Inside the 24 hour volunteer effort to save Afghans

This time, however, their connection inside the airport gates was able to make it happen.

She held her daughter up in the air as she made her way through the chaotic melee outside and the Marines used a flashlight to scan the crowd.

They spotted it.

The family has arrived.

“My family absolutely could not have passed unless we had been in contact with the Marines at the gates,” said the father, whose identity CNN is withholding for his safety. He is an American citizen who worked for years with the United States in Afghanistan.

The dangerous and chaotic scenes outside the airport made it virtually impossible for Afghans – even those with green cards, specific instructions from the US Embassy, ​​or sick children – to make it to the grounds of the airport without connection “inside the wire”.

Now, with the US presence in Kabul quickly starting to slow down, Afghans and Americans – many of whom are military veterans – are tapping into their networks and working around the clock to organize everything from access to l airport to charter flights to make Afghans vulnerable to Taliban retaliation outside Afghanistan.


Some are calling their efforts a “digital #Dunkirk,” a nod to the WWII evacuation effort that commissioned civilian ships to rescue Allied troops; one of the umbrella efforts is titled and others call it #AfghanEvac.

At least one coalition has set up a joint command center at a hotel in Washington, DC, to coordinate the efforts.

There is also a deep sense of frustration among the volunteers working to aid their Afghan allies, as many of these people have been warning the administration for months about the need to put in place an evacuation plan.
“Throughout this madness, the only hope all of us have is that Americans now seize the opportunity to mount a #DigitalDunkirk,” wrote Matt Zeller, a veteran who works with the Association of Wartime Allies, in a recent blog post. “My days are spent in constant phone calls and group discussions, trying to figure out a way to move Family X to the airport, get through the ever-changing Taliban checkpoints, and in some way. on the other, to walk through the fray of humanity trying to reach the door. In between these calls there are coalition meetings with disparate organizations and individuals all trying to perform an endless number of miracles at one. given moment. “

The #AfghanEvac effort runs twice daily phone calls with dozens of different organizations involved and they have several group discussions – conducted via the signal from the secret messaging app – to connect people in contact with Afghans. who need help, to those who can try to get them the help they need. The chat is also a place to brainstorm and share best practices, like attaching balloons to children so U.S. officials can easily identify them when looking for them from the doors.

“We started to lump everyone together under the #AfghanEvac nickname because everyone was doing a bunch of different things, and often in duplicate. We didn’t need more groups, we had to add capabilities and streamline them. efforts to ensure that everyone is working from the same score, ”said Shawn VanDiver, who served in the Navy for 12 years and founded the San Diego chapter of the Truman National Security Project. “We had to resolve the conflict to make everyone’s efforts safer and more effective.”

VanDiver says his ad hoc network gets a lot of calls from Congress and even members of the executive, asking for help.

“There is no working structure in place by the US government at this time. It is the one-off effort that produces real results,” said a Capitol Hill staff member.

Volunteers and staff from various advocacy groups and veterans work at a hotel in the nation’s capital to “connect all the dots we take,” said Lexie Rock, director of communications for The Independence Fund .

“I would say we probably have 20 to 25 people at one point, the majority volunteering outside of their daytime jobs. They worked around the clock and they didn’t sleep for hours, taking these charter flights and just connecting all the dots so it’s an awesome operation considering it’s 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 has established a task force to work on this and is also working closely with the Pentagon.

Fears that thousands of people will be left behind

However, Afghans destined for these flights still have to make the perilous journey to the airport, around Taliban checkpoints and through the crowds.

What’s more, many involved say that the fact that their efforts are even needed indicates a profound failure of the US government, and they fear that the imminent departure of US troops will mean tens of thousands of people will be left behind.

“The very fact that you need several hundred people to do it around the clock of their own accord – some even taking time off to do it – means there is an absolute logistical failure on the part 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 planned their capabilities and properly forecast what it would have taken to evacuate all US and Afghan allies, by location,” he said. declared.

Pelosi and other lawmakers slam unauthorized travel to Afghanistan
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently defended the Biden administration’s efforts on the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in the run-up to the fall of Kabul, but acknowledged that it was not of a “complete evacuation”.

A State Department spokesperson told CNN: “The United States government has no role in organizing private charter evacuation flights.”

“The United States does not communicate through third parties related to access to HKIA and the United States government does not approve any third party purporting to provide access to HKIA,” they said, adding that “all interested parties “should visit their Afghanistan inquiries page and follow the instructions. .

For many of the veterans involved in the effort, the job seems to be a moral imperative.

“Our work will not make up for the failure of the US war in Afghanistan, but there is something redemptive and human about this mission: to alleviate suffering rather than cause it,” said Edstrom. “Some people in this group said it was one of the best jobs they’ve ever done in their life. And it seems a lot more to do with helping people than my work in the field when I deployed as an infantry officer. “

“It is so deeply personal to us because for those of us who have served with the Afghans, lived among them and been welcomed into their homes and culture by them – for us there is no us and them, it’s just us, “Zeller wrote. “They are us. Leaving one of them behind is like leaving an American behind.”

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