This week, the head of the U.S. Central Command announced that the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was complete. But the volunteer effort to get people out, known as “Digital Dunkirk,” is still going. Matt Pelak, an Army veteran and National Guardsman who’s part of the effort, says “there are thousands of American citizens, passport holders, and green card holders still in Afghanistan.” He and his fellow volunteers are working around the clock to get people from one point to another, checking Slack channels and spreadsheets, fielding help requests on social media and via text, calling friends on the ground in Kabul to find out about Taliban checkpoints, and chartering private planes. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Pelak about the ongoing Afghanistan recovery effort and where military leaders and the Biden administration failed in the U.S. withdrawal. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dan Diamond: President Biden addressed the nation on Tuesday afternoon. He specifically noted the contributions of veterans like you, Matt. He thanked the network of volunteers and veterans and he said, “We’re going to continue to need their help. We need your help, and I’m looking forward to meeting with you.” How does hearing that from the president make you feel? And are you ready to continue doing this work?
Matt Pelak: We’re committed to helping as many people as possible. With the president’s comments, it stings almost as much as the announcement that the evacuation was complete, because the U.S. government has all the resources in the world to devote to this if they so choose to. For the president to then ask us to continue working instead of saying, “What do you need? I will get you whatever you need to make this work”—we don’t need kind words. We need resources. We need aircraft. We need action.
You’re a sergeant first class. Are all the folks participating falling into the roles that they had in the military? Are there generals barking out orders or sergeants who are getting things done? Do you see yourself replicating in some ways the military structure?
To be honest, no. And to be honest, the last thing we need in here are generals. If you want to get stuff done, you go find some enlisted folks and some junior officers, and that’s who actually gets things done in the military. If you want things to get broken and you want to create bureaucracy, go find colonels and above. That’s pretty much the problem with America’s military today.
It feels like there’s 250 to 300 core people that are running the system right now, that are absolutely essential parts of this mechanism. It’s not just veterans. There are a lot of folks who you can consider front-line civilians, State Department employees, folks that worked at the CIA and similar organizations, and folks that worked in organizations adjacent to there. So it is truly a mix. And you need skill sets from across the board, from someone who’s a logistician to someone who’s just willing to do data entry, to crank numbers or names into a spreadsheet.
Take me through a normal shift of being part of this.
It’s still very much going on, like today was just as busy as four days ago. We’re still in the midst of it very much and will be for the next week. But for a day in my life for this, it doesn’t start after work. It starts at 7 a.m. or 6 a.m. when I get up and check my computer. Hey, there’s this group here, or hey, word is there’s a flight, a charter flight with 300 seats on it. We need to get folks manifested on that. Hey, who’s got the plane? OK, hey, someone has a plane. Who’s paying for the plane? Oh, crap, we need to find money. Hey, let’s go to the people that we know have money. So I’ve been working in sort of a coordination role and have now transitioned to really trying to work in case management of sorts. But basically, we have folks on the ground—how do we communicate with them on a regular basis, and how do we help guide them through this until they’re to a place of safety? And really building a team that can do that. It’s an all-day process.
Can you tell us the story of someone that you helped to get out of the country?
Early on, I had a lot of people asking for help. I was working with someone I got referred to, worked with these folks directly, spent a lot of time talking to them and then talking to someone that I knew that was on the ground in Kabul, outside the base, who was picking up American citizens and bringing them onto the base, which was part of the government response, and for 48 hours trying to link the two of them up, the family and the asset. And it was just missed connection after missed connection and we just wouldn’t give up—sending them maps over text message, sending messages about where to go, which gate to go to, at which time—and then they sort of were just trapped in limbo. It was looking like they weren’t going to get through, and it was kind of a defeating feeling. And then the next day I got a text message. I took a break to go meet some friends and went to go to the bathroom and looked at my phone and got a text message that they had got the family through. And I just started to cry. I think they were a family of five, and in a week or two weeks of losses, like not being able to get folks in, to have a few wins, to just get folks in—it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I hope that I get to meet his family one day, just to shake the guy’s hand and see them in person.
So you and your colleagues are trying to save lives from 7,000 miles away, and you are helping get folks out at the same time. I have to imagine that some of your information is piecemeal. You’re not there. You’re relying on phone calls and what you can do over the computer. Did any effort ever backfire? Was any of the information ever wrong?
The folks that I’ve worked with have been very careful about sending folks to a location without verifying that information first, because with the Taliban on the streets, the worst thing we could do is send someone to a location that maybe was compromised or it was a trap. I haven’t heard of a disaster of a situation where we sent someone to a location and they were killed, with the exception of the suicide vest bomb at Abbey Gate.
Abbey Gate was the site of a bombing outside the airport in Kabul last week. Thirteen U.S. service members and as many as 170 civilians were killed in the blast.
We all sent people there. I don’t think there’s a person that’s helping out right now that didn’t send somebody to navigate that day or the day before. And people were waiting there for days to get in. That’s got to be the biggest, I don’t want to call it a failure, but, man, knowing that you sent someone somewhere and then they ended up dying as a result of that, through no fault of your own, but that weighs on you.
The fact that you and others have been doing this work for weeks on a volunteer basis—is that a good thing, that you and others can remotely, as volunteers, make a difference, or does it show the gaps in the government’s response? To put it another way, do you see Digital Dunkirk as a sign of success or as a sign of government problems?
It’s multifaceted, right? This effort as a whole represents really the best of America. This is individuals putting service above self to help people they’ve never met and never will meet. And at the same time, this represents a pretty large failure of the Biden administration to plan for this evacuation. I’m not a foreign policy expert, but everyone I know who is smarter about this than I am said we should have started in January, we could have started getting people out in a much more reasonable pace and resettling them.
I hope we learn from this. I think there are a lot of people that should probably resign after this, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark] Milley being one of them. There were a lot of failures, and I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but I really don’t care.
There are tens of thousands of Afghans who remain in Afghanistan, even though they are eligible for U.S. visas, and then there are many more who are at risk of Taliban reprisals because they promoted women’s rights or maybe they worked as reporters. Do you see a realistic way out of the country for those remaining Afghans?
There’s a lot of creative deal-making happening right now. And if we can make those deals stick and we can fill planes up, then, yes, I see a pathway. It really comes down to a lot of people doing the right thing, regional governments allowing planes to land or allowing planes to just overfly airspace, planes to get fuel and pick people up. It comes down to the Taliban sort of holding up their end of the bargain and allowing us to continue to evacuate people. Make no mistake about it—they could have killed everyone in the airport in Kabul while we were there last week, and they didn’t. So, you know, that’s something that we all need to realize. They’re not some ad hoc force now. I mean, they occupied that city and they had the discipline to wait.
The Taliban could have struck the airport, but they had self-interest not to, right? They wanted the U.S. military out of the country for their own ends. They appear to be around to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and we have to reckon with that. Which makes me wonder—are you and your colleagues working with the Taliban? Are you explicitly trying to cut deals with them?
We haven’t. I think folks are in communication with certain people on the ground. I’m not sure who and who they’re talking to, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life that they occupy that country and they’re in control, so if there’s ways to negotiate deals that don’t endanger American lives and still save Afghan lives, then those are the deals that we’re trying to make. We put our pride and our egos in our pockets and we do what we can to get folks out, even if that means having to talk to the Taliban and tell them how awesome they are.
This whole effort sounds at times almost implausibly ad hoc, where you’ve got volunteers in Brooklyn and Seattle who are from half a world away trying to tell folks where to go and get them paperwork and so on. Forgive the comparison, because I know the stakes are so much higher, but it reminds me a bit of calling a help desk where someone thousands of miles away from me is trying to explain how to fix my computer or repair my washing machine. Did it surprise you that this spontaneous, unfunded effort became responsible for so many lives?
I think we were all surprised and shocked at the sheer scope and scale of this right now. We haven’t had time to process that yet because there are so many people that still need help. We’re just driving forward. I even feel a little anxious just being on this call because I know how much work is ahead of us today and how much work needs to get done. We’re all quite shocked.