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A Digital Dunkirk: Veterans Online Scramble to Get People Out of Afghanistan

DENVER — Joe Saboe pressed his fingers against his brow in exhaustion and leaned over a laptop as he tried to do what had been drilled into him over and over when he was an Army infantry officer: Leave no one behind.

“Roger, I’ve got six AmCits, at least six,” he said into his cellphone, using shorthand for American citizens, while simultaneously texting with a military source in Kabul, Afghanistan. “I can get them to the rally point at wheels up, but they’re not going to leave without their families, I need to make that happen.”

Mr. Saboe, 36, deployed to Iraq years ago and now is the chief executive of a small start-up and a youth soccer coach. But this past week he became an unofficial commander in an impromptu network of veterans and citizen volunteers who came together to execute an ad hoc mission to get American citizens and Afghan allies safely out of Kabul before the American airlift ends.

His group of about 200 volunteers, which calls itself Team America, is one of several grass-roots efforts that sprang out of the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal. The swift collapse of Afghanistan was deeply troubling to many in the United States, but military veterans felt a whole different level of anguish as they started getting pleas for help from Afghan interpreters and others they worked with.

They organized what many call a “digital Dunkirk.” Using software often designed for mundane office work, along with satellite maps and encrypted messaging apps, the groups act like guide services for escaping Afghans. They channel information to hundreds on the ground trying to get on a flight, providing real-time intelligence on the best routes to avoid Taliban checkpoints, sending them through overlooked alleys and sometimes through sewage canals.

“It’s really an underground railroad,” Scott Mann, a retired Army Special Forces officer leading a different group, which calls itself Task Force Pineapple, said in a video message to supporters on Thursday.

In many cases, the groups are in contact with the military and State Department officials at the Kabul airport, alerting them when American citizens and green card holders arrive and providing physical descriptions so troops at the gates can pluck the evacuees out of the throng.

Together, these groups have helped thousands to safety.

“This was born out of desperation,” Mr. Saboe said as he scrolled through his latest list of Afghans trying to get out. “A lot of us knew people who needed to get out, and there was no one in the American government who seemed to be giving any guidance. There has been almost no coordination.”

It was 1 a.m. in Kabul, and in his home office on a suburban street of white picket fences, running on almost no sleep, he was coordinating a covert pickup from a neighborhood 7,200 miles away.

The group’s secure digital feed was full of photos and videos sent by Afghans coordinating movements and posting the current conditions at gates and checkpoints, but Mr. Saboe was guarded about specific methods and routes, saying he did not want to endanger people who still needed help.

On Thursday, suicide bomb blasts hit one of the airport gates. Before the attack, Team America had acted on intelligence warnings and moved 300 family groups back from the area. But others had stayed near the airport and been injured. A few hours later, the group got word from a military source that the gate was open again, and began coordinating between an official inside the airport and families preparing to make an attempt to get there.

“I’ll give you the grid. The lift is coming for them at 0400, so we need them to be ready, immediate family only, they won’t take anyone else,” Mr. Saboe said on a conference call to a small group of volunteers scattered across the country who were communicating directly with Afghan families.

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One member of the group asked about interpreters who had special immigrant visas but were not citizens. There were hundreds waiting for rescue.

Mr. Saboe shook his head. “They aren’t taking them, AmCits only. As far as I know, they are cutting sling on the rest.”

One of the people trying to get out of Kabul this past week was Nemat, who worked for years as an interpreter for the Marine Corps. He got a green card in 2015 and is now attending college in Texas, but he was visiting family in Kabul when the Taliban took over.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “If any of the Taliban recognized me, it would be the end of my life.”

Civilian flights out of the country were canceled. Nemat, who did not want to use his last name because he feared retaliation by the Taliban, stripped off his American clothes and put on a traditional Afghan long shirt and turban. He hid the paperwork showing he worked with the United States in a well. He tried to contact the State Department but got no response, so he texted the Marines he used to work with.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan


Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

His message reached Phil Porter, a project manager in North Carolina who had served with him as a Marine officer.

“The terps we worked with are heroes; we could not have done our mission without them,” Mr. Porter said, using a military shorthand for interpreter. “We knew we had to help in any way we could.”

Mr. Porter found Team America, and together sources were able to guide Nemat on the safest route to the airport. He passed through Taliban checkpoints with his American passport hidden in his mother’s clothes and arrived at an airport gate.

“My brother pushed me through the crowd, I was holding up my passport and the Marines pulled me over the wire,” Nemat said on Thursday. “I looked back and saw my mother crying, my brother, too. I am happy to be safe but I am very worried for them.”

Mr. Porter was so thankful for the work the group had done for Nemat that he joined the effort and is now helping others.

“It is the least we can do,” he said. “There are people who saved American lives.”

Zohra Hunter also joined the group after it helped her family, which had a pending special immigrant visa.

“They had already made two attempts to get to the airport, and gotten beaten by the Taliban and shot at,” said Ms. Hunter, an American citizen who was born in Afghanistan but now lives in Virginia. Two of her sister’s children and her mother were trampled at one of the gates and injured, she said.

Finally, with Team America coordinating with the military on the ground, the family got on a sanctioned shuttle to the airport and was let through a gate.

Her relatives are now in Qatar. She is unsure where they will go next.

The groups trying to rescue Afghans are growing increasingly desperate as the Aug. 31 pullout draws near. Many have pushed for the deadline to be extended, but on Thursday, in the wake of bombings that killed 13 United States military members and more than 170 Afghans, President Biden reiterated that he would hold to the date.

Early Friday morning, Team America guided a group of 40 Afghans, many of them American citizens, to a gate at the airport. When they arrived, Mr. Saboe said, American officials refused to let them in, directing them to another, more dangerous gate. After several frantic calls, Mr. Saboe was able to talk directly to an official at the original gate. There, 19 Afghans went through. Many of their family members were turned away.

“There is no mercy at this point; it’s becoming increasingly hard. Nothing is coordinated and the security situation has made everything worse,” Mr. Saboe said, sounding exhausted. “And we still have so many people waiting. We just need more time.”

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