.

When the Taliban was toppled, they returned to a demolished Kabul. Salarzai was 14 and remembers coming through the Khyber Pass and seeing a soldier with a gun wearing traditional leather sandals instead of boots. It made him feel as though he was home.

Emal Salarzai stands outside his his e-commerce business in Sacramento.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

He grew up in a Kabul that was rebuilding around him. One television station became dozens. There was music, and girls doing things. His female cousins went to school — one becoming a teacher and another a doctor. His uncles worked dangerous jobs in support of the government while his family rebuilt too. He helped the colonel build an eight-bedroom “villa” where their extended family lived together, the colonel taking his grandkids to school every day.

Salarzai rose through the ranks to become a trainer at the Morehead English Language Training Center, an elite school that prepped Afghan troops to travel to the U.S. and other countries for courses with special forces such as Army Rangers, he said.

On his phone, he keeps a photo of Canadian Lt. Col. Jean-Guy Levesque giving him the Book of Operating Procedures when Salarzai became site lead and supervisor of the school, the first Afghan to take control of the facility, in 2012. He loved the job, loved helping Afghanistan become a new country, he said.

But he began receiving threats, and worried about his kids. In 2015, he came to the United States on a special immigrant visa.

He tried to return to Afghanistan after only a few months in the U.S., missing his parents too much. His mother told him, “People are dying to just get out of this country, and you have a green card in your hand and you are saying you don’t want to leave … Just go, and if [Allah] helps, we will be with you.”

Not long ago, members of the Taliban came to the door of the house where Salarzai’s grandfather and 8-year-old cousin were staying. They slapped the boy, he said, and demanded to know where the colonel was. Neighbors called the family to warn them.

“Just tell the colonel to not come home,” they said.

Salarzai and Khan both said they fear the Taliban will grow more bold as time passes and international interest wanes. They worry they will not be able to get their families out while there is still a slim window of opportunity.

“People are forgetting about them,” said Salarzai.

“There is this much hope,” he says, squeezing two fingers nearly to touching, “that is giving me strength.”

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Looking for a Boost, Taiwan’s Oldest Political Party Turns to the Great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — 

Between internal strife, muddled campaign messages and a stance on China that has become a political liability, Taiwan’s oldest political party is deep in existential crisis.

The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the KMT, or Kuomintang, was founded in mainland China but went into exile in Taiwan in 1949. It ruled the island for 50 years before losing its grip on power.

The party has long pushed for closer ties with China, a position that has increasingly put it out of touch with a younger generation that identifies as Taiwanese and has grown wary of the Chinese Communist Party’s designs on the island.

Now the 110-year-old KMT is looking to a rising star to refurbish its image: Chiang Wan-an, who is favored to become the next mayor of Taipei — among thousands of local offices up for grabs in nationwide elections Saturday.

The charismatic 43-year-old former legislator and lawyer has billed himself as a thoroughly modern figure who can lead the party into the future. He supports same-sex marriage and lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. His handsome looks and young children haven’t hurt his appeal either.

At the same time, he claims deep roots in the party’s past as a great-grandson of the revolutionary Chiang Kai-shek.

It was under Chiang Kai-shek that the party fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Waiting to someday take the mainland back, the KMT often using brutal means to suppress any political threats, finally lifting martial law in 1987as Taiwan began to democratize.

Ham radio, a niche hobby among older Taiwanese, has reemerged as a potential wartime tool as China’s military aggression grows.

Now, it’s the Communist Party that wants to retake Taiwan. In the face of growing aggression under President Xi Jinping, who considers the democracy of 23 million a part of China, much of the national political discourse has centered on the best way to defend the island.

President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, was reelected by a landslide in 2020, thanks to growing Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment. But this year, the KMT has enjoyed a boost of support that could help it clean up in local races.

The mayorship of Taipei is often a stepping stone to the presidency. According to recent polls, Chiang is leading independent candidate Huang Shan-shan, the former deputy mayor of Taipei, and the DPP’s Chen Shih-chung, who as minister of health and welfare oversaw Taiwan’s pandemic response.

“He is the young, fresher and slightly updated face that the KMT needs,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University. “But one candidate does not a successful political strategy make.”

In local elections, cross-strait tensions take a backseat to more immediate concerns. The mayoral candidates have talked a lot about urban renewal, the rising cost of housing, subsidies for young parents and ways to make the city friendlier for pets. Chiang wants to improve health insurance for animals and expand programs to let them ride on public transportation.

He has also sought to capitalize on voters’ dissatisfaction with the Tsai administration, in particular pointing to a lack of transparency in its vaccine rollout early in the pandemic.

“This is a contest of values: democracy against the black box,” he declared at an election rally Saturday night. “Hard work against laziness, integrity against lies, light against darkness.”

In the crowd that night was Mark Chu, a 30-year-old IT worker who found the event to be a moving morale boost for KMT supporters. However, he couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of people his own age.

“There’s a sense of distance between the KMT and young people,” Chu said. “They’re getting further and further away from mainstream ideas.”

But Chiang has managed to convince Bernie Hou, a 33-year-old public relations worker who has supported politicians from various parties over the years.

His decision to back Chiang is in large part a vote against the DPP for its handling of the pandemic. He also was impressed by Chiang’s performance during the mayoral debate.

“He has all the makings of a capital mayor,” Hou said. “And he looks very good.”

Still, even in local races, the strained relations between Beijing and Taipei are an unavoidable factor.

The ruling DPP leans toward independence for Taiwan and has taken a confrontational stance toward China, an approach that appeals to those who came of age under Taiwan’s democracy and rebuke Beijing’s calls for unification. Those voters are leery of giving too much leeway to an authoritarian regime that has threatened to fulfill its territorial claims by force.

The president, whose term ends in 2024, has recently stepped up efforts to capitalize on those fears. But her calls to resist China have failed to translate into broader support for the DPP this election.

“It’s a tough balancing act,” said Sung Wen-ti, a political scientist with Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “DPP has been riding on the wave of its Taiwanese nationalism card since 2014 and is inevitably facing a degree of voter fatigue.”

The KMT wants to maintain the status quo of Taiwan’s democratic governance, but favors a friendlier relationship with Beijing. Its support comes largely from older generations, who associate the party with their Chinese identities and mainland roots. A minority within the party still hope to see reunification with China.

As the KMT grapples with how to appease both its traditional base and reach a new one, Chiang could help bridge that gap.

His father Hsiao-yan, a former vice premier and foreign minister, was born with the surname Chang, but he changed it after gathering evidence that he was the illegitimate grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. Though some still doubt that claim, his son changed his last name too.

Older KMT members revere the former generalissimo for his contributions to Taiwan’s industrial development and his experiences fighting Japanese and Communist forces. Younger Taiwanese see him as an emblem of the island’s authoritarian past.

The Chiang Kai-shek legacy has come under greater scrutiny in recent years amid initiatives to compensate the families of victims that suffered under his reign and remove statues glorifying him.

Chiang Wan-an has at times found himself caught in the middle. Earlier this year he advocated for removing Chiang Kai-shek’s name from a famous memorial hall in Taipei. But he dropped the proposal after KMT supporters criticized him for diminishing his own history and Chinese identity.

“Leaning too far into his family background is a risk,” said Brian Hioe, a founding editor of the Taiwan-based media outlet New Bloom. “Now there is much more backlash against these second generations and political dynasties.”

The bigger challenge for the KMT looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election may be persuading voters that it can adeptly navigate cross-strait relations without acceding to pressure from Beijing.

Watching Chiang greet voters in Taipei on Monday, Wendy Chang, a 25-year-old visiting home from studying business in the Netherlands, said he seems more modern than the traditional KMT candidates. Nonetheless, she has a hard time swallowing the party’s friendlier attitude toward China.

“I feel like Taiwan’s elections ultimately are all about cross-strait relations,” she said.

Yang is a Times staff writer and Shen a special correspondent.

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The Times Podcast: Mexico’s Unique, Binational Soccer Fans

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Right now, the eyes of much of the world is on the FIFA World Cup in Qatar as 32 teams fight for national pride. One team is Mexico, whose unique fanbase sets it apart from the world. With loyalties to both Mexico and the United States, it’s a representation of resilience, controversy and so much more.

Today, we examine the phenomenon. Read the full transcript here.

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A New Foreign Policy Headache for Biden As Israel Forms Its Most Right-wing Government Ever

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WASHINGTON — 

The Biden administration is grappling with how to deal with a new Israeli government that will be the most right-wing in that country’s history and may stand in the way of core U.S. goals for the Middle East.

The new government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who was ousted from the job just a year ago and is on trial for corruption. To regain the position, Netanyahu formed an alliance with controversial political figures known for their extreme anti-Arab views, likely dooming any peace deal with Palestinians.

Dealing with the Netanyahu-led government will pose major challenges for the Biden administration, which desires a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and broader acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

Republicans in the U.S. who are eager to cast themselves as true friends of Israel are sure to question any Biden administration criticism of the new government.

Netanyahu and the GOP have grown closer over the past decade, undermining decades of bipartisan support for Israel.

In 2015, Netanyahu, whom congressional Republicans had invited to address a joint session of Congress, used the speech to criticize President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Former President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, delighting Netanyahu. Just this week, Netanyahu delivered a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, a partisan group.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a long record of extreme anti-Arab rhetoric, is promised the post of national security minister in Israel’s new government.

Netanyahu and President Biden have both said that U.S. support for Israel should remain bipartisan.

Netanyahu’s new allies may make that difficult, however. Some U.S. officials have already privately indicated they will not meet with Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezazel Smotrich, two likelymembers of Netanyahu’s government.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich advocate recognizing illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where most Palestinians live, and eventually annexing most or all of that territory. They oppose a separate Palestinian state. Netanyahu needs their support to cement a majority in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. Their support could also help him pass a law that would allow him to dodge his corruption trial.

The two men have also called for a far harsher crackdown on Palestinian militants and their supporters, including strict curfews in Palestinian villages, mass deportations and targeted killings of terrorism suspects. They have advocated making it easier for Israeli security forces to use live ammunition against Palestinian protesters who throw stones.

Ben-Gvir has also expressed affinity for the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose ideology the Anti-Defamation League has described as reflecting “racism, violence and political extremism” and whose organization until recently was listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

For years, Ben-Gvir had a poster of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli American terrorist and Kahane disciple who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994, hanging in his home, according to Israeli media. In 2007, an Israeli court convicted Ben-Gvir of incitement to racist violence and support for a terrorist organization.

Israel has sworn in its most religious and right-wing parliament after nearly four years of political deadlock and five elections.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich want to head the ministries of public security and defense, respectively, portfolios that have the closest contact with U.S. officials. On Friday, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party announced an agreement for Ben-Gvir to become security minister.

“This country is a democracy that elected a leadership and I intend to work with them,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, said in an interview with Israeli media, adding quickly: “That said, we have to stand up for the things that we believe in, that’s what American values are about. We have a very strong ally in the state of Israel, but there will be times when we will articulate where we believe our differences are.”

Nides and other U.S. officials have stated that the two countries’ points of disagreement include expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the possible annexation of the territory.

“The administration will have to decide what the real red lines are,” said Michael Koplow, a senior analyst with the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S.-based pro-Israel organization that advocates the two-state solution. “This will test U.S. boundaries on all fronts.”

Negotiations to form the government are underway and could take days or even weeks. A fair amount of horse-trading is part of the process, so it remains unclear which politicians will assume which posts. Netanyahu offered Smotrich the Finance Ministry instead of Defense, according to Israeli media, but Smotrich has so far given no indication he will budge from his initial demand.

“We provide nearly $4 billion a year to the Defense Ministry … and do we want to put our money in the hands of these guys?” said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now teaches at Princeton University. “I’d say no.”

Netanyahu is reported to be considering Ron Dermer as his foreign minister. Dermer served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States starting in 2013 and through the Trump administration, with which he was especially friendly. He arranged Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress. Dermer’s appointment would be a “poke in the eye” for Biden, Kurtzer said.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defamed his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and must pay damages to Netanyahu and his family, a court rules.

Republicans remain eager to criticize anything short of unquestioning support for Israel from the Biden administration. After the Israeli government revealed that the U.S. Justice Department had launched an inquiry into the May killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh near the West Bank city of Jenin, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) demanded Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland and “everyone involved in this debacle” be “fired or impeached.”

Multiple investigations by independent human rights and journalism organizations have concluded that an Israeli soldier probably fired the shot that killed the veteran journalist. Israel eventually acknowledged one of its soldiers was likely responsible. No one has been disciplined.

If the new Israeli government decides to try to annex the West Bank, it would jeopardize the Abraham Accords, a deal brokered under the Trump administration that opened business and some diplomatic ties between Israel and several Persian Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, that had previously refused to recognize Israel’s existence.

The UAE’s entry into the agreement was predicated on Netanyahu, in his previous stint as prime minister, backing away from plans to annex West Bank territory.

“If they push too far, it will foreclose any movement forward” in regional relations, said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. envoy for the Middle East now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Miller thinks Biden and Netanyahu will attempt to avoid overt conflict to safeguard their own domestic and global positions: “Biden wants to avoid a public wrestling match with Netanyahu,” Miller said, while Netanyahu “craves the international stage and is intending to strut on it.”

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Publicly, U.S. officials remain cautious, saying they want to see what kind of government Netanyahu ultimately forms, reiterating their “ironclad” commitment to Israel while emphasizing American “values” that include freedom and prosperity “in equal measure” for Israelis and Palestinians.

“The administration is right to be concerned … and to telegraph those concerns,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. He is one of several Democratic lawmakers who are firm supporters of Israel but have raised alarms over potential members of the new government. These include Sen. Bob Melendez of New Jersey, who chairs the committee, and California Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge).

But Ben-Gvir further alienated Biden administration officials by taking an electoral victory lap at a memorial service for Kahane, who was assassinated more than 30 years ago.

“Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent — there is no other word for it,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in unusually strongly worded comments. “We remain concerned by the legacy of Kahane and the continued use of rhetoric among violent right-wing extremists,” he said.

Ben-Gvir has reached an agreement with Netanyahu that would allow him to vastly expand police powers and remove officers from oversight by other legal authorities.

Naming a person who has been convicted of terrorism-related charges to head Israel’s national police force has alarmed numerous Israelis.

“It means that the police will become politicized to favor the extreme right,” the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial this week. “Those who are supposed to be safeguarding democracy have turned into soldiers at the service of politicians. That’s what happens when those accused and convicted of crimes take control of the institutions charged with maintaining law and order.”

The prospect of a Ben-Gvir-run police force has also alarmed American supporters of Israel. Ben-Gvir “has promised a no-holds-barred crackdown on terrorism and increased police and border security presence,” Yulia Shalomov, a fellow at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council think tank, said in a recent web appearance. His party “has consistently stoked domestic ethnic and societal tensions,” she said.

Netanyahu’s right-wing partners will also push for other legislation that would not only have an impact on Palestinians and Arabs. They have threatened to criminalize homosexuality and to ban non-Orthodox Jews from Israeli citizenship. Many U.S.-born Jews are members of more progressive branches of the faith, such as Reform or Conservative Judaism, and might not be able to obtain Israeli citizenship under the proposed laws.

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