Eric Eliason’s phone goes off every couple of minutes.
Whenever he hears the sharp “ping” of a new message, his eyes dart to the screen and for a brief moment, nothing else matters.
Sometimes it’s his wife, his son, a colleague or even a reporter. But it’s the WhatsApp messages from a teenager in Afghanistan that really grab his attention.
“They are still in harm’s way and still in hiding,” he says. “We need to move as fast as we can, the minute we feel like there is a reasonable bet that something could work, we’ll go with that.”
Eliason is guarded, often tight-lipped about the five, maybe six options he and his team of relatives and former Army buddies cooked up that morning.
Eliason, a former Utah National Guard chaplain and now a Brigham Young University professor, is cagey on names, dates and locations. He shows off a photo taken during his deployment, then realizes how recognizable the ridgeline is behind him. He’s afraid if he tells the media too much, the Taliban, now well-versed in navigating the internet, might pick up on the details.
The mission is complex but the objective is simple — get Taroon’s family out of Afghanistan.
‘Everything that might have been’
Eliason was deployed in 2004 with the Utah National Guard, First Battalion of the 19th Special Forces Group, and tasked with training recruits from the Afghan National Army and improving community relations.
Taking part in the “hearts and minds war that was going on,” as Eliason puts it.
Early on, one of the recruits stood out. Educated in a madrassa in rural Pakistan, Taroon — a name he was known by, but Eliason is reluctant to share his full name out of a concern for safety — was illiterate, yet memorized the Quran in two languages, Pashtun and Arabic. He soon emerged as a de facto leader, with an emotional intelligence that proved to be a calming presence during combat.
“He was intelligent. He was on the spot and always aware of what was going on. And he was also very kind,” Eliason told the Deseret News during a conversation in his office at BYU.
So Eliason trained him to be a chaplain. When the shooting started, he and Taroon would go right to the aid station to help wounded soldiers. They would go on patrols, Taroon leading the men in prayer as Americans stood guard. He orchestrated the renovation of several mosques and helped open a foundation for religious freedom in the Afghan National Army. Local teachers, no longer fearing retribution from the Taliban, opened a school for girls.
When Taroon went on leave, he returned to his school in Pakistan that Eliason said was a pipeline for Taliban recruitment.
“We were scared, thinking ‘He’s gonna go back there to those guys? They’ll kill him,’” Eliason said.
But Taroon extended an offer to the local mullahs — come to Afghanistan, meet the American troops, and see the progress firsthand.
They didn’t take him up on the offer. But students of the madrassa and Afghan refugees from the Soviet-Afghan War did, many of whom had been inundated by Taliban propaganda that, much like the USSR, the Americans were crusaders, here to destroy Islam.
“Refugees by the thousands started coming back to their homes in this valley, opening up windows that had been closed for years and in some cases, rebuilding old buildings that had been bombed out from Soviet bombs,” Eliason said.
Eliason said Taroon’s work during the early 2000s was so impactful that for a moment the area seemed to become “infertile ground” for the Taliban’s message. Although still able to come into the village to deliver “night letters” — often threatening messages or propaganda used for recruitment — Eliason said the Taliban’s influence in the region started to wane.
“The people would pick these night letters up, and bring them to us. And they would laugh and they say, ‘These Taliban think they can tell us this ... this is stupid,’” said Eliason.
When his deployment ended in 2004, Eliason left the country feeling inspired by the tangible changes he saw take place, spearheaded by Taroon.
“One of the things I thought at the time was, he is the hope for Afghanistan,” Eliason said. “To me, he represented everything that might have been of that country.”
For several years, Taroon kept working as a chaplain with Afghan forces. But the progress in the region did not go unnoticed by the Taliban. He started receiving death threats, left on the front step of his home in the middle of the night. Some notes referred to his wife, daughter and infant sons by name. He eventually sent his family to a village miles away, and kept working.
On an evening in the late 2000s, Taliban fighters came to Taroon’s home and murdered him.
Chaos in Kabul
Eliason had no knowledge of Taroon’s death until several weeks ago.
“I had often wondered how he was doing. Is his daughter grown up? What ever happened with his family?” Eliason said. “I learned all that extraordinarily painfully and very quickly.”
As the situation in Afghanistan began to unravel, a former Green Beret friend who had been writing letters of recommendation for Afghans seeking special immigrant visas, reached out to Eliason. A teenager claiming to be Taroon’s son was messaging him on WhatsApp, using Google translate to ask for help.
Eliason was intrigued, and asked his friend for the teenager’s number.
He was initially cautious, until the teenager sent pictures of Taroon’s ID, paperwork from his time in the army, even a certificate of his appointment to chaplain that had Eliason’s signature on it.
That was Aug. 17, two days after the Taliban blitzkrieg swept into Kabul, triggering a mass panic at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Eliason and a network of former Army friends jumped into action, spending hours brainstorming ways to get Taroon’s wife, daughter, two sons and brother on to a plane and out of the country by President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline.
Eliason had Taroon’s son print signs with his name and contact information, hoping to catch the eyes of Marines guarding the gates. He talked with the family several times each day, coaching them on what to tell soldiers at the airport. He called the U.S. State Department, submitting the online form for families in need of evacuation. He emailed Utah Republican Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart.
But Aug. 31 came, and the family was still in Afghanistan.
Several days before the last U.S. soldier boarded a plane out of the country, Taroon’s family was forced to flee Kabul when a neighbor claimed they heard Taliban fighters going door to door one street over. They slipped out of the city hours later under the cover of darkness, and are now hiding in a different village.
An uncertain future
Eliason, a tenured professor of folklore at BYU, works a lot these days — in his words, he spends “a lot less time playing stupid games on the phone.”
Two ceiling-high bookshelves, packed with an eclectic mix of books new and old, line both sides of his office, which has become the unofficial headquarters for his grassroots mission. Food wrappers and an empty Tupperware container sit nearby on his desk, proof of many recent meals eaten in front of his computer.
On the wall hangs a photo of him and his Army colleagues posing in front of a helicopter. On the floor lies a rug from Afghanistan that cost him $80 but that he says is worth $600.
And on his computer is a picture of Taroon, flashing a wary smile as he stands in his village, behind him a dramatic ridgeline that looks eerily similar to the view from Eliason’s own office in Provo.
Eliason says he is constantly pursuing every conceivable avenue to get the family across the border. What exactly those plans entail, he can’t yet say, out of fear that the Taliban “might catch on to what we and others are doing to get people out of Afghanistan.”
With help from his niece, he launched an online fundraiser to help cover the costs of hiring protection and transportation in Afghanistan and putting an immigration attorney on retainer.
His classes and BYU functions offer a nice escape from the gravity of the situation, but his phone never goes on silent.
He often wakes up with hope, and goes to sleep hopeless.
“We’re working multiple options at the same time,” he said. “In the morning, you have five things, all of which seem like a godsend miracle. Then all five of them have evaporated into a mirage by the end of the day.”
Although the Taliban have preached amnesty, he hears stories of assassinations, beatings and disappearances, both from Taroon’s family and his contacts in the military. Eliason worries that because Taroon’s family was threatened by name, the Taliban might have some unfinished business.
However real the danger is, the uncertainty of what will happen to Afghans who aided the U.S. and allied forces is enough to keep both the family and Eliason up at night.
When asked how many hours each day he spends working to get the family out, he doesn’t have a clear answer.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking off toward the floor. “I think it’s more like, how many hours a day do I not spend doing this.”
Correction: In an earlier version, Eliason incorrectly said Taroon orchestrated the building of several mosques. He orchestrated the renovation of several mosques. Eliason also incorrectly said the Taliban referred to the Americans as “parasites.” The Afghans referred to the Taliban as “parasites.”