ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI - For several days, Tawfiq was frantic and confused. He had returned to Afghanistan from the U.S. just days before the Taliban began their dramatic sweep of the country, and now he was caught in the middle.
Like thousands of fellow Afghans who helped the U.S. during the 20-year conflict in his home country, he was worried about what would happen once America left. But, the speed at which the Taliban closed off the country left him with few options. So, he called Lisette Bonano, an American contractor he worked with in Gardez years ago.
“He was always there right by my side,” Bonano, who retired as an Army lieutenant colonel in 2010 told Military Times. “We had a great relationship, he was always very loyal to me.” Not knowing exactly what to do, Bonano began reaching out frantically to anyone she thought could help.
That’s when she met “Team America,” an ad-hoc group of service members and veterans, one of a growing array that has formed up to get Afghan allies to safety answered her call, and from 8,000 miles away began to direct Tawfiq to safety. Tawfiq’s full name is being withheld due to potential violence from the Taliban as a result of his work with the U.S.
With President Biden holding firm to his mandated Aug. 31 deadline for pulling U.S. troops out, Tawfiq and thousands of others are desperate.
The clock was ticking.
But the message he received Wednesday from Team America helped guide him to the relative safety of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“Team America help me a lot to get there. They coordinate with US forces at the airport and direct through a safe route where there was no Taliban,” he said in a message to Military Times, who earlier in the week passed along Tawfiq’s contact information to Team America.
Desperate times, desperate measures
Driven by personal loyalty to those Afghans who stood by their side for nearly two decades, current and former troops and government officials have taken it upon themselves to rescue Americans and Afghans left behind in the Taliban’s rapid sweep across Afghanistan.
This has played out a number of ways over the last two weeks. At first, some groups relied simply on personal connections to military personnel within the walls of HKIA. Over time, groups such as Team America have evolved to include collecting and filing paperwork, route planning including regular updates on Taliban checkpoints, along with encouragement along the way.
" We’ll look at the map, we’ll look at our chats and we’ll say, ‘hey, got it, you’re heading that way’,” Zach Martin, a volunteer with Team America, said. " Just be mindful that we think there might be a Taliban checkpoint on the way there. Just use extreme caution.”
Another network, run by a former special forces NCO, now the chief executive officer of a Florida-based defense contractor, has helped coordinate air assets, ground force assets, gate access, document processing, food and shelter and biometrics screening.
One particular group has taken it a step further. On Friday, ABC’s James Gordon Meek released the details of a dramatic rescue operation carried out by veterans of special operations units determined to rescue Afghans they had worked with.
Dubbed the “Pineapple Express,” after an image of a pineapple that Afghans would display as a rescue signal, the SOF veterans ran a series of covert operations in order to slip former Afghan security forces past the Taliban.
As of Thursday morning, ABC News reported that the Pineapple Express had brought more than 500 people to HKIA, mostly in small clandestine groups, in the last 10 days.
Working to the point of exhaustion, the effort looked doomed Thursday after an explosion and firefight outside HKIA killed 13 U.S. troops, wounded at least 18 more, and killed more than 160 Afghans.
But after collecting themselves, they returned to action.
“Team America isn’t quitting,” Martin, the volunteer “Battle Captain” with Team America, said Thursday. “We’re going to continue to support these individuals the best way we can. The administration has to do something different here, they’ve got to step up.”
The group is tracking 11 American citizens, and their families, who are stuck behind Taliban lines, he said. As a result, Martin and Team America isn’t ready to fold up shop.
Vast and growing network
Team America is part of a vast and growing network of volunteers, made up of largely current and former military and government personnel.
Andy Wilson, a retired Army special forces master sergeant, has developed a network of his own working along with Team America and and other organizations, such as No One Left Behind, which are focused on bringing evacuees to America.
Wilson, who served with Delta Force and the 3rd Special Forces Group, is chief executive of Quiet Professionals, a company in Tampa, Florida and running a rescue operation leveraging his contacts and company.
Quiet Professionals primarily focuses on intelligence, information technology, geospatial and advanced data analytics. Wilson said he is putting his company’s technology to use to help find Afghans who worked with the U.S.
“Everyone came together and realized that we cannot allow the United States of America spirit to let these atrocities happen,” he said. “We set the Afghan culture up for failure by pulling out and leaving those allies high and dry. They are the ones who stood by our side the last 20 years.”
His network, he said, includes current and former SOF troops and government officials.
“Most feel the way I do,” he said. “We realized we have this moral obligation.”
Recent business acquisitions have helped the effort, Wilson said. In January, Quiet Professionals bought Echo Analytics Group, a company that uses commercial and government entities, the dark web, to scrape and pull data.
“That gives me a lot of ability to go and collect open-source intelligence, which is critical,” he said. The company also bought Scion Analytics, a software firm which does natural language processing and some machine learning and artificial intelligence, providing “a large platform to parse through large volumes of disparate data sources.”
Wilson’s team created a tracker where Afghans seeking to evacuate can register where they are, input contact information, and upload documents like Special Immigrant Visa and passport information.
The tracker, which went live last Thursday, has more than 3,100 names as of Friday afternoon, said Wilson, including several former interpreters and Afghan military personnel who reached out to Military Times desperate to leave Afghanistan fearing Taliban reprisal.
Quiet Professionals say they have helped nearly 100 people leave Afghanistan in recent weeks. Including former Afghan ambassador Atiqullah Atifmal, whose life was at risk due to his involvement in the Afghan government dating back to 2001.
In addition, Wilson said his network, with upwards of 1,000 people, includes some people already on the ground in Afghanistan and some headed that way.
“We are assisting to coordinate air assets, ground force assets, gate access, document processing, food and shelter, biometrics screening, and the list goes on,” he said.
Beyond his network, Wilson said he is working with a more extensive array of volunteer organizations like Team America and No One Left Behind, all with the same mission — rescuing Afghan allies.
Living on the couch
Zach Martin of Team America sits in front of a suite of monitors and electronics reminiscent of an operations center he worked in while deployed overseas as an Army captain.
Although out of the Army for years and now surrounded by family photos and St. Louis Cardinals memorabilia instead of blast walls and sandbags, Martin is back in the fight from his home office, nestled in a picture-perfect home on a quiet suburban St. Louis street.
“I’ve basically been living in here for more than a week,” Martin says gesturing to a couch in his office before turning back to the multiple screens of his ad hoc command center.
On one screen, a homemade database churns evacuee information updated in real-time by Team America volunteers around the country. A messaging application chirps and flashes on another as real-time data is relayed to evacuees on the streets of Kabul.
Martin is in the middle of explaining how Team America has grown, from roughly a dozen volunteers to more than 150 people organized into various teams, when his phone rings. The State Department has sent out an email to Americans in Afghanistan: stage at the Ministry of Interior building adjacent to Hamid Karzai International Airport, this is your last chance to get out.
“So, is everyone going there right now?” Martin asks the caller, who is another volunteer. The answer is a resounding yes. The message from DoS, which was supposed to be sent individually, has found its way to Twitter.
As the messaging app on one screen lights up with communications between volunteers and Afghans seeking information about the best route to the MOI, Martin raises a Congressional staffer to verify the information.
“She has a direct line into State,” Martin says.
Minutes later, Martin gets a call back saying the notification was a mistake and that DoS has issued a recall on the initial notice. However, the information has spread rapidly through the increasingly desperate refugees seeking a way out. According to an evacuee who showed up, some 1,000 people are already outside the MOI, along with the Taliban.
“Goddammit, they royally f---ed up that one,” Martin curses as he leans back in his chair, shaking his head.
Common approaches and personal motivation
When Tom Le, a 2016 graduate of West Point, and a small group of his classmates began texting over WhatsApp last week about the collapse of Afghanistan they never anticipated that their group text would grow into Allied Airlift 21, an organization that not two weeks later has more than 250 volunteers. The original motivation was to find a way out of Afghanistan for a classmate of Afghan origin.
Le, along with 2016 classmates Caleb McDaniel and Kunal Jha got to work. Tapping into the wider “long grey line” network, they “crowdsourced” how to validate an evacuee in the eyes of State Department, and then move that individual through security at HKIA and onto a flight out of Afghanistan.
“We started with one guy and we’re able to demonstrate a lot of success,” Le said. “Then were able to do that for three more Afghan West Pointers.” Le confirmed all four were out of Afghanistan, but declined to give their names or location due to security concerns.
Their success was contagious. As the group continued to help with departures, it attracted more volunteers along with more people seeking help evacuating from Afghanistan. Allied Airlift 21 now has a database of more than 30,000 people seeking to leave Kabul, along with the necessary documentation, Le said.
For Le, the evacuation of allies from Kabul also has deeper personal meaning as his family escaped Vietnam in similar circumstances nearly a half-century ago.
“What’s happening right now in Kabul literally happened in 1975,” Le said. " The United States opened up its arms for myself and many other Vietnamese families and that’s why I decided to serve in the military.”
While Le, Team America, and Quiet Professionals have all worked doggedly for the past week to evacuate as many people as possible, No One Left Behind has been warning and working to prevent a potential “Saigon moment” for years.
Since 2014, No One Left behind has guided interpreters and others who worked with U.S. forces overseas to the U.S. through the SIV process. On Wednesday, the group released a letter that reiterated their ongoing concerns with the evacuation process.
“Despite months and years of warnings to the Department of State and Department of Defense that the shocking delays in processing Special Immigrant Visas for allied Afghan warriors would put them and their families in grave jeopardy, there is still no credible plan on how tens of thousands of Afghan people will be moved by the end of August, let alone the 100,000-plus who probably need to be evacuated based on their history of supporting the U.S.,” said JD Dolan, Board of Directors at No One Left Behind.
Small wins, growing numbers
Despite the procedural hiccup, Aug. 24 was the best night yet for Team America as they managed to shepherd 82 evacuees onto flights out of the country. Barely a week ago, Team America was an unnamed organization seeking to fly out roughly 40 individuals members knew and had served with overseas.
To accomplish this, Team America works with evacuees from the time they enter the system until they get on a flight.
When an evacuee contacts Team America, they are assigned to an “intake team,” which captures items such as visas, pictures, and any other document required by DOS to get them on a flight. This information is packaged and sent to DOS. Upon approval, Team America forwards the information in a “baseball card” pdf to the evacuee to prove their identity. The evacuee is then guided from their home to the airport by volunteers in the U.S., such as Martin.
Team America’s impact is largely due to the effort and sleepless nights endured by those such as Martin. Additionally, several similar groups, comprised mainly of veterans and former defense officials, have sprung up across the country. In recent days, some of these groups have combined forces, seeking to complement each other and expand their reach.
“They’ve got strengths we don’t have, we’ve got strengths they don’t have,” Worth Parker, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, told Military Times. Parker, a former MARSOC Marine, is part of Task Force Dunkirk, a group of senior and retired military and defense officials. On the other hand, Team America is primarily comprised of 30-somethings such as Martin, but tech-savvy.
“[Team America] are in their 30s, and they were captains, and they were sergeants, and they were stuff like that,” Parker said. “Meanwhile, we’re lieutenant colonels and colonels with reach to a lot of generals and interagency types. So, okay, let’s come together and ‘Wonder Twin’ powers activate.”
The results of their combined efforts have been staggering. In the last week, the roughly three dozen or so people that Team America originally sought to fly out of Kabul has turned into a database of more than 1,144 individuals that the combined organizations seek to evacuate.
“So you really kind of had almost like these three branches, that were kind of doing separate things, all of a sudden realize we can help each other,” Martin said about the combined efforts.
Not everyone is pleased
Some specialists are skeptical about private efforts to evacuate refugees. Karen Jacobsen, a professor of global migration at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told the New York Times that Go Fund Me’s for refugees sounds “crazy.”
“There are several large problems that immediately occur to me,” she told the New York Times, “but the most obvious one is that all these rescued people will immediately bump up against the U.S. immigration system.”
Wilson, who has created a not-for-profit called Project Afghan Relief Fund to help raise funds, scoffed at the criticism and said he shares concerns about the misappropriation of funds.
“I worry about donations being misappropriated as well,” he said. “That is why I established my own 501c.”
For its part, the U.S government has declined to comment on whether or outside veterans groups have aided in the process.
Thus far since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 105,000 people. This includes 12,500 people on Aug. 26 despite the attack on HKIA.
However, their ability to coordinate the evacuation of hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of Afghans is something that will be more than just a historical footnote.
When asked what message he had for those trying to get escape, Wilson said his network “is currently rallying to help Afghans make their way out of Afghanistan.”
The network, he said, “is working with [the State Department] to assist in verifying and validating requestors, tracking locations and numbers of people in groups, providing updates of the information on the ground, and other things. Bottom line, this is not an official government-sanctioned program. We are all doing this work on our own time and working to raise donations for some of the bigger costs.”
But he offers a word of caution for those seeking a way out.
“Just getting in the tracker does not mean anything will happen on your behalf at this time,” he said. “However, the tracker is being used by more and more evacuation teams around the world who want to assist those in need. This is our small way of providing command and control to assist in consolidation and a single point of information tracking.”
Back in St. Louis, Martin also talks about Team America’s tracker, put together on the fly over the last week. Frankly, Martin and others are unsure whether the USG has the same information about evacuees as they do. With uncertainty swirling around how many people can be flown out of Kabul, the mission is once again evolving. This time to ensuring that anyone left behind in Afghanistan can eventually gain admission to the U.S.
“Our efforts are focused now on making sure we get these US citizens,” Martin said. “We’re really trying to make sure we identify exactly where they’re located, and trying to communicate that to anybody in government who’s willing to listen.”
Michael Jason, a retired Army colonel who is part of Allied Airlift 21, presented a more stark assessment of the situation in Kabul.
“We’re all clear-eyed, that people are going to be left behind, and a lot of people are trying to process that right now,” Jason told Military Times.
Despite this realization, Jason says that there is a long-term solution in the databases of evacuees which these groups have built over the last two weeks.
“The register becomes the promise. This is the document we turn over to whoever at State Department, DHS, or DoD,” Jason said. “It has all their data that we have and is secure.”
All the organizations which spoke to Military Times echoed the same vow to keep working on their own to bring those who fought alongside the U.S. to America, even after the last U.S. military flight leaves Kabul.
“Time is drawing down rapidly. Task Force Dunkirk and Team America, in support of No One Left Behind, will keep the faith that we can get “just one more” out to the last minute of the last day. Our loyalty will extend beyond that. There are people who will not get out now but will later,” Parker told Military Times.
As for Tawfiq, it is unclear how he is doing.
“I am still here,” he said in a message early Thursday morning Kabul time, several hours before the deadly attack.
No one has heard from him since.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.