Politico

Catching the Last ‘Last Flight’ Out of Afghanistan


The text message arrived in the afternoon — late at night in Afghanistan: “We have flight approval. So be ready to notify families tonight.”

I air-punched the ceiling and blurted out a string of celebratory expletives. I had been waiting for this message for weeks: The Afghan interpreter who years before had risked his life for me, patrolling alongside my infantry platoon, was finally going to escape a country where the new government had vowed to kill him.

I messaged “Rock” (for his safety I can’t use his real name) and told him to stand by for information on where to meet the organizers who would take him to the airport. Afraid that the Taliban knew where evacuees were staying, for six days Rock had scarcely left his cell-like hotel room, with its grimy wallpaper, rickety ceiling fan and a couple of sleeping pads.

“Got confirmation. Go there now.” I sent Rock the address for the linkup point. To avoid drawing attention to himself, Rock carried only a small backpack and his Afghan passport. Maybe this time, I thought, after half-a-dozen false starts and last-minute failures, Rock would finally get out.

The text message I had received with the welcome news was not sent by the U.S. government. Instead, it had come from members of Task Force Argo, a group belonging to the broader coalition of volunteers sometimes referred to as #AfghanEvac. Task Force Argo is made up primarily of current and former military veterans, intelligence analysts and Department of Defense personnel; its website claims the group has successfully evacuated 2,216 people: U.S. citizens and “Afghan Allies” — interpreters, commandos, government officials and their families. Many of these evacuees had worked closely with American forces over the 20-year Afghan war.

Since the official withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of August, the work of shepherding tens of thousands of Afghans out of the country has fallen to groups like Task Force Argo, who have tapped networks of private donors to fund an operation that was left unfinished by the U.S. government. There is no way to precisely account for the total amount spent by these groups but the individual costs are staggering. Chartering an Airbus A340, capable of seating over 300 evacuees, to travel one-way to the nearest “lily pad” country — a place where evacuees can be processed — costs roughly $750,000, down from $1,150,000 when the evacuation started. To house and feed each of the would-be evacuees is roughly $20-30 per day (an average of $3,000 per person as they wait). It’s a pittance for the U.S. government, but a fortune for volunteers.

“We are constantly at risk of running dry,” said “Duke”, the codename of a former Army reconnaissance platoon sergeant and member of the leadership team for Operation North Star, one of three main volunteer groups still conducting evacuation operations. “It’s like the entrepreneur sweating payroll every two weeks. At some point we are going to run into a problem, and when that happens the humanitarian cost will be horrific.”

Already there are signs that the chartered flights are about to come to a halt. If that happens, the thousands of people currently hiding in safe houses, waiting for the U.S. State Department to issue them a visa, will be ejected into the Taliban-controlled streets because volunteer groups can no longer cover the cost of housing them.

“We’re not seeing Rwanda-level genocide, but this is a ticking time bomb,” Duke told me. “I get 50 calls per day from people in safe houses who are scared out of their minds. I regularly receive graphic images or videos of people, especially Afghan commandos, murdered by the Taliban. I’ve received unshakable images of dead children.”

Nearly a half an hour after I had sent Rock the address, I got a text from him.

“I am at the door,” Rock wrote. “Some more people came here they are also waiting.”

He sent me a couple of pictures from his phone. Everything seemed to be coming together as planned.

“Sir we are good. Just waiting for them to check that I am on the list.”

Then, 10 minutes later: “I am not on the list.”

I felt suddenly incompetent, like I had betrayed him. I was the one who advised him to take this risk, to expose himself to danger and spend his dwindling supply of money. Rock only had enough cash for three more nights at the hotel. Now it looked like he was running out of time and chances.

I’ve known Rock since 2009 when he was assigned to our light infantry unit in Kandahar province. In a U.S.-issued uniform, he patrolled shoulder-to-shoulder with my platoon during a year in which we took 25-percent casualties. A few years later, I helped Rock assemble a book of recommendation letters and file the necessary paperwork for a Special Immigrant Visa, the much-prized “SIV” that would become the jargon of the moment in the last days of August as thousands of people flocked to the airport in Kabul.

When his first application was rejected, he filed again in 2016. That time it was accepted and, by 2018, he had finished every step of the — on average, three and a half year — process. Rock expected that he would be granted his visa shortly thereafter. But then he waited. And waited.

We know now what the problem was.

“The Costs of Working with the Americans in Afghanistan,” a paper published by Brown University’s Watson Institute in April, offers a post-mortem of the now-much-derided program. By 2020, the State Department had little ability to keep up with demand. With a backlog of “well over 20,000 principle applicants,” the process had so overwhelmed the staff that one review by the Inspector General found that “SIV applicant emails had not been opened in the approximately 30 days after they were received.” There was only one analyst conducting security checks and the position of senior coordinator, overseeing the entire process, was unfilled for three years between 2017 and 2020. (Earlier this month, the Department of State Inspector General launched an investigation into the end of Afghanistan operations, including the Special Immigrant Visa program.)

Rock was hardly alone among the worthy applicants caught in the backlog of “SIV-pending” applications.

There is an active-duty U.S. Army major — a West Point professor, no less — who was born in and served in Afghanistan who is struggling to get her family out of the country. “I’ve lost a lot of faith in our government to help my family,” said Ariana Mahmood (not her real name).

Her relatives — former Afghan commandos, government officials who served in the Ministry of Interior Affairs, a female journalist and progressive university professors who were critical of the Taliban — are all pending Special Immigrant Visas; none have been issued a case number. “It all goes into a black hole,” said the major. As a result, she has been left with no choice but to start a “go fund me”-style campaign to “… pay rent for safe houses, basic living expenses for food and medicine, transportation within Afghanistan, and eventually air transportation.”

To file for Humanitarian Parole — a critical lifeline that could expedite the evacuation of her family — Mahmood will have to pay a $575 application fee to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for each of her relatives. So far, this has cost $12,075. Although she has raised tens of thousands of dollars, all of which has gone directly to Human First, a volunteer group that provides shelter and safe transportation, she has fallen far short of her target: $250,000.

As soon as I got Rock’s text that he wasn’t on the list, I phoned my #AfghanEvac contact. Matt Watters answered. When I told him what was happening with Rock, he sighed.

For Matt, this was just another frustrating hiccup. He’s been helping interpreters flee Afghanistan for almost two months. This was the second time he had tried to help Rock. The first time, Taliban fighters prevented Rock from reaching Matt’s contact at one of the entry gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

“He should be on the list. Let me make a few calls.”

A few minutes later he called back.

“Tell Rock to go to the front desk in 10 or 15 minutes. Ask for Remy (not his real name). He’ll be on the list. Problem should be fixed.”

“My friend says try now,” I wrote to Rock.

Exactly 10 minutes from the time I called Matt, Rock responded: “Thanks now they added me. Thanks I am in the bus. Moving to airport”.

I sent Matt a photograph of Rock on the bus with the caption, “You did this!”

His response: “Boom baby”.

In early September, in the immediate aftermath of the last official flight from Afghanistan, the U.S. government said it would work with the volunteers to keep the evacuation going.

As POLITICO reported, “[t]he White House has approved a recommendation by the nation’s top military officer that the administration intensify cooperation with the ad hoc groups that have been working to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans from the country.”

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. According to “Duke” of Operation North Star, “There was one meeting — and to the best of my knowledge — that was it.”

Volunteer groups have found themselves filling the breach elsewhere, doing activities ordinarily reserved for the federal government: negotiating with elected representatives and senior government officials; coordinating with agencies like DoD and the State Department; signing contracts with private jet companies and building manifests for the secondary evacuation of American citizens, Green Card holders, and Afghan Allies, who were left behind; advocating for improvements of camp conditions, escalating numerous cases where basic hygiene amenities, toilets, food, and clothing have either been undignified and lacking, or missing altogether; coordinating transport for overland evacuations into neighboring countries; and coordinating resettlement activities once evacuees reach the United States.

The problem with civilians doing some of these activities, like moving people, is obvious. One person’s “underground railroad” is another’s “human trafficking.”

But shifting to a different mission set–secondary evacuation and resettlement–presents new ways of working, a need for greater coordination and oversight, and frustratingly, slower results.

“The State Department doesn’t like private individuals dictating foreign policy to them,” said one member of #AfghanEvac last month. “The DoJ could try to go after some of these vets, charge them with human trafficking, or whatever, but if they did try to prosecute a bunch of people who were helping to fix this debacle in Kabul, they might as well tar and feather a baby.”

There’s one clear indicator that the Biden administration has no control over, or plan for, this phase of the evacuation: Requests for help continue to travel the wrong way, from senior government officials to volunteers. Civilian volunteers are receiving pleas for help — in the form of recommendation letters — from senior flag officers, sitting U.S. senators and congress members, NGOs, media outlets and multi-national corporations.

Over the past couple months, Matt Watters organized and led more than a dozen fundraising calls to charter private jets for evacuees. “I scraped my contacts, looking for high net worth individuals,” he said. “But it takes a certain type of donor who is willing to plonk down a couple million dollars, with very little oversight, in an unstructured environment, with no guarantee that what we’re doing will work.”

Money, of course, didn’t solve every problem — especially when it came to breaking through the State Department bottleneck. “I succeeded in raising a lot of money to get these people to safety,” he said. “Now, we’re burning it while we wait, paying to keep entire manifests of people — hundreds and hundreds — in safe houses. We need support and we’re not getting it.”

Watters described his interaction with the State Department as a frustrating loop: The volunteer organization emails the State Department, receives an auto-response that redirects them to the State Department website. On the website, they locate a phone number and call the State Department help desk only to be told that they should send an email. Getting through to someone who has the capacity, willingness, and authorization to help is hard to come by.

“We’re happy to work with the State Department,” he said. “But someone needs to pick up the phone and work with us.”

There have been some positive changes: The Biden administration is helping to resettle 55,600 Afghan evacuees40 percent of whom are children — from U.S. military bases, like Qatar, where they’ve been living for weeks.

But this does nothing to help those still stuck in Afghanistan — hundreds of thousands of people, by some estimates. At the current evacuation rate — a paltry 2,000 people per month — it will take volunteers roughly five years to evacuate SIVs and their families.

“Of the thousands of evacuees that we are tracking, only about 10 percent have all of their paperwork,” said Duke, of Operation North Star. “The husband might have a passport, but the women and children don’t. And without papers, the U.S. State Department won’t issue a visa or let them fly.” Other barriers: The Taliban does not permit undocumented passengers to depart, and third-party countries aren’t granting them permission to land.

According to one American government official, the Taliban have restarted passport issuance, but if you have a target on your back — those most in need of a passport — you can’t safely apply for one. “The Taliban have been killing ANDSF [Afghan National Defense Security Forces] who apply,” the U.S. official said. It’s a Catch-22.

“Our group — Operation North Star, Task Force Argo, and Operation Pineapple — has 10,000 legitimate Afghan Allies and their families that need to be evacuated ASAP,” continued Duke. “But even if someone gave me a $30 million check to charter jets, I wouldn’t be able to spend it to get people out because U.S. State Department policies won’t permit them to fly … If I could put non-papered allies and family members on planes, I’d clear my books, call ‘end of mission’, and go back to working on my golf game.

“The Department of State and the Pentagon could solve this in a week,” Duke said. “But they’re not.”

On Oct. 8, Rock boarded a flight from Afghanistan and flew to a third-party country (I can’t say which one for his family’s safety) for further processing. Overjoyed, I sent him a note:

“The rest of this journey is not over. And it will likely be difficult. But I will help support you. We still need to get you here to the U.S. and that, too, will take some hard work. But we will figure it out. You may be stuck for a while until that happens.”

Rock wrote back: “Thanks sir you did everything for me I cannot forget it sir…We’ve been given very good food and Shampoo. Soaps, everything. I’m happy here. The best thing is I am safe. No tension of Taliban in [Afghan city] every night. my heart was dipping. thanks sir.”

Later, Rock sent me a photo. He was standing proud and clean-shaven — the first time I had ever seen him without a beard. He was eager to get to work in the United States — to build a better life for himself and his family. For the rest of the evening, we picked out “western-style” clothes for him on Amazon. He didn’t know his size.

News of Rock’s escape spread. In the days following, I was inundated with requests for help from other interpreters, Afghan journalists, airline workers and former Afghan government officials. Written pleas, horrendous and pathetic. People selling their worldly possessions for pennies on the dollar to pay for safe houses. Photographs of children, at play, during better days. Photographs of Afghan commandos, dead and waxy in pallor, executed with a bullet to the head. I could not help them all. Nor could the volunteer organizations who had just helped Rock because the flight that got Rock out of Afghanistan may have been one of the last.

On Oct. 21, my phone buzzed. It was a message from a U.S. official.

“Operation North Star ran out of money entirely — we are kicking people out of safe houses.”

I texted Duke to confirm.

“Yes, all of the volunteer groups are hurting for cash,” Duke said. “We’ve been left to solve an Uncle Sam-sized problem with the personal checking accounts of veterans.”

As a last-ditch effort, hoping to evacuate a few more before the coffers emptied, I reached out to a different volunteer group, hoping that I might have the contacts to help evacuate the family of the Mahmood, the Army major.

The response: “We are not taking these huge fams [“families”] anymore. We just can’t…I’m sorry. It just is what it is. I wish we could help them all.”

I called Mahmood. I asked her a painful question:

“I know this is hard, but which 4-6 members of your family are highest priority? You might only be able to save some of them.”

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Lisa

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