he Signal channel begins to heat up late at night.
In the hours before dawn in Kabul, before the daily crush and chaos resumes at the airport where tens of thousands of desperate Afghans and American citizens vie to reach transport planes on the other side of armed gates, the members of the #AfghanEvac group share information they hope will enable friends and former colleagues to escape the reach of Taliban revenge.
The chat is frantic, a hypnotizing, disorienting kaleidoscope of spy-thriller drama (“anyone got any helos sitting around?” “I have one American citizen who won’t abandon his family of 15. If I secure a private jet, can we get them into the base?”); grinding logistical minutiae (“Can anyone remind me where the petrol station is near Abbey Gate?”); jerry-rigged efforts to paper over failures of traditional leadership (“I’ve been pushing DC admin for solutions…here is a draft of a giant poster we could make to show who is being let in where”, “Use visual markers so people can be picked out of the crowd. Balloons have been working well — kids carry them to the gate and then parents can lift them up for visibility”); and gut-wrenching personal details (“Please delete any tweets with my handle. I am getting death threats and need to have my phone free,” “lone female with no food or water for 48 hours, multiple fainting spells over last 24 hours,” “I have my entire family trying to get in! What do I do? There are 3 babies!!!”)
On balance the desperate appeals far outnumber the responses that proffer actual help. Even former chiefs of staff to Cabinet secretaries find themselves begging for basic info: “any word on what gates are open right now?” Nevertheless, the diverse group of volunteers — veterans, Hill staffers, private sector employees, members of the intelligence community and human rights advocates — persists through disappointment, frustration, and panic. Driven by anger at their own government’s failures and haunted by personal experience in the decades-long conflict, participating in the #AfghanEvac group is a chance at redemption, to wrench something meaningful from the wreckage of “nation-building.” One member describes it as “the finest organization I have been a part of.”
I joined the group on August 20, for much the same reason as the rest of the roughly 100 members of the group: The man who served as my interpreter in 2009 when I led a platoon of soldiers in Kandahar Province, who risked his life for me and my men, is in mortal danger.
I have been in touch with “Rock” (for his safety, I cannot reveal his real name) for years, but the pace of our communication has picked up dramatically since the Taliban came back to power. The members of #AfghanEvac helped me guide Rock from the northern province of Kunduz, past Taliban checkpoints (a map has circulated on the channel that shows Taliban checkpoints around the capital, almost like Waze for refugees) to a safehouse in Kabul where he was able to renew his Afghanpassport.
But he remains stuck on the wrong side of the walls at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
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