What some U.S. forces thought would be 96 hours on the ground in Afghanistan evacuating U.S. embassy staff turned into 16 days and evacuating 124,000 people. With the world’s eyes on them, they did their best to wrangle the situation under control.
When the State Department finally triggered the non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) on August 14, after the Taliban had already entered Kabul — thousands of desperate Afghans rushed to the Kabul airport to evacuate. The Pentagon sent two Marine battalions and the 82nd Airborne Division’s Immediate Reaction Force, which is not specifically trained to conduct NEOs but acts as the Army’s quick reaction force.
When they first got to Kabul, they were met with panicked and fleeing U.S. Embassy staff, contractors, and former members of Afghanistan’s dissolved military. Over the next several days, thousands of Afghans streamed into the airport from wherever they could find an opening in the four-mile perimeter, flooding the runways and bum-rushing planes.
Troops saw the horrors of Afghans clinging onto a departing C-17 and falling to their deaths or getting trampled, and had to collect their bodies afterwards. And as Breitbart News exclusively reported, they saw Turkish forces gunning down innocent Afghan civilians who made it into the airport and then running over their bodies. They also saw the Taliban commit atrocities against Afghan civilians.
Troops were forced to do the best they could under the difficult circumstances they had been given and save as many people as they could.
According to a U.S. service member who was one of the first several hundred to arrive in Kabul as part of the NEO, there was sheer chaos at the airport within the first 72 hours on the ground. U.S. Embassy staff and contractors were fleeing, leaving piles of stuff on the runways. Former Afghan military members were abandoning their weapons on the tarmacs, and thousands of Afghans were trying to bum rush their way onto planes.
According to the service member, around the third day of the NEO some evacuees tried to hijack a Kam Air passenger jet. The service member told Breitbart News in a September 27 interview:
One of their aircraft got hijacked on the 18th…It was on the ground, it wasn’t in flight. … It was parked over at the international terminal area. It had been there before we showed up. It was just sitting there. There was no air crew, no pilots. There were about seven aircraft that were just sitting there. Well, this aircraft taxied and just cut straight across the flight line, the actual runway to the northern taxi way. Stopped. Opened up its door. A few other people climbed in and then it started taxiing again.
And so we got word over the radio, ‘There’s a Kam Air jet that just got hijacked, it’s not replying to radio calls, nobody knows what’s going on with it. Over the radio, we heard ‘Kam Air,’ but we thought they said, ‘Can Air’ like a Canadian Airline. So we stopped it with gun trucks. We had our snipers with a bead on the pilot and the co-pilot — that were not in any kind of uniform, they were in man-jams (local Afghan clothing) — ready to take them out if needed…and then we got word, ‘Let them go.’
And they taxied back over to the international terminal. And then all the lights on the runway went off. There was a small explosion and we were told the hijacking situation is handled. I imagined the cool boys did their thing. The next morning when the sun came up, there was no door on the Kam Air jet. So it was a hijacking.
U.S. Central Command (Centcom) has denied there was any hijacking, despite the Air Force first disclosing it in an article on October 12. An Air Force lieutenant colonel wrote:
On one occasion after they received an intel tip, five people onboard one of the commercial flights intended to hijack the aircraft. ‘Our team worked to get them clear of the NATO ramp, relocated to the north side away from friendly forces, then ultimately onto the south side where the situation was handled,’ he said.
The account about the hijacking was then deleted from the article, and Centcom spokesperson Lt. Josie Lynne Lenny said in a statement to news outlets on October 14: “I am unaware of any attempt to hijack a plane at Hamid Karzai International airport.”
She added: “During the Afghanistan evacuation mission, an intel tip indicated the possibility of a plot to hijack a particular flight that was preparing to depart the airfield. Ground traffic controllers diverted the plane to a safe location on the airfield where security forces boarded the plane and determined that there was no active attempt to hijack the aircraft.”
A Secret Gate and Extractions
U.S. troops also faced with the responsibility of extracting as many Americans as possible amid the chaos surrounding the airport. In order to do that, around the third night of the NEO, they created a secret entrance for Americans, unbeknownst to the news media. The secret gate was on the west side of the airport, near the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MOI).
“AMCITs (American citizens) would get a text or call or whatever from State Department. And they would gather up at MOI and show the Taliban their blue passport, and they’d send them through in groups of roughly a hundred at a time. And they’d walk like 400 meters to the west gate where we would clear them through and get them pretty much directly on flight,” the service member told Breitbart News. The service member said:
We kept it a secret as best we could so that way we didn’t have the crowd control issues we were seeing at Abbey Gate, and South Gate, and North Gate. That way we could expedite the process of getting these people through. So that’s where most of those caravans of buses — that’s where we were getting them through.
They were getting dropped off by West Gate, just to the north of it, across this little land bridge, across this shit water canal with a gas station. And they would get dropped right off by there, and we’d walk them down, or they’d get dropped over at the MOI compound and walk them through the backfield. … We had some other Afghan partner forces [out] by the gas station that were bringing them through that way.
There was over 2,500 people that we brought through West Gate, and that’s where we brought most of the AMCITs through, the local embassy civilians, a bunch of [Special Immigration Visas applicants]. That’s where we brought the women’s orchestra group through. That’s where we put part of the women’s soccer team through.
The U.S. military were also conducting secret extractions early on, even before the secret gate was established.
“The media is like, ‘All our allies are going outside the wire picking up their citizens. Why isn’t America?’” the service member said. “We were already doing that. And it continued for two weeks, but the people that were conducting those operations are not people that like to be on the media and on TV and I’ll leave it at that,” the service member said.
“We were steady-state bringing people in… . It was case-by-case basis. We were coordinating with people outside of HKIA out in Kabul proper and neighboring cities, towns, provinces, whatever, and working to get them either buses or helicopters or whatever and bringing them through,” the service member said. “I think they finally started acknowledging that we were just because the optics got so bad.”
Taliban Executions and an American Fights to Get to the Airport
Despite the troops’ best efforts, there were still some Americans stuck outside of the airport.
One American, who was born in Afghanistan but became a naturalized American after serving four American four-star generals and working for the U.S. government as a GS-15 employee, got a plane ticket to fly out of Kabul on August 15 (Kabul time), the same day the NEO was called.
As previously reported by Breitbart News, when he arrived to the airport that day, he found that his flight had taken off with evacuees who managed to get on the plane. He left the airport and tried to come back the next morning.
The next morning, there were thousands of people at the main gate. The Taliban were shooting into the crowd, he said.
“This guy, this Talib, he picked his Kalashnikov…shooting just randomly and one of the bullet went on top of my hair…I could feel the air of the bullet on my hair. And then I told my brother, I said, ‘We have to leave,’” he said.
He saw at least two Afghan civilians shot. “I don’t know that they got killed or whatever, because we left.”
According to the U.S. service member, the Taliban were indeed executing Afghans civilians, which made pushing out Afghans unqualified to evacuate more difficult.
“There were some Taliban factions that were out there that were executing those people,” the service member said. “Under the cover of night…we would push them out through the areas controlled by [Afghan commandos] so that they could escape back into the ether and not be executed by the Taliban.”
“We had these 18-, 19-, 20-year-old [American] kids witness these Taliban dudes just schwacking people. They witnessed the Taliban as they’re trying to get control of some of these bigger crowds, just taking a rifle, grabbing it by the barrel and just swinging for the fences and cracking people in the body and on the head, whatever, trying to push people back,” the service member said.
The service member said sometimes the U.S. troops wanted to shoot the Taliban but were told not to, since it was not in the rules of engagement. “These guys witnessed things outside the gate that under any other circumstances, we probably would have shot people,” he said.
Meanwhile, the American trying to get to the airport tried calling the U.S. Embassy, which had relocated to the Kabul airport, to no avail.
“That fucking line was not working. The damn fucking shit number was not working. And you know, at that time, if you are in this situation, and your own embassy doesn’t answer or the line doesn’t work, you feel like shit. And especially if you were from the country that — we call ourselves superpower in the entire planet,” he said.
While driving to the airport for a third day, he and his brother were stopped by the Taliban multiple times. Friends advised him to drive since the Taliban usually went to the passenger side. However, at the last checkpoint, the Taliban went directly to him.
He came straight to me. He said, ‘OK, where are you from?’ I said, ‘From Kabul.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, you don’t look like from Kabul. And I said, ‘No, I live here for 20 years.’ And he said, ‘No, you don’t live here. You live in America, or in Europe.’ Where he got that, I don’t know. I was not even clean to be honest. I was not shaved. I had Afghan clothes. I looked like a local, but this guy, I don’t know, for some reason told me, ‘Give me your passport.’ I said, ‘I have no passport.’ He said, ‘Give me your cell phone.’ So I gave my brother’s cell simply because I was scared, because my Facebook had my picture with McCain and Petraeus and all these things.”
The Taliban started searching through his brother’s phone, consulting among themselves.
Sitting in the car, he told his brother if they told him to get out and follow them, he would slam the gas pedal and drive away as fast as possible. “I told my brother, I said, ‘If this guy tells me to get out from the car and follow him, I’m not doing it. You just take cover, put your head down,’” he said. “I know they would shoot us, but who cares?”
The Taliban came back, gave him the phone, shut his door, and said “OK, go.” Luckily, another car had pulled up behind them.
It then took six hours for him to push through the crowd of thousands to reach the airport. He did not give up, knowing he would likely not have another chance.
He got about a meter away from the gates when he tried to show his passport to American troops manning the gate. It still was not close enough. He pushed closer until they could see his passport. He was finally allowed in.
In about six more hours, he boarded a C-17 and was flown to Qatar. He spent three nights in Qatar, then was flown to Kuwait, then to D.C. He made it out, but left his sick mom, his ex-wife, and three American children behind, knowing there was no way they would have made it through the crowd.
“I didn’t want my mom to die that outside in the crowd. It’s impossible. And my ex-wife and three kids — I couldn’t bring them because they’re very young, so I thought, ‘OK, if I bring them here, how they’re going to get in?’ I’m 6’2″ and it took me six hours. So my mom and my kids would never, ever be able to make it,” he said.
His brother said he heard another man in the crowd — allegedly also an American citizen — was screaming and crying after his child was trampled to death. “He said, ‘Fuck, I’m not going to America. Fuck America, my child is gone. I’m not going anywhere. Fuck America.’”
Now, in America, he is trying to process what happened and figure out how to get his children out.
“As a GS-15 [U.S. government employee], I was a policy advisor. I was a media adviser. I did everything for the mission. I have a Superior Civilian Service Award, and I have a Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal, I have a NATO award. I have all these medals and everything that say I did a super job, but my family is still there,” he said.
He said private groups and companies are charging $15,000 per head to evacuate people from Afghanistan. “My family is like 23, 24 people. I do not have that much money.”
“The mismanagement of the U.S. administration is insane…All my friends, they are laughing at me. They [say] ‘As a GS-15, you worked with them and your family is still stuck there,’” he said. “I’m a U.S. citizen…No matter what, if I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen or I was born here, I served this country and I deserved better.”
He said most of the Afghans who were evacuated did not work for the U.S. government. “They were not even qualified. They didn’t do anything. Can you believe that you just tell people, ‘Come, and we’ll take you to the U.S.’? What the fuck is that?…The qualified people are stuck in the houses.”
He said the Taliban have already been to his family’s home at least once and that they are in hiding. He has told his children not to go to school.
“I told them not to go because we are scared from the kidnapping and my own kids, especially if their father worked for [the International Security Assistance Force] — God forbid they are going to take them.”
This is the second part in a series on the NEO.