How a handful of Americans freed 5,000 Afghans

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“They’ve just called me,” said Bashir Goth, Washington’s representative for a region of Somalia seeking independence.

Two days later, on 25 August, Somaliland’s acting foreign minister signed a tentative agreement with the charity working with Mr Van Meter to temporarily relocate more than 10,000 Afghans to Berbera, a port on the Gulf of Aden. It was agreed to keep from It was part of an on-the-fly effort that Mr Van Meter said has helped nearly 5,000 Afghans flee his country over the past two weeks, one of the most successful known private efforts to expel Afghans.

From the Peacock Lounge, a conference room at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, Mr. Van Meter and an ad-hoc collection of war veterans, Afghan diplomats, wealthy donors, defense contractors, non-profit workers and off-duty US officials created a global military. operated. -style rescue operation.

Mr Van Meter, president of the private-equity company, New Standard Holdings, and others associated with the group said the self-designated commercial task force had sent former commandos to Kabul to obtain an evacuation. It struck a deal with the United Arab Emirates that allowed an airlift from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to take Afghans to temporary shelter in Abu Dhabi, where many of the 5,000 evacuees were from countries seeking permanent asylum. Waiting for permission to travel.

The group is talking with officials in Albania, Ukraine and other countries in the hope that they will find a place to settle.

With the US facing a withdrawal deadline on Tuesday after 20 years of war, private citizens said they volunteered time and money in an ambitious effort to help a US evacuation seen as inadequate.

Jim Linder, a retired major general, former commander of special operations units in Afghanistan and part of Mr Van Meter’s group, said former Afghan comrades who felt abandoned by the US government appealed to him for help. “This is not who we are as people,” he said. He is president of Tenax Aerospace, a Madison, Miss., company that provides special-mission reconnaissance and other aircraft to governments, and his connections helped to group charter aircraft. rescue flights.

On a white board in the Peacock Lounge of the Washington Hotel, the group listed the airport’s entry points. Last weekend, someone wrote “off” other than one. An Islamic State suicide attack on Thursday killed 13 US soldiers, as well as a crowd of about 200 Afghans around the airport.

Mr Van Meter said that as of early Sunday, the group focused on finding a place to evacuate people and resettle Afghans already out of the country via land routes or helicopter.

The Defense Department declined to comment on the commercial task force and other private rescue operations.

The US government said that since August 14 it has helped evacuate some 114,400 people from Afghanistan. This includes American citizens, green card holders and Afghans whose service to the fallen Kabul government or the US-led war effort leaves them vulnerable to Taliban retaliation.

against the clock

Mr. Van Meter was in Washington to stay at the Willard Hotel for business and on August 22 decided to rent the hotel’s Peacock Lounge, a small carpeted conference room with some tables and TVs. “I put it on my American Express and told my wife that this is what we needed to do,” he said.

He said he was prompted to action by a business associate, a former US Army commando.

Commando Shaun contacted Mr Van Meter two weeks ago and said he knew 3,500 children trapped in Kabul, many of whom are orphans. He needed help getting them out. Mr Van Meter knew nothing about military operations, he said, but he had business and personal ties with the United Arab Emirates.

He reached out to a senior Emirati diplomat and introduced him to Sean.

“Time is absolutely of the essence,” Sean wrote to the diplomat in an August 14 email seen by The Wall Street Journal. “We are working against the clock and a closed window of opportunity.”

According to email communications between the men, the diplomat “passed on his government’s provisional approval to begin accepting some evacuations” and sent Sean to an Emirati general. Sean flew to Abu Dhabi to meet the general.

The general agreed to provide a C-17 military transport aircraft, an aircrew and a platoon of troops for testing in Kabul. Emirati General could not be reached for comment.

The UAE agreed to provide temporary shelter to the displaced, but they had to first arrive at Kabul airport and board a transport plane. Shaun was banking on a small network of former commandos in Kabul to help keep the operation running smoothly – which included lifting the evacuees and driving them to the airport.

On 20 August, Sean changed from a blue blazer to military-style gear for a flight to Kabul. He and another special operations veteran carried body armor, bottles of Excedrin, and a sack of 5-Hour Energy Drinks. They went for a briefing at the Emirati Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel, a military facility near the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

A sign in the room read “Fars al-Sham”, which translates to “Knights of the Levant”, the United Arab Emirates’ code name for the rescue operation. Emirati officials told Shaun and his accomplices that the promised C-17, which can hold about 180 people, had separate toilets and medical teams for men and women returning on the three-hour flight from Kabul .

“We want to use minimum force, no bullets.” said one of the Emirati officials.

Once the plane reached Kabul, Shaun and his aides had 45 minutes to find and board the men, a group of Afghans they had previously identified as a threat from the Taliban. Sean had contacted evacuees about the plan through Afghan sources outside the airport and US military contacts inside.

When the plane landed, the Afghans were waiting at the airport. The aircraft evacuated about two dozen people, much less than the aircraft’s capacity. But the trip proved that the system worked.

Shaun, who was in Kabul for nearly a week to coordinate the operation, said the Emirati general authorized more rescue flights. He said the US military gave him access to a hangar and a ramp that came to be known as the Commercial Task Force Ramp. They were given a call sign to use for incoming flights so that military air-traffic controllers could separate the group’s planes.

The group has since pulled its team from Kabul.

The UAE government would not comment on the operation. It said as of Thursday the country had played a role in evacuating 36,500 people from Afghanistan. As of Friday, it said it was hosting 8,500 evacuees, but did not specify whether the tally included people from Mr Van Meter’s group.

escape route

Last week, volunteers shifted to the hotel’s Peacock lounge, requested for help and worked on their contacts to get Afghans and Americans out of Kabul airport and Afghanistan.

One volunteer, Barkat Rahmati, was the number 2 officer at the Afghan Embassy in Qatar. He was on a visit to Washington when Kabul fell and his government ceased to exist.

Rahmati was trying to help 322 Afghan commandos, elite soldiers trained by US special forces, who managed to escape to Abu Dhabi, he said. Soldiers threw away their identity cards to avoid Taliban militants. Former officials were trying to get him new documents so he could travel to countries that would let him settle.

Alex Cornell du Haux, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, was trying to drive a convoy of female judges past Taliban checkpoints around the airport. Nothing was found of him in Kabul till Sunday morning.

After Thursday’s suicide bombing, volunteers watched terrifying videos trying to figure out how to make their final evacuation from the country.

“Do we know where the orphans are yet?” Shout out to Mr Van Meter volunteers. He didn’t.

The children and their guardians—about 300 in total—managed to reach the grounds of Kabul airport early in the week, but were turned back. As far as Mr Van Meter knew, he was last seen 400 yards from the gate where the suicide bombings later took place.

The volunteers later learned that the children were back in a safe house. As of Saturday, they still had not returned to the airport, Mr Van Meter said.

Brian Kinsella, a former army captain who served in relief operations after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, was in charge of condensing hundreds of pleas and referrals to a list topped by American citizens, green cardholders and high-risk Afghans. His phone was packed with pictures of families and passports and Google Maps was showing where people were hiding.

On Friday, Mr Kinsella spoke to a US citizen who was booked on a plane with her 11-year-old child but decided not to leave without other family members who did not have US paperwork. During a call with the woman this week, Mr. Kinsella heard gunshots.

“We’re trying to help,” he said. “We can’t in some cases.”

With the final route from Afghanistan closed, volunteers are looking at land routes and possible airlift from smaller cities, as well as a host of countries that have already fled. One group is working on a plan to establish and manage shelters for Afghans in Somaliland.

“We are not giving up,” said former Pentagon adviser Emily King.

At 3 a.m. on Sunday, the last members of the group left the Peacock Lounge for good and took their work elsewhere.

This story has been published without modification to the text from a wire agency feed

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