Digital Dunkirk: Online veterans scramble to get people out of Afghanistan

DENVER – Joe Saboe pressed his fingers to his forehead in exhaustion and leaned over a laptop as he tried to do what he had been repeatedly pierced with when he was an Army infantry officer : leave no one behind.

“Roger, I have six AmCits, at least six,” he said into his cell phone, using a shortcut for US citizens, while simultaneously texting a military source in Kabul, Afghanistan. “I can get them to the rally point behind the wheel, but they won’t leave without their families, I have to get there.”

Mr Saboe, 36, was deployed to Iraq years ago and is now the managing director of a small start-up and a youth football coach. But last week, he became an unofficial commander of an improvised network of veterans and citizen volunteers who came together to execute an ad hoc mission to safely remove American citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul. before the end of the American airlift.

His group of about 200 volunteers, who call themselves Team America, is one of the many grassroots efforts which arose out of the chaos of the American withdrawal. The rapid collapse of Afghanistan deeply troubled many in the United States, but military veterans felt a whole new level of anguish when they began to seek help from Afghan interpreters and to other people they worked with.

They have organized what many call a “digital Dunkirk”. Using software often designed for mundane office work, along with satellite maps and encrypted messaging applications, the groups act as guiding services to escape Afghans. They transmit information to hundreds of people on the ground who attempt to take a flight, providing real-time intelligence on the best routes to avoid Taliban checkpoints, sending them through neglected alleys and sometimes through water channels. sewer.

“It really is an underground railroad,” said Scott Mann, a retired army special forces officer at the head of a different group, which calls itself Task Force Pineapple, in a video message to supporters on Thursday.

In many cases, the groups are in contact with the military and State Department officials at Kabul airport, alerting them when US citizens and green card holders arrive and providing physical descriptions for them. troops at the gates could snatch the evacuees from the crowd.

Together, these groups have helped thousands of people get to safety.

“It was born out of desperation,” Mr Saboe said as he scanned his latest list of Afghans trying to get out. “A lot of us knew people who needed to get out, and there wasn’t anyone in the US government who seemed to be giving advice. There was almost no coordination.

It was 1 a.m. in Kabul, and in his home office on a white-fenced suburban street, hardly sleeping, he was coordinating a secret pickup in a neighborhood 7,200 miles away.

The group’s secure digital feed was replete with photos and videos sent by Afghans coordinating movements and displaying current conditions at gates and checkpoints, but Mr Saboe was cautious about specific methods and routes, saying he did not want to endanger people who still needed help. .

On Thursday, suicide bombings hit one of the airport doors. Prior to the attack, Team America had acted on intelligence warnings and displaced 300 family groups from the area. But others remained near the airport and were injured. Hours later, the group learned from a military source that the door was open again and began to coordinate between an official inside the airport and families preparing to attempt to get there. .

“I’ll give you the grid. The elevator arrives for them at 4:00 am, so we need them ready, their immediate family only, they won’t be picking up anyone else, ”Mr. Saboe said on a conference call with a small group of volunteers. scattered across the country who were communicating directly with Afghan families.

A member of the group asked about the interpreters who had special immigrant visas but were not citizens. There were hundreds of them waiting for help.

Mr. Saboe shook his head. “They don’t take them, AmCits only. As far as I know, they cut the slingshot on the rest. “

One of the people who tried to leave Kabul last week was Nemat, who worked for years as an interpreter for the Marine Corps. He got a green card in 2015 and now attends college in Texas, but was visiting family in Kabul when the Taliban took power.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “If any of the Taliban recognized me, it would be the end of my life.

Civilian flights out of the country have been canceled. Nemat, who refused to use his last name because he feared reprisals from the Taliban, took off his American clothes and donned a long Afghan shirt and traditional turban. He hid the papers showing he was working with the United States in a well. He tried to contact the State Department but got no response, so he texted the Marines he was working with.

His message reached Phil Porter, a project manager in North Carolina who had served with him as a naval officer.

“The terps we have worked with are heroes; we couldn’t have accomplished our mission without them, ”Porter said, using a military shortcut for interpreter. “We knew we had to help in any way we could. “

Mr Porter found Team America and together the sources were able to guide Nemat on the safest route to the airport. He walked through Taliban checkpoints with his US passport hidden in his mother’s clothes and arrived at an airport gate.

“My brother pushed me through the crowd, I was holding my passport and the Marines pulled me over the wire,” Nemat said Thursday. “I looked back and saw my mother cry, my brother too. I am happy to be safe, but I am very worried about them.

Mr. Porter was so grateful for the work the group had done for Nemat that he joined in the effort and is now helping others.

“It’s the least we can do,” he said. “There are people who have saved American lives. “

Zohra Hunter also joined the group after helping her family, who had a special immigrant visa pending.

“They had already made two attempts to get to the airport and were beaten up by the Taliban and shot,” said Ms. Hunter, a US citizen who was born in Afghanistan but now lives in Virginia. Two of her sister and mother’s children were trampled on one of the doors and injured, she said.

Finally, with Team America’s coordination with the military on the ground, the family took a licensed shuttle to the airport and was cleared through a door.

His relatives are now in Qatar. She doesn’t know where they will go next.

Groups attempting to rescue Afghans are increasingly desperate as the August 31 withdrawal approaches. Many have been pushing for the deadline to be extended, but on Thursday, following the bombings that killed 13 U.S. servicemen and more than 170 Afghans, President Biden reiterated he would meet the date.

Early Friday morning, Team America guided a group of 40 Afghans, many of whom are US citizens, to a departure gate at the airport. Upon their arrival, Mr Saboe said, US authorities refused to let them in, directing them to another more dangerous door. After several frantic calls, Mr. Saboe was able to speak directly to an official at the original gate. There, 19 Afghans passed. Many of their family members have been turned away.

“There is no mercy at this point; it gets harder and harder. Nothing is coordinated and the security situation has made everything worse, ”said Mr. Saboe, looking exhausted. “And we still have so many people waiting. We just need more time.

Margie D. Carlisle