The Last-Ditch Effort to Get Afghans Out

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S1: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens. Third, this week, the head of the U.S. Central Command announced that the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was complete. I’m curious what your reaction to that announcement was.

S2: I mean, the reaction was sort of B.S., right?

S1: Matt Pelak is an Army veteran and a member of the National Guard. He lives in New York City. And I called him because he’s been part of a volunteer effort to help people get out of Afghanistan. The U.S. military’s airlift has ended the Mat’s group. It’s still going.

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S2: I’ve got friends who are sleeping two or three hours a night. You go to sleep, you get back up. They hit it hard again. It’s just sort of adds insult to injury. When our own government is saying everything’s fine, we’re done. Go back about your regular business. And we’re in the background screaming, hey, the buildings on fire. Someone help

S1: me. Got out thousands of citizens and diplomats from those countries. When President Biden delivered a speech on Tuesday afternoon, he addressed the messy nature of the evacuation effort. Now, we believe that about 100 or 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan. With some intention to leave, I knew the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had been rushed. I knew it was likely that thousands of Afghan allies would miss a chance out of the country, but I hadn’t realized the potential that we were going to be leaving Americans behind, too.

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S2: Yeah, it’s bananas right now. Not a surprise to any of us that there are still American citizens there. Like I tell you that it’s definitely more than hundreds there, thousands of American citizens, passport holders and green card holders still in Afghanistan. How do you know that? We have lists of them. So we were communicating with them on a on a daily basis, if not an hourly basis, trying to figure out how and when we can move them from one point to another

S1: to get people in Afghanistan from one point to another. Matt and his fellow volunteers are checking slack channels and spreadsheets. They’re getting help requests on social media and over text. They’re calling friends on the ground in Kabul to find out about Taliban checkpoints and chartering private planes.

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S2: Just what I think it’s starting to slow down. Someone else sends a message about there’s 300 more girls from this this American school or there’s another one hundred and fifty SIEV holders that are holed up in an undisclosed location.

S1: President Biden addressed the nation on Tuesday afternoon. He specifically noted the contributions of veterans like you, Matt. He thanked the, quote, 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?

S2: We’re committed to helping as many people as possible. I think 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. knownIn kind words. We need resources, feet, aircraft. We need action.

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S1: Today on the show, when the U.S. military left Afghanistan, hundreds of veterans and former government employees rushed in to help. Inside the volunteer effort to rescue vulnerable Afghans and American citizens as the Taliban closes in. I’m Diane Dimond, health reporter for The Washington Post, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick around. The volunteer group Matt Pelak is working with doesn’t have a head count or a centralized leadership, and it’s been called Digital Dunkirk. It evokes the famous evacuation of a French port where allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches during the Second World War.

S2: I haven’t called it that. I think it’s a catchy name and it seems appropriate. We just refer to ourselves as Afghanistan recovery.

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S1: Hmm. Let’s start getting under the hood of this work. What was the first day that you got involved? You remember what you were doing? What drove you in that moment to start working on this effort? Yeah, I think I think it was

S2: Sunday, two Sundays ago or three Sundays ago now, and it’s Sunday, the 15th. I was at home watching the news, sort of checking this out, and then started to see requests for help pop up on Facebook or other social media outlets. It ended up having someone that I knew reach out. So like, hey, I’ve got a few interpreters that were trying to get you know, they have this Civs. They can’t get into the gate. This this evacuation is is just starting to spin out of control. I just sort of jumped in and started helping, trying to find out information. Folks at the Truman National Security Project or of a fellow started to spin up as well. So this this mechanism just started to coalesce and people were just pumping information out. And the more that I read, the more I just sort of got involved in it. And then all of a sudden I was up all night Sunday night until two or three o’clock in the morning trying to figure out, hey, what gate can I send this person to? Who knows someone on the ground, hey, can we get this family through the gate and hitting dead ends and hitting following leads and going back and forth. And then while I’m working on this, other families are in the same situation. So it’s it’s it’s getting more chaotic and the problem is getting larger and larger. And I think it was Monday morning, our time, I was on my way to the gym and know these guys had finally gotten to the gate and there were these Turkish guards there and they wouldn’t let them through. They said they needed an American to call. And the guard said, hey, if an American calls, we’ll let you through. So I just I was like, give me the guy’s phone number. I’ll call I’ll call the guard. I’m an American service member. And I called this Turkish guard on the phone and told them that Sergeant First Class Pelak needed his interpreter brought into the base immediately. And it was kind of a shot in the dark. It seemed to have worked. That was the only time that that worked throughout the entire evacuation. But and that’s what drew me in. And after that, I was I just felt a call to service. And a lot of people I know are spinning up. And my initial reaction was almost to maybe stay away from it because I knew how I was going to feel emotionally after this. But it just the problems seem too large. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and get involved.

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S1: You were sergeant first class. Are all the folks participating, falling into the roles that they had in the military? Are there are there generals barking out orders or are there sergeants who are getting things done? Did you see yourself replicating in some ways the military structure?

S2: To be honest, no. And to be honest, the last thing we need in here are generals. That’s yeah. We if 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 flying colonels and above. That’s pretty much the the problem with Americans military today. I don’t want to get on my soapbox while you are on a podcast. Yeah, that’s a good point. It feels like it feels like there’s, you know, 250 to 300 core people that are that are that are running the system right now, that are that are absolutely essential parts of this mechanism. It’s not just veterans. There are a lot of folks who you can consider front lines, civilians, State Department employees, folks that worked at the CIA and similar organizations and folks that worked in organizations adjacent to there. So it’s it’s 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.

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S1: So imagine that we’re not talking now. We’re talking a couple of days ago and just taking you through a normal shift of being part of this, for lack of a better term, digital Dunkirk. Do you do you log on when you get off work? It’s 6:00 p.m. There’s a group messaging slack. And you you see all the messages that are posted and you grab an assignment. Are you getting work filtered out to you? Just walk through what the daily or realistically nightly routine was when doing this work.

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S2: I mean, is it’s still very much going on like today was just is. Isiah’s, that’s four days ago. We’re still in the in the midst of it very much and will be for the next week. But yeah, me for a day, you know, in my life for this doesn’t start after work. It starts at 7:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. when I get up and I check my computer, hey, there’s this group here or hey, where word is, there’s a flight 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 sort of transitioned to really trying to work in case management of sorts. 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 that can do that? And that’s it’s an all day it’s an all day process.

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S1: Can you tell us the story of someone that you helped Matt to get out of the country?

S2: I mean, I early on, I had a lot of people asking for help that was working with someone I got referred to work with, work with these folks directly. I’ve 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 on to 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 misconnection after misconnection. And we just wouldn’t give up, sending them, you know, maps over text message, sending messages about where to go, which gate to go to, at which time. And and then they sort of were just trapped in limbo. It was looking like they weren’t going to get through. And it was just kind of a defeating feeling. And then the next day, I got a text message. I was I took a break to go meet some friends and went to go to the bathroom and looked at my phone. And I got a text message that they got the family through and, you know, just started to cry. You know, I think there 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 like a like a ton of bricks. I hope that I get to meet this family one day just to, you know, shake, shake the guy’s hand and see them in person. You know, I don’t know.

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S1: We’re going to take a quick break. More in a minute with Matt Pelak. So you and your colleagues are trying to save lives from 7000 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?

S2: 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 they were it was a trap. I haven’t heard of just of a disaster of a situation where we send someone to a location and they were killed. With the exception of the suicide vests on at that at Abbey Gate,

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S1: Abbey Gate was the site of a bombing outside the airport in Kabul last week. 13 U.S. service members and as many as 170 civilians were killed in the blast.

S2: 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 Abu Ghaith that day or the day before, and people were waiting there for days to get it. That’s got to be the biggest. I don’t want to call it a failure, but knowing that you send someone somewhere and that it ended up dying as a result of that through no fault of your own, but it’s that that that that weighs on you,

S1: not 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 do you see digital Dunkirk as a sign of success or is a sign of government problems?

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S2: It’s multifaceted. The digital Dunkirk or 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 administration to plan for this evacuation. I’m not a foreign policy expert, but everybody I know who is smarter about this than I am. So we should have started in January. We could have started getting people out at 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, General 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.

S1: And when you say General Milley should resign, you’re talking about the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’s correct. Yeah. 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? I mean,

S2: 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 air space planes to get fuel and pick people up. It comes down to the Taliban, you know, sort of holding up their end of the bargain and allowing us to continue to evacuate people. Right. I mean, they make, you know, make no mistake about it. They could have killed everyone on the airport in Kabul while we were there last week, and they didn’t. So that’s something that we all need to realize. They’re not some ad hoc force now. I mean, they they occupied that city and they had the discipline to wait. And that that is that’s something that everyone needs to to recognize and notice.

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S1: The Taliban could have struck the airport, but they had self-interest not to write like 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 in this rescue effort, are you working with the Taliban or are you explicitly trying to cut deals with them?

S2: We haven’t. I think folks are in communication with certain people on the ground. I’m not sure who and in 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 that we’re trying to make. We put our pride and our 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.

S1: This whole effort sounds at times almost implausibly ad hoc, where you’ve got volunteers in 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. It does remind me, Matt, and 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?

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S2: I wish I had some hold music. I would put you on hold right now like we were a call center. I think we’re all surprised and shocked at the sheer scope and scale of this right now, I think 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.

S1: Matt, thanks so much for bringing us inside your effort, and it sounds like you’re off to do more work right after this.

S2: Yeah, I’m going to I’m going to jump back into it. I just hope everybody knows that there are an incredible group of Americans that are working night and day to help these people.

S1: Matt Pelak is a National Guardsman and veteran of the war in Iraq. He’s been spending his days and nights working the volunteer led Afghanistan recovery effort. That’s the show. What next is produced by Davis Land Line, a Schwarze Danielle Hewitt Carmel Delshad and the Incredible Mary Wilson. The team is led by Allison Benedikte and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Diane Dimond, longtime Slate podcast fan. We somehow lucked into filling in as your host today while Mary Harris is on vacation. I hope I didn’t break the show when I’m not hosting podcasts. I’m covering health policy for The Washington Post and tweeting about my cooking preferences and the coronavirus on Twitter. I’m at Diamond. Thanks so much for listening.