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An army of veterans and volunteers organizes online to evacuate Afghans, from thousands of miles away

By August 26, 2021News, Print

BERKELEY, Calif. — On a quiet, tree-lined street in the Bay Area, Jon Reed’s computer screen swims with maps of Kabul, chat threads and text messages from Special Operations, military and civilian contractors inside and around the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

A former green beret, Reed is one of thousands of veterans, active-duty military, former government officials and civil servants working online to help Afghans flee Taliban retaliation. These efforts have taken on increased urgency this week as the window to shepherd people out of Afghanistan closes by Aug. 31, if not before, and the situation in the country deteriorates, including explosions outside the airport on Thursday. One group, Team America, says it has evacuated more than 200 Afghans and is tracking about 1,500 people.

“I’m pushing another ‘terp’ to the north side,” Reed tells another member of his group on the phone. “His name is Nick. That’s all the information I have right now.”

These groups of veterans and officials are leaning on their decades of deployments and thousands of hours of in-country experience in Afghanistan by acting as emergency dispatchers, calling in favors with gate guards, sharing intelligence about Taliban actions and directing families to the right runway to get a flight — all from thousands of miles away. They are using Slack and Signal groups to share highly sensitive information, and sending photos of evacuees to gate guards for verification. Others are software engineers and Silicon Valley investors who have connections to the region and the knowledge to code.

Many refer to the overall effort as “Digital Dunkirk,” a reference to the evacuation of stranded Allied soldiers from the beaches of northern France in World War II.

As the time frame for Afghans to leave shrinks, the volunteers are even booking transportation for evacuees. Reed’s group on Signal has pursued everything from buses to chartered flights, paid for and funded by private donations. Mick Mulroy, a former CIA paramilitary officer and Trump administration Pentagon official, said the volunteer group he works with, TF Dunkirk, has been working to secure helicopters out.

An Afghan family attempted to return to the United States on Aug. 19 but encountered chaos and violence outside the Kabul airport. (Courtesy of Mohammad Sadeed)

Zach Disbrow, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, has been working for the past week to get his interpreter — whom he calls “Mike” — out of Kabul. The interpreter was waiting outside the airport’s Abbey Gate, the site of one of the explosions Thursday, for over 36 hours and left shortly before the blast. “So we live to try another day,” Disbrow said.

The United States and other allies had ramped up evacuations this week, with Washington saying it has evacuated and helped in the evacuation of about 90,000 people since Aug. 14. But hours after it boasted of record high evacuations on Tuesday, the White House announced it would end evacuations before the Aug. 31 deadline to complete its full withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said its ability to airlift evacuees from the country could decrease as it turns to pulling out weaponry, equipment and troops. It was unclear how the bombings on Thursday would affect flights.

Witness: ‘People were hurled everywhere’ as blasts hit Kabul airport crowds
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed that two explosions took place outside Kabul’s airport on Aug. 26 causing U.S. and civilian casualties. (The Washington Post)

Late Wednesday in the United States — Thursday morning in Kabul — that prompted frantic coordination among the veterans and officials, who felt a sense of duty to assist those who had helped American forces over two decades in Afghanistan.

“As an American, I’m tired of feeling powerless,” said Joe Saboe, a former infantry officer who fought in Mosul, Iraq, and a spokesman for Team America. “And I’ve seen things that I don’t like happening in the world.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday told reporters: “There are certainly cases and incidents — and we have heard, you have reported — where individuals are not getting through that should get through. And we are approaching those and addressing those on a case-by-case basis as those are raised.”

Matt Pelak, a National Guard soldier who lives in Brooklyn and has spent days of his own time helping to coordinate evacuations, said he and other volunteers are in triage mode as the pullout date looms. The focus, he said, has become on people who have the right documents and have the best chance of getting through.

“Everyone sees the window closing rapidly,” Pelak said. “Now all we can do is help the people we can help.”

Many of these advocates have unique access to people and intelligence, feeding that information to potential evacuees over WhatsApp, text and through family members. Backgrounds in intelligence, communications and other specialties have combined to slice through inertia at the airport gate, where some veterans leverage contacts with colleagues still in uniform, Pelak said. Help can be in the form of a time and place to be, what to wear or hold, or even a signal or password.

“Often we’ll work with people in our group who work in the Pentagon and work in the State Department and have real-time access to information,” said Saboe, who lives in Denver.

Shaun So, an Army veteran volunteering in the effort who lives two doors down from Pelak, spent days coordinating the evacuation of his former interpreter, a naturalized U.S. citizen who uses the name Freddie. He shepherded paperwork to contacts on the ground and funneled Freddie to the right location to get through to the airport, So said. He also prepared Freddie, who had returned to Afghanistan to be with family, for the cold calculus of the situation: He could only leave if his two nephews stayed behind.

Freddie agreed, and on Wednesday morning, he crossed the threshold and made it onto airport grounds while speaking to a Washington Post reporter. He pointed his camera toward one gate, describing it as a frequent area for warning shots from U.S. troops.

“It’s chaos,” he said on a video call.

Pelak and Reed are a few of the more than 1,000 volunteers on a Slack group called AFG Expatriation, many of whom served on combat deployments and humanitarian relief missions. The channel has pulsated with activity all week, including rapidly evolving information, such as which gates may become open for a few minutes to let evacuees through. Once a member learns of the changes, texts crisscross between the United States and evacuees at the airport, directing them on where to go, Pelak said. Some Afghans used live location-sharing so volunteers could monitor their progress.

One of the most effective volunteers, according to members of the group, is Paul Alkoby, a 30 year-old former Air Force combat medic in Orlando. Alkoby’s relationships and networking capabilities were a linchpin in getting over 1,000 Afghans into the Kabul airport and eventually out of the city. Alkoby said he has made many calls to members of Congress to get attention to the plight of Afghans this week.

“They didn’t know who I was at first or maybe didn’t believe me,” Alkoby said. He said he is worried Americans remaining in Afghanistan could soon be in a similar crisis if a more unified rescue mission is not developed.

As many as 1,500 Americans still trying to leave Afghanistan, Blinken says
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Aug. 25 said that 4,500 Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan over the past 10 days. (The Washington Post)

In Berkeley, an Afghan American veteran named Junaid Lughmani looking to volunteer discovered via Twitter that he lived only a quarter mile away from Reed. On Tuesday, the two sat side by side in Reed’s library office, liaising with sources in Kabul past midnight in Afghanistan.

In an effort to get the interpreter named Nick inside the Kabul airport, Reed juggled between chats with Afghan handlers, American soldiers and volunteers in the United States. Then, a gate guard at the airport sent him an image of a skull-like face wearing night vision goggles and a headpiece — a visual passcode.

From his home in Berkeley, Calif., Jon Reed coordinates online using maps and chat messages. (Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Reed quickly copied and pasted the image into the thread with the handlers and instructed them on what Nick and his entourage should do with it: “Show this image.”

The group said they were racing off to the planned gate. Then Reed and his teammates waited.

“We need people at every gate, 24 hours a day, working with the Marines or whatever,” said Reed. “People are on the wall and saying, ‘I’ve received this information, I have the signal, I see them in the crowd, let’s get them in.’ And then they can get on their paperwork once they’re in. So that’s the mechanism that we’re trying to build in place.”

A few hours later, they received rumors of gunfire at the airport. A former interpreter, Lughmani called up a guard he knew was working at the gates and asked in Pashto what was really going on. The guard told Lughmani it was only warning shots, and for a moment everyone was relieved.

“I’ve had a heavy heart now since Kabul went down,” Lughmani told The Post. “You can’t sleep. You’re tossing and turning. You force yourself out of bed because maybe there’s that one extra person you can help.”

Pelak, who served in Iraq, said the emotions pouring out of him feel like a return from combat: a mix of pride, frustration and the feeling that most Americans are oblivious to the human disaster in the making.

On Tuesday he returned from a walk in Brooklyn, closed his door and sobbed for 10 minutes, he said, then got back to work. The next focus, he said, will be on how to resettle thousands of Afghans in the United States.

“I hope we don’t lose this energy,” he said. “The hard part is about to start.”