The Digital Dunkirk volunteer effort to get stranded American citizens and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan needs more time, as the collaborative effort by military veterans and others faces challenges posed by government bureaucracy, a Taliban takeover, and a Biden administration deadline.
The mammoth effort includes hundreds of military veterans working with the Pentagon, the State Department, and other officials in Washington, D.C., and Kabul. A host of military contractors, retired spies, Pentagon veterans, international aid workers, journalists, activists, and others have also joined in the disparate efforts.
The broader effort seeks to get American citizens, Afghan interpreters and allies, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and recipients, and other vulnerable Afghans out of the country. The operation, which has swelled and includes many volunteers beyond Digital Dunkirk, also includes international aid groups and religious organizations.
The volunteers, largely based in the United States, use everything from encrypted conversations to FaceTime calls to connect with Americans and Afghans, guide them through the paperwork, connect them to U.S. personnel in Kabul, and get them to the airport, past Taliban checkpoints, through the crowds, past the security gate, into the airport, and on to flights.
Alex Plitsas, a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq War who worked as a defense civilian intelligence officer in Afghanistan, told the Washington Examiner: “Digital Dunkirk is one of several groups that have popped up since Kabul fell. It is a confederation of former national security professionals from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and intelligence community.”
“The reason why we need an extension past Aug. 31 is that while the administration’s statement that anyone who wants to get out can get out doesn’t match the facts on the ground,” Plitsas continued. “There are a number of American citizens who are trapped all over Afghanistan. They are unsure of how to get to the airport, and even when they’re getting there, the Taliban is stopping folks from getting through.”
The volunteer efforts have grown increasingly difficult, and those who try to help have grown desperate as the Taliban tighten their grip on Kabul and the U.S. begins to withdraw military forces before next week’s deadline. The Taliban are blocking Afghans from getting through their checkpoints almost entirely, and many Americans have been threatened and beaten. Once a would-be evacuee makes it past the Taliban, they must make it through the crush of a desperate crowd and security gates manned by U.S., U.K., and other allied soldiers. Sometimes, the Taliban threat, crowds, and bureaucratic hurdles have proven to be nearly insurmountable.
The goal is to get evacuees on planes, whether they're U.S. military flights like C-17s, allied flights from countries such as Qatar and the UAE, or a host of charter flights.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that 82,300 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including 19,000 on 90 U.S. military and coalition flights in the past 24 hours. Blinken said the U.S. estimated 6,000 American citizens total still in Afghanistan. He said 4,500 have been safely evacuated along with immediate family members, and the U.S. had also been in direct contact with 500 additional Americans in the last 24 hours.
Blinken said those numbers did not include U.S. green card holders nor U.S. legal permanent residents.
He said the U.S. had used phone banks and text banks to reach Americans, making 45,000 calls and sending 20,000 emails to enrolled individuals. Blinken said the U.S. would continue to get remaining Americans and Afghan allies out of the country after troops leave at the end of August, noting the Taliban promised to allow these people to leave the country.
Plitsas said the Digital Dunkirk effort had numerous successes, pointing to a U.S. special forces interpreter who contacted him through social media from Kandahar after the Taliban threatened him and his family. The interpreter fled to Kabul, and Digital Dunkirk worked with him to get his family there, coordinating with U.S. government personnel to evacuate him successfully. But Plitsas said there were harrowing stories too, including a family of Americans, including one in a wheelchair, who was beaten by the Taliban as they tried to get into the airport.
“Everyone who is in these groups have spent some time in Afghanistan the last 20 years. The country collapsed rapidly, and a lot of people in-country don’t know what to do. While the administration is saying that everyone can get out who wants to get out, a lot of people simply don’t know what to do,” Plitsas said.
He added: “All of the heroic and difficult work of getting people evacuated is being done by the Department of Defense and the State Department, and we couldn’t be any more proud of the work that those folks are doing on the ground, and we’re happy to continue to support them.”
No One Left Behind, formed to assist Afghans and others who have assisted the U.S., has spent years trying to get Afghan interpreters and allies out and has been heavily involved in the recent evacuation efforts. An assortment of other similar groups has popped up to help.
The Carter Center, the Truman National Security Project, Sayara International, International Refugee Assistance Project, and many others have also joined the evacuation effort. Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, and other schools have also joined. Scores of reporters and journalists have fought to get Afghans out, and media companies successfully arranged for dozens or hundreds of people to evacuate. Numerous congressional offices and staffers have worked long hours filling out Google Docs, connecting with those stranded in Kabul, and putting in calls to the State Department.
Benjamin Bryant, a former Pentagon official helping with the Digital Dunkirk effort, told the Washington Examiner: “I think it’s clear that increases in ANY of the resources we need: capacity, manpower, flexibility, and TIME would benefit this effort. Any efforts that can extend beyond Aug. 31, whether announced in advance or not, will benefit our effort.”
He said the Digital Dunkirk helps “hundreds of families, who are being directly touched and advocated for in these efforts, with a variety of results.”
“One group caught in the donut hole — immediate family of Americans or green cardholders who can be arbitrarily excluded by the Taliban and even American or British forces when the instructions come down as ‘citizens’ only, even when they hold valid visas,” Bryant said. “And in many cases, the American citizen relative, a husband or father, won’t leave their spouse or child at the checkpoint or gate, as we can all understand. I worry those will fall under the administrative category of those who ‘didn’t want’ to leave. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Adam DeMarco, part of the similar Allied Airlift effort, told the Washington Examiner: “Each of us as our own emotional moments of victory and triumph. There is no better feeling than seeing a text message from an Afghan ally — who we have been working with for days to get them safely to the airfield — of them on a C-17 waving goodbye to near-certain death en route to the land of opportunity towards the promise of freedom.”
DeMarco added: “Unfortunately, with an operation of this magnitude, we have run into several roadblocks. There’s a military adage, ‘the enemy gets a vote,’ and that’s what we are seeing in the ground.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday, “If any of you are hearing from American citizens who can't reach us, give me their contact information, and we will get in contact with them.”
The Washington Examiner provided the White House nearly two dozen potential U.S. green card holders and over a dozen purported U.S. passport holders a Digital Dunkirk volunteer believed were still stuck in Afghanistan.
“As you know, the situation on the ground in Kabul is increasingly difficult. The U.S. government is working around the clock to evacuate U.S. citizens, diplomatic staff from U.S. and partner nations, and vulnerable Afghan nationals,” Amanda Finney, chief of staff for the Biden press office, told the Washington Examiner. “While we cannot make any commitments about this group, we will make sure the State Department has this information.”
A former U.S. Army veteran who has been helping in the Digital Dunkirk efforts told the Washington Examiner, “This was not inevitable. Lots of innocent people are about to be brutally murdered because they helped the United States, and it didn’t have to be this way.”
The veteran, who served in Afghanistan, added: “Our government promised these men for over a decade that if they served loyally alongside us, they could take their families to America. And they did. And then the Biden administration just cut them loose.”
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