The end of our Afghanistan adventure was worse than my most pessimistic predictions. Since 2008 I have insisted there was only one way the Afghanistan conflict could end and that would be with an accommodation of the Taliban. I never imagined that the Taliban would sweep the board and help us extricate ourselves from the country in the most amateurish Non-Combatant Operation (NEO) ever executed by the United States military.
I first got wind of the impending disaster on the 28th of July when a freelancer friend of mine asked if he could provide my contact information to a man in Zaranj, the capitol of Nimroz province, who wanted me to apply for a visa on his behalf. I checked with my former interpreter from Nimroz, now a resident of California, about the man in question and it turned out he was a resident of Zaranj, but had worked for the contractor GRS, not me. But I did learn about the new P1/P2 visa program which would open a route to the United States for Afghans who were not interpreters but had worked for Americans in other rolls.
On the 6th of August I started receiving a flood of emails from Afghans in Nimroz province (in the southwest), Nangarhar province (in the east), Balkh province (in the north), and Kabul. All of them wanted P2 visa applications started for them but not all of them qualified.
The guidance on who could recommend visa’s is as follows: “For non-governmental organizations (NGO) and media organizations that were not funded by the U.S. government, but are headquartered in the United States, the senior-most U.S. citizen employee of that organization may make a referral”. As a regional manager I had Chief of Party status, according to the State Department, which was the excuse they used to get me to stop wearing a pistol to provincial reconstruction meetings. My old company CADG backed me up by providing proof of employment letters within 24 hours of my requests.
As the Taliban started taking provincial capitals the trickle of Afghans reaching out to me became a flood. In addition, my former interpreter from Nimroz province called to tell me he had sent his wife and four children to Afghanistan when his mother-in-law fell ill. They were stuck in Zaranj and the two youngest, who were born in California, only spoke English. He needed help so we organized a WhatsApp group to guide the family back to Kabul and into the airport. My favorite war correspondent Michael Yon, and the owner of CADG Steve Shaulis, got the family to Kabul. Getting them through the Marine perimeter became the problem, despite the children having American passports and the mother a permanent resident card they were not allowed into the airport.
I was podcasting daily during the Kabul NEO with the Mensa Brothers on All Marine Radio and updating the audience regularly on the plight of my friend’s family and the travails my visa applicants were facing outside the Kabul Airport. On the third day of the evacuation (August 18th) a listener put me in touch with a with a former Marine who was (I assume) a contractor working for the State Department inside the evacuation center. The next day I contacted another former Marine working inside the evacuation center. On the 20th of August I received a call from an old friend in Langley, Virginia asking if I had a “useful man” in Kabul. I had just been chatting with my old friend N who was a fixer at the Kabul embassy back when I ran the guard force. Mr. N is one of the most useful guys you could find in Kabul as he had the ability to acquire or do anything asked of him. The first thing he said to me when we connected on signal was “the fucking Taliban took all my houses and cars and they have closed the banks too and I cannot stay here with them”. I do miss Kabul at times.
On the 20th of August I had one visa applicant through the process, seven complete applications in the process, and eleven other applications that were not complete and not submitted. My Langley friend (we went through the Marine Corps officer training pipeline together) sent my useful man a message on the Signal app dropping my name and telling him to sit tight. That was cool and now one of the richest sketchy dudes from Kabul owes me. I placed my approved visa guy on a target list telling the Marines where he thought he was in the crowd and what he was wearing. I asked about my other applicants and was told they were on it.
Steve and Michael had done the same thing with their contacts inside the evacuation center and had the fix in to get our California family through the gate. I could feel the momentum going our way and went the sleep that night convinced we salvage something positive from the Afghanistan debacle.
Then everything turned to shit.
My former Terp’s wife and children were again turned away and the wife told us she was not risking taking the children through the Taliban lines again. The Marines had not found my family either which I deduced from the panicked messages waiting for me when I woke up. Then I received several emails from my applicants saying they had notifications from the embassy telling them to report to the Abbey Gate for processing. That is news that falls under the category of too good to be true, so I asked them to send screen shots. It did not take an evidence technician to see they were all the same screen shot. The notification system the embassy was using had been compromised and there were now 100,000 Afghans standing outside the airport with embassy notifications on their cell phones.
Adding to the confusion was a message from one of my contacts in the evacuation center which is pasted below
Please have a current USAID official submit this referral.
Based on the information that you have provided, this individual and their immediate family members may be eligible for a P2 referral to the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program if they were employed by a U.S.-based non-governmental organization in Afghanistan. P-2 referrals are intended for certain Afghans who are affiliated with the United States through employment, but who do not qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). It is not possible for individuals to self-refer to the program; the senior-most U.S. citizen employee of the non-governmental organization for which an Afghan individual worked must submit the referral. More information is available at: https://www.state.gov/u-s-refugee-admissions-program-priority-2-designation-for-afghan-nationals/. Completed forms should be sent to ATF-TF3@state.gov with the subject “P2 Referral.” Additional guidance will be provided to the individual(s) you referred at the email address you provide for them.
State Department Afghanistan Task Force – People at Risk
There are no current USAID officials who would have any knowledge of me or the Afghans who worked for me. The USAID program officials managing the projects I worked in Afghanistan were Afghans, the USAID officials I would (rarely) see outside the wire were contractors. What the Task Force was asking me to do was find an official from USAID willing to perjure him or herself on behalf of an American he doesn’t know to support an Afghan he has never met. It was at this point I started recognizing the sure signs of a massive clusterfuck.
I now had five families from outside Kabul waiting at the airport gates, two families in Kabul who spent their days outside the airport and seven families making their way towards Kabul from points west and north. I was still working with some of the applicants to get their paperwork in order and being ever the optimist, I told them all to not fear. The Marines were at the airport and would sort things out soon. On the daily podcast we said the same thing – one of the four of us had been involved in every Non-Combatant Evacuation the Marine Corps has conducted since Vietnam. We knew how it’s done and what we were seeing on the ground was the abandonment of every lesson we had learned about conducting these operations starting with the imperative of standoff for the screeners.
It was clear to me that my two contacts in the evacuation center were exhausted, overwhelmed, and that the evacuation would end before the 31st of August. The next few days were a blur, I was coaxing my Afghans to be patient, I was waiting for the Marines to get organized enough that they could start focusing on the people there were sent there to take out which would be Americans, green card holders, and Afghans with a legitimate SIV or P1 or P2 applications. That never happened. The inevitable attack by ISIS sealed the fate of those Afghans, the ones who put their skin in our game, and they were now screwed.
Only 705 of the 18,000 Afghan visa applicants were evacuated. An estimated three-quarters of the people we evacuated were not visa applicants or green card holders. The Kabul NEO was a miserable failure, and an educated guess would point to the 6,938 mile screwdriver driven by micromanagers in the White House Tank taking stock in the good idea fairy. I know all the super geeky technology we now have in abundance looks cool in Hollywood movies, but it allows for micromanagement by the mouth breathers who lurk in every higher headquarters. When you have too much supervision from on high you get the results we got in the Kabul NEO: failure with zero accountability.
We failed to bring the Afghans who proved their loyalty to the United States by putting their lives on the line out with us as promised. Instead, we evacuated tens of thousands of unknown Afghans who can never be screened or vetted because there are no records against which to vet anyone.
My old fixer Mr. N got the Turkish army to give him a ride to the civilian terminal where they put him on a Turkish military flight with a bunch of other Afghans who, like Mr. N, were wise enough to facilitate and partner with Turkish companies during the reconstruction boom. As I said he is a very useful man. I’m still trying to get him a visa though because the one thing I want to see before I die is Mr. N having a night on the town in Las Vegas.
We not only failed to accomplish the mission we lost eleven Marines, a navy corpsman, and an army sergeant in the process and under circumstances which were completely avoidable. Yet after the attack on the Kabul airport there was still hope. One of my insiders sent the email pasted in below:
Apologize the delay brother — it’s been an exhausting week. At the moment, here’s the word;
1. Gates are closing due to troop withdrawal and retrograde operations
2. State Department has significantly halted processing any SIV/P2 cases, US Passports are being accepted at limited capacity due to gate closures
3. All resources have been exhausted due to security and accessibility issues
His best bet is to get his family to the Abbey gate (canal side). Make a sign that says “Gy Tate”. He is my guy on the ground. His Marines know to look for that sign.
The signs did not work, my Afghan families who had submitted the proper paperwork, had paid the $3,000 for required medical exams and clearance, and had already been issued visa’s never made it past the gate. Apparently female sports teams made it in, a collection of Special Forces dudes started the Pineapple express to get their people inside. That was no doubt rewarding for them but their victories came the at the expense of the Afghans who were qualified, had done the paperwork, had waited their turn, and who face legitimate threats if they returned home. I’m not being bitter, I would have done the exact same thing had I been in their shoes.
The Kabul NEO was a fiasco and it did not come remotely close to achieving the mission assigned which was to get American citizens, allies, and Afghans who had applied for Visas under the SIV P1 or P2 program out. We did not get all the Americans or allies out, and we barely made a dent in the visa applicants.
It is now time to rethink our military. I am not comfortable having an army capable of fighting 20 years without a declaration of war. I no longer trust our military leadership or our civilian masters to do what is best for the country instead of what is best for themselves.
I was hoping for a win – getting one family would have a victory of sorts, getting a dozen out would have been better. But the confusion generated by trying to conduct a NEO from Kabul International and not Bagram Airbase crushed any hope of getting the Afghans who earned the right to become Americans out as we had promised. And just to rub it in good and hard the general who headed this debacle arranged to have a portrait of himself taken as “the last man out”. I was hoping for a win but what I got was a kick in the balls from an organization that has lost its way and is no longer worthy of our trust or confidence.