Matt Zeller is on a deployment for #DigitalDunkirk from his living room.
Matt Zeller has been trying to get Afghan interpreters out for years. He warned us this would happen. Now it’s happening, and he’s spending every waking second to save every possible ally. This is his plea.
by Matt Zeller
We've arrived at the nightmare I feared most. Next to the total abandonment of our Afghan wartime allies -- aka the Trump withdrawal -- this is what haunted us: a collapse of the Afghan government, a chaotic and frantic exit, with every Afghan desperate to escape the Taliban trying to reach the one airport and its one working runway before the clock strikes midnight.
The President claimed on national TV he and his team had planned for it. That was a lie. Our coalition has been warning the administration that this fiasco was coming again and again and again and again and again and again for seven months. No one listened.
All we wanted was a meeting where we could share our plan in private (so as not to tip off the Taliban). When it was clear the administration was choosing to ignore us and would never grant us our meeting, we published the entirety of our plan online. Still, no one listened. We requested meeting after meeting. The Biden admin never even responded to the requests - until Sunday 15 August 2021, the day Kabul fell.
We predicted this. In April I wrote in the following:
Should collapse come in Afghanistan, it will happen faster than Washington can respond to it. Afghanistan is not Vietnam. We do not have an ocean and boats with which to facilitate a rapid evacuation. We are not the Soviets. We do not have the luxury of getting to drive north into Tajikistan during our withdrawal. When collapse occurs in Afghanistan, it will engender a rapid evacuation that, given Afghanistan’s unique place in the world and our geopolitical relations with its neighbors, must occur via air. There are four, maybe five airfields in all of Afghanistan that will be able to handle the airlift needed to rapidly evacuate our own personnel and absolutely must have equipment. Our Afghan wartime allies — the interpreters, engineers, truck drivers, cooks, etc. without whom we couldn’t have accomplished any of what we’ve done thus far and thanks to whom many of us are still alive — they and their families will likely be our lowest priority for the scarce seats available on the few flights out. We have to understand, anyone who worked with us, has likely excommunicated themselves from the society around them thanks to that work. They are viewed by that society as American spies, traitors, and in the worst case, apostates. We have an obligation to save these people while we can - which is now.
If only they had listened.
In some alternate earth, they did. In that reality, we began the evacuation of our Afghan wartime allies in February, when it was still winter and not yet the fighting season in Afghanistan. The evacuation was orderly and planned. It began with teams of American special operations personnel flying at night out to remote villages to extract our allies in the most danger. The state department, working in coordination with organizations like the Association of Wartime Allies, the International Refugee Assistance Project, Human Rights First, Vets for American Ideals, the Truman Project, and Lutheran and Immigration and Refugee Services, developed a list of all vulnerable Afghans needing evacuation. Over the next several weeks, these Afghans were contacted in small groups at regular intervals throughout the country and instructed at specific time and place to arrive at the nearest joint Afghan/NATO base. Bringing them in in small groups ensured an orderly queue at the gates with minimal time spent waiting in line. Once on base, they were either helicoptered to a the nearest airbase (or if already on the airbase) flown on to Guam where their processing as refugees into the United States officially began. In this reality, we evacuated some 250,000 people in a matter of four months - the largest and safest airlift in human history. Once our Afghan allies had been accounted for, the United States, in coordination with its NATO partners, began a gradual drawdown of its forces in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan. While the government of Afghanistan held on for a few months, by early fall the Taliban had conquered all of the country save for the province of Panshir.
Now our nightmare is reality.
It is all but impossible to get our allies to the global lifeboat known as Hamid Karzai International Aiport (HKIA). There are three layers of security. The outer most is Taliban. The inner most are our forces. And crazy as it may sound, in between them are a thin line of what remains of the Afghan National Security Forces still on duty in Kabul. Those Afghans absolutely better be on our jets when we leave.
The Taliban have checkpoints everywhere. If they find that you are carrying a passport or English documents or communications of any kind, they immediately confiscate them. Good luck getting the gate through without any documents or phones. And oh by the way, they’re now on the Taliban’s hit list.
They are going door to door and searching for our allies. When they find them one of two things happens. To some they say, with a smile on their face, “We’re making a list and when the Americans leave, we’re coming back for you.” To others, they simply just take them, never to be seen again.
We had one ally - a 17 year old kid, taken while out shopping for groceries, because his neighbors had reported to the Taliban that he and his family were leaving for America. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
At the gates and online with the #DigitalDunkirk army, there is mass confusion. Throngs of people make it impossible to get through. We’ve literally been instructed by people on the ground to tell our allies to push through by any means to the front of the line in order or hear their name called by an interpreter who is relaying the information for an American official. Even in our last hour, the terps remain on post - we have to take every. single. last. one. of. them.
At night the Taliban go through and beat the crowd with chains. They fire over the base at the crowd in an attempt to get the crowd to surge towards the US gate. They are trying to spark an incident that looks awful for us. They are testing us. How we expect anyone to get through this is madness.
Some of our NATO allies have already figured out better solutions. Some like the French are just going out with their Special Forces and getting their people by whatever means necessary. Mr. President, if the French can do it, so can we.
Others are having their evacuees meet at other locations around Kabul and then finding alternative means to get them to the airport. Both of those options are exponentially more effective and efficient than what we have on the ground right now.
Throughout this insanity, the only hope any of us have are in the Americans now rising to the occasion to mount a #DigitalDunkirk. I'm on a deployment from my living room. 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.
Mr. Rogers said look for the helpers; I find them all around me. If you spent any time in Afghanistan in the last 20 years or are close to someone who has, chances are you are a part of the #DigitalDunkirk. We have stood up a 24/7 fusion center led by a retired Army Colonel who was a National Security Council director to coordinate between all the disparate efforts. We have organized ourselves into teams arranged by speciality - immigration attorneys and experts, people who can get a family from point X to the airport, people who can get people at the gate at the airport through the gate, media, intelligence analysis, fundraising, systems and process design and management, web development, and those involved in chartering private aircraft. We are utilizing all of our life experience and previous training. Our lives are on hold until we complete our mission - leave no one behind.
Physically, I'm not sure how any of us are still going - it has to be by pure adrenaline and sheer determination. Average weight loss is around 7lbs among our group. I've slept 24 hours in the last 7 days. But that pales compared to the hell our Afghan brothers and sisters are experiencing on the ground now.
It is clear the situation on the ground in Kabul is awful and only getting worse. We need real, dramatic action, if we are going to snatch an honorable exit out of the jaws of defeat.
Thus, I now must use this platform to address the one person cloaked in the power to actually accomplish our vital task:
President Joe Biden please meet with our coalition team so we can properly explain the situation to you. Our message has failed to get to you through your staff. I’m asking now publicly in this insane global forum because it’s the last bastion of the desperate and we’re at our most darkest hour.
Here are the Association of Wartime Allies recommendations:
Order the US military to expand the perimeter well past the airport. The Taliban cannot be allowed to remain 100m from US Marines where they can commit atrocities in front of us knowing we will do nothing. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be one of those Marines or soldiers, to watch them beat innocent people, some American citizens who are within mere feet of you, and not be able to do a thing about it. Infuriating. The Taliban are thugs. We are the United States of America. Show them we won’t be bullied.
Use the might of our forces to create a humanitarian corridor in Kabul - so that people can safely get to the airport without this chaos and constant Taliban interference.
Retake by force and reopen the following airfields: Baghram, Kandahar, Mazar-I-Sharif, Herat, and Jalalabad. Set up similar humanitarian corridors in each of those cities. -Asking the some 50,000+ Afghan wartime allies & evacuees we are tracking that live outside of Kabul to run the Taliban gauntlet of checkpoints is a suicide mission.
If you fail to accomplish this mission -- if you pull out before it is done -- it will cost you and your party the Presidency and Congress. What does it say to the world, to our allies, and to our adversaries, if the Taliban can push the United States around and cause us to turn tail and flee? Evacuating all of our Afghan allies on our timetable - not the Taliban's - is a matter of national security. American credibility now and forever is on the line. Domestically, realize that Americans are united in this cause in a way we haven't been since 9/11. Everyone I know wants to rescue these people. Everyone I know believes we have the means to get it done. Few people I know believe your administration has the courage and conviction to get it done. Either use whatever force or means is necessary for as long as necessary to rescue all of our people or if you thought the Benghazi hearings were political theater, wait until the Republicans investigate this actual fiasco. Democrats must prove to the world that America can still self govern. Be prepared to have your own party thoroughly investigate this mess - especially as to why your administration failed to heed the warnings of so many and properly plan for this evacuation. People must be held accountable - too many lives have already been lost. We must learn from this mistake and ensure we put into place the proper laws, systems, and programs to ensure it never happens again.
If you fail to accomplish this mission, veterans will never forgive you. We already feel a profound moral injury at the prospect of abandoning these people to the Taliban - an idea that is not yet a reality. Should you allow that reality to come to pass, veteran suicides will skyrocket. They are already spiking. Our coalition knows of at least three veterans who have tragically ended their lives in the last week. One was working on trying to get his interpreter out -- in his death, his battle buddies (fellow soldiers with whom he served) have taken on that mission as their own, determined to see the interpreter to safety.
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. They are us. Leaving one of them behind is akin to leaving an American behind.
If you’re so determined to continue negotiating with liars, try and make one last deal. We do not want another war. We are not going to remain in Afghanistan. We just want to take ALL of our people and leave. Get them to agree to those terms. Close GITMO in exchange for our people. Ask the Saudis to buy them off if you must. Bring them home. Just get it done. Our people are counting on you.
As for the American people and the #DigitalDunkirk army - adequate words do not exist for me to properly thank you. History is made by those who show up. You are showing up now when it absolutely matters most for the most noble of causes. The work you are doing now matters. The sleepless nights, the stress, the frustration, the revisited and renewed trauma -- all of it is paying off. People are getting out. Our job now is to get the President to at a minimum keep the pipeline open for as long as we can -- and ideally get him to open up more if possible.
I cannot wait for my fellow Americans to meet our Afghan brothers and sisters. Two types of people came home from Afghanistan. For some, the experience was one of little impact. For the rest of us, we left a part of our souls in Afghanistan and returned with a part of its people and culture in our blood. Our Afghan brothers and sisters are some of the most remarkable and resilient people you will ever meet. If you befriend them, they will never let you go hungry or without a safe place to sleep. Along with Americans, they are the most warm and hospitable folks I know. I promise you, the experience of befriending these wonderful, kind, gracious, warm, and loving people will enrich your life in unimaginable ways. They will be guests at your Thanksgiving table and you will help them break fast with iftar during Ramadan. That dream can be a reality for every single one of our Afghan wartime allies. They are not dead yet. This is a Never Again moment now unfolding. We can save these people - we just need the courage.
Matt Zeller, who used to write Presidential Daily Briefings for Barack Obama, is the Co-Founder of No One Left Behind, a Truman National Security Fellow and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project. He authored Watches Without Time (Just World Books, 2012), which chronicles his experience serving as an embedded combat adviser with the Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2008. He was the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2010 in NY’s 29th Congressional District, which was a crappy year to run as a Democrat. He earned a BA in Government from Hamilton College and a MPA and a MA-IR from The Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
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