By Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN
The woman and her two children had tried nearly a dozen times without success to get into Hamid Karzai International Airport for an evacuation flight out of Kabul to join her husband in the United States.
This time, though, their connection inside the airport gates was able to make it happen.
She dressed her baby daughter in yellow so she could be spotted in the chaotic crowds outside the Kabul airport. The Marines had been sent a photo of the baby in a WhatsApp group and knew to look for her colorful outfit.
She held her daughter aloft as she made her way through the chaotic scrum outside and the Marines used a flashlight to scan the crowd.
They spotted her.
The family made it in.
“My family would absolutely not have gotten through unless we got into contact with the Marines at the gates,” said the father, whose identity CNN is concealing for his safety. He is a US citizen, who worked for years with the US in Afghanistan.
The dangerous and chaotic scenes outside the airport have made it virtually impossible for Afghans — even those with green cards, specific instructions from the US embassy, or ailing children — to make it onto airport grounds without a connection “inside the wire.”
Now, with the US presence in Kabul quickly beginning to wind down Afghans and Americans — many of them military veterans — are tapping into their networks and working around the clock to arrange everything from access into the airport to charter flights to get Afghans vulnerable to Taliban retaliation out of Afghanistan.
Some are calling their efforts a “#DigitalDunkirk,” a nod to the World War II evacuation effort that commissioned civilian boats to save Allied troops; one of the umbrella efforts is titled and others are calling it #AfghanEvac.
At least one coalition has set up a joint command center out of a Washington, DC, hotel to coordinate efforts.
There is also a profound sense of frustration among the volunteers working to help their Afghan allies, as many of these individuals have been warning the administration for months about the need to have an evacuation plan in place.
“Throughout this insanity, the only hope any of us have are in the Americans now rising to the occasion to mount a #DigitalDunkirk,” Matt Zeller, a veteran who works with the Association of Wartime Allies, wrote in a recent blog post. “My days are spent on constant phone calls and group chats, trying to figure out a way to move family X to the airport, get passed the every changing Taliban checkpoints, and somehow push through the scrum of humanity all trying to reach the gate. Between those calls are coalition meetings with the disparate organizations and individuals all trying to pull off an infinite number of miracles at any given moment.”
The #AfghanEvac effort hosts phone calls twice daily with dozens of different organizations involved and they have multiple groups chats — conducted over the secretive messaging app signal — to connect people who are in touch with Afghans who need help, to those who can try to find them the help that they need. The chat is also a place for brainstorming and sharing of best practices, such as tying balloons to children so that US officials can easily identify them when they look for them from the gates.
“We started to bring everyone together under the #AfghanEvac moniker because everyone was doing a bunch of different, and often duplicative, stuff. We didn’t need more groups, we needed to add capacity and streamline efforts so that everyone is working from the same sheet of music,” said Shawn VanDiver, who served in the Navy for 12 years and founded the San Diego Chapter of the Truman National Security Project. “We needed to deconflict to make everyone’s efforts more safe and efficient.”
VanDiver says that his ad hoc network is getting a lot of calls from Congress and even people in the executive branch, asking for help.
“There is no working structure in place by the US government right now. It is the ad-hoc effort that is producing real results,” explained one Capitol Hill staffer.
Volunteers and staff from various advocacy and veterans groups are working out of a hotel in the nation’s capital to “to connect all the dots we’re taking in,” said Lexie Rock, the communications director for The Independence Fund.
“I would say we probably have, at any given point, 20 to 25 people, the majority volunteering aside from their day job. They’ve been working around the clock and they haven’t slept for hours, getting these charter flights and just connecting all the dots. So it’s an impressive operation given that this is kind of uncharted territory for all of us,” she said.
The administration has evacuated 82,300 people on US military and coalition flights since August 14, the White House said Wednesday morning. The State Department set up a task force to work on this, and they are also working closely with the Pentagon.
Fears thousands will be left behind
However, Afghans bound for these flights still have to make the perilous journey to the airport, around Taliban checkpoints and through the crowds.
Moreover, many of those involved say that the fact that their efforts are even needed point to a profound failure by the US government, and they fear that the impending departure of US troops could mean tens of thousands will be left behind.
“The very fact that you need several hundred people doing this around the clock of their own volition — with some even taking time off of work to do it — means that there is an absolute logistical failure on behalf of the US government,” said Erik Edstrom, a veteran who has been involved in the efforts.
“The Biden administration and the government as a whole should have seen this coming. They should have done capacity planning and properly forecasted what it would have taken to evacuate all Americans and Afghan allies, by location,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently defended the Biden administration’s efforts on the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in the lead-up to the fall of Kabul, but acknowledged that these were not the same as “a full-on evacuation.”
A State Department spokesperson told CNN, “The United States Government has no role in organizing private charter evacuation flights.”
“The US is not communicating through third parties related to HKIA access nor does the USG endorse any third parties claiming to provide access to HKIA,” they said, adding that “all interested parties” should visit their Afghanistan inquiries page and follow the instruction there.
For many of the veterans involved in the effort, the work feels like a moral imperative.
“Our work will not make up for the failure of America’s war in Afghanistan, but there is something redemptive and human about this mission: alleviating suffering rather than causing it,” Edstrom said. “Some people in this group have cited that this is some of the finest work they have done in their lives. And doing this feels far more connected to helping people than did my on-the-ground when I was deployed as an infantry officer.”
“This is so deeply personal for us because to those of us who served with the Afghans, lived among them, and were welcomed into their homes and culture by them – to us there is no us and them, there is only us,” Zeller wrote. “They are us. Leaving one of them behind is akin to leaving an American behind.”
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