In July 2021 the editor of SOF News announced a late summer break in posting articles and sending out the daily email newsletter. Every year the SOF News staff of one unpaid editor and several occasional guest writers take a few months off in late summer and early fall. The intention at the time was to take vacation, get some reading done, work on writing projects, and engage in some recreational activities. SOF News was to resume publishing in mid-Fall.
The spring and summer offensive of the Taliban that led to the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and fall of the Afghan government disrupted these vacation plans. The Taliban rapidly advanced province by province and were at the gates of Kabul by mid-August. This prompted the emergency evacuation of the American embassy and the declaration of a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) by the U.S. government.
The NEO was a rushed effort to evacuate embassy personnel and American citizens. Within hours, the Kabul airport – the last remaining location where about 600 U.S. military personnel were present – was quickly overrun by frantic Afghans hoping to get on board one of the military aircraft departing the Kabul airport. The situation was chaotic for a number of days but eventually the U.S. Army and Marine units, military personnel from other nations, and the remnants of some Afghan SOF and NDS units established security. However, the airport entry points were swarmed by panicked Afghans hoping to get onto the airport and board an evacuation flight.
The editor of SOF News quickly found himself in the midst of what is now known as the Afghan Evac effort. He got linked up with a few of the volunteer private organizations trying to get American citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghans with a Special Immigrant Visa onto the Kabul airport. As a ‘Battle Captain’ for Team America Relief he and others worked via WhatsApp, Signal, Zoom, and cell phone 24 hours a day providing vital information to at-risk Afghans. They guided the Afghans past Taliban checkpoints, to vehicle pickup locations in the city, to airport access gates, and coordinated with assets on the airfield for passage through one of the several airport entry points. Some of these attempts were successful, some not.
The non-combatant evacuation operation ended on August 31, 2021 when the last U.S. military transport plane took off from Kabul airport. The U.S. ground forces securing the Kabul airport and organizing the evacuation did a magnificent job under stressful conditions in a dangerous environment. The U.S. Air Force was amazing in what they were able to accomplish in the evacuation of thousands and thousands of Afghans to safety.
However, hundreds of American citizens never got through the huge crowds onto the airfield. Thousands of legal permanent residents could not get close enough to find an American soldier or Marine to let them through the gate. Even more, thousands of Afghans who worked with American forces who had Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) found no success in getting past Taliban checkpoints or near airport gates to gain access to the airfield. On August 31st the Department of State declared ‘mission complete’ and promptly shifted their attention to other matters.
But the struggle to evacuate AMCITs, LPRs, and SIVs was continued by the many volunteer organizations that formed up during those hectic days of August. By early September flights coordinated by volunteer organizations were soon flying using chartered aircraft funded by U.S. civilians from Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. These flights, the exacts number of flights is hard to determine, took thousands of at-risk Afghans to safety to various locations in the Middle East and Europe. Some volunteer groups used ‘shepherds’ to guide their ‘flocks’ along land routes to border crossings into neighboring countries. The volunteers continued their dialogue with the desperate Afghans, putting them into safehouses, providing food for survival, informing them of evacuation efforts, offering a sympathetic ear to listen to, and manifesting them onto aircraft.
The Department of State and remainder of the U.S. government twiddled their thumbs and held embarrassing press conferences trying to deflect criticism of their conduct of the NEO. Eventually the State Department took action and managed to get a few seats on evacuation flights that Qatar was running with Qatar Airways for other nations from Europe and across the world. Compared to the number of people the U.S. volunteer organizations and other nations were taking out after August 31st the efforts on the part of the U.S. State Department were minimal.
Finally, in mid-fall, State managed to organize their own flights from Kabul to Doha with the cooperation of Qatar utilizing chartered aircraft from Qatar Airways. These flights ceased in late November. It appears that the DoS sponsored flights are resuming again as February approaches. Whether State can get back to a regular rhythm of evacuation flights remains to be seen. If past history is an indication the outlook is not promising.
Meanwhile, the more than 150 Afghan Evac organizations will continue the work of supporting Afghans at-risk in Afghanistan. This is especially important as the country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The worst drought in twenty years, severe food shortages, suspended international aid, a failing economy, widespread unemployment, and a Taliban government that doesn’t know how to govern has caused massive suffering among Afghans. Add to all of that a harsh winter season. We are now witnessing parents selling a child on the streets of Kabul just to be able to feed the rest of their family and patients dying in hospitals because of a shortage of medicine and medical staff. Reports about Afghanistan from the United Nations and other humanitarian aid organizations are extremely dire.
For the Afghans that worked as interpreters, staff, or provided support for U.S. military forces these desperate times are even worse. Many of them, especially the elite members of the Afghan special operations forces and the Special Mission Wing, are being hunted, detained, tortured, and sometimes killed. They have lost their jobs, have no money, no food, are in hiding with no place to live, and are trying to keep their children alive during a severe winter season.
The pleas of many of these Afghans who worked for the United States military or other government organizations for assistance and evacuation are going largely unanswered by the U.S. government. For these at-risk Afghans the only glimmer of hope remains the efforts of unpaid volunteers working day and night trying to provide safe housing, food, and money for survival until the U.S. government gets its act together. Their hope is that the American volunteers working out of their home offices, on kitchen tables using a laptop, or during their lunch hour while at work will keep the WhatsApp and Signal sessions going. The Afghans constantly seek reassurance that there is someone at the other end of the world that cares. And they continue to ask when there will be seats on an airplane for their family.
The media attention on Afghanistan diminished rapidly after that last transport aircraft took off from Kabul airport in darkness in the early morning of August 31st. The country’s interest went elsewhere – focusing on China, Russia, Iran, and other conflict areas. The holidays were approaching – Thanksgiving with family and celebrating Christmas and the New Year were the focus of most Americans. While the majority of Americans have moved on from Afghanistan there remains a core nucleus of volunteers who are relentless in the quest to bring Afghans who fought alongside Americans in the Afghan conflict to safety.
So SOF News will be taking a knee for a little longer. The editor will continue to work for Team Relief America as a ‘Movement Coordinator’ and assisting Liberty’s Hands in the resettlement of Afghan SOF. In addition, he will continue the publication of a blog and newsletter that he began publishing in August 2021 to inform the Afghan Evac community and others of the effort to evacuate and resettle Afghans. You can read these daily reports online and subscribe to the newsletter at Afghan Report.
SOF News will be back, we just don’t know when.