I struggled with this intensely, especially after reading hundreds of emails with personal pleas, and poring over documentation of entire Afghan families with real faces and identities. I could not do it. But I had to do it. Along with my co-worker, Faisal Al Mutar, I ultimately did pick just five based on a basic evaluation of relative risk and ease of extraction. The moral weight of such a decision was overwhelming. We should have never been in a position to make such a call in the first place.
On Saturday night I had just sat down to have a drink with a friend when he got a call. He apologized for having to take it, but it was urgent: it was about the Afghan women’s orchestra. They were stuck in Kabul and desperate to get out. He was involved in the effort to extract them.
Twenty minutes later, we ordered another martini.
I’ve been thinking a lot these past two weeks about luck. The luck of where we are born. The luck of the parents we are born to. And, right now, the luck of who we know.
Knowing — or having proximity to someone who knows my well-placed friend, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — is a matter of life or death for untold numbers of Afghans.
The question of who will live and who will die — part of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that all Jews say on the high holy days, which are just around the corner — is supposed to be in the hands of God. But right now, for so many Afghans, the answer to that question is in the hands of the Taliban. The chance to live relies on Americans: those who have the luck to live in freedom and those who are determined to right what the Biden administration has gotten so horribly wrong.
Melissa Chen is one of those people.
Melissa co-founded an organization called Ideas Beyond Borders, which digitizes and translates English books and articles into Arabic. And not just any books: Books like Orwell’s ‘“Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now,” and a graphic novel based on John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” Works that promote reason, pluralism and liberty. Suffice it to say the translators she works with in places like Egypt, Syria and Iraq do so at great risk.
Because of her connections in the Middle East — and because she is the kind of person who lives by her principles — it did not surprise me that she found herself involved in the efforts to save Afghans from the horrors of the Taliban. She shares some of the details of those remarkable efforts in the essay below.
The operation to get American allies out of Kabul has been dubbed the Underground Railroad and Digital Dunkirk. But I can’t help but think of the MS St. Louis. That’s the ship that came to this country in 1939 packed with more 900 Jews fleeing Germany. To our country’s eternal shame we turned the ship around and into the arms of the Third Reich. — BW
For the past two weeks I have been part of a 21st century Underground Railroad. We are a ragtag group — combat veterans, human rights activists, ex-special forces, State Department officials, intelligence agents, members of Congress, non-profit organizers, and private individuals with the resources to charter planes and helicopters — who have stepped into the vacuum left by the Biden administration.
Today the Pentagon announced the end of our 20-year war in Afghanistan. But there are hundreds of Americans and an estimated 250,000 Afghan allies who remain trapped there. Many of these Afghans, due to the nature of their work, their religious beliefs, their minority ethnic status or even just their appearance (say, sporting tattoos anywhere on their bodies), see escape as a matter of life and death. As Kabul descended into chaos, their pleas for help leaving were largely met with bureaucratic silence.
The operation to save them began before the Taliban were seen riding bumper cars in amusement parks and occupying the presidential palace. Many veterans and civilians who had deep ties to the country were under no illusions about the nature of the Taliban and what a deal with them would mean for the people who had worked with the U.S.
Long before Kabul fell, I noticed that military friends started using Facebook and Twitter to figure out how to help their “terps” — interpreters, linguists and translators who served alongside them during their tours in Afghanistan. WhatsApp groups, email threads, and ad hoc task forces with their own central command centers sprang up spontaneously. Google docs were cobbled together to compile and share resources for individuals assisting their Afghan friends in their evacuation and eventual resettlement. No one was relying on a White House that had voluntarily closed Bagram Airbase or a commander-in-chief who, as of last month, was assuring the American public that a Taliban takeover “is not inevitable.”
No One Left Behind, a charity that was founded to help interpreters through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and resettle them in the U.S., has been at the vanguard of these efforts. Human Rights Foundation and Human Rights First were very effective in helping activists and dissidents secure political asylum. AfghanEvac, a self-organized group of beltway insiders and outsiders, have been logistical ninjas, chartering planes and requesting landing rights in neighboring countries. The Commercial Task Force set up shop in a conference room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., and has so far helped evacuate 5,000 Afghan refugees. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton set up a war room office to take over the duties and responsibilities that the State Department had abdicated. Democratic Rep. Andy Kim had his office set up an email account to assist those seeking help evacuating allies.
And then there were the extraction teams like Task Force Pineapple and Task Force Dunkirk, informal, volunteer groups of U.S. veterans who took matters in their own hands to launch dangerous secret missions to save hundreds of at-risk Afghan allies and their families.