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Private group works to free Americans, locals loyal to U.S. from Afghanistan

By Zoya Mirza, Medill News Service
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Private group works to free Americans, locals loyal to U.S. from Afghanistan
Some of those who were helped in fleeing Afghanistan by Task Force Argo board a Kam Air plane that is about to leave Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in October. Photo courtesy of Task Force Argo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- In the late hours of a cold Saturday evening, Sadia Ali and her family sat huddled together in a car parked outside of a defunct federal office situated west of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Holding hands and clutching onto overstuffed backpacks that carried their most-precious belongings, they awaited a phone call that would give them a green light to approach the heavily armed Taliban who were guarding this checkpoint.

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This was the family's third attempt of fleeing Afghanistan after the formal withdrawal of the U.S. military and subsequent Taliban takeover. After two near-death experiences amid the chaos at the airport, Ali was determined to make this one work.

Soon, the phone rang, and a breathless woman's voice pierced through the anxious silence: "OK, one of you go approach them. Make sure you speak English because they're going to be communicating in different languages, and you want them to believe you're a U.S. citizen. And if they get aggressive in any way, don't argue. Just leave!"

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Ali approached the armed men with her husband, waving her blue passport and gesturing toward the car that was packed with her two children, siblings and parents, urging the Taliban militant to let them through. After a tense back and forth, the man signaled for the gate to open.

Ali and her family were just some of the 2,216 people who were evacuated safely from Afghanistan through the coordinated efforts of Task Force Argo, a network of American veterans and private citizens working toward rescuing Americans and vulnerable Afghans who previously assisted the U.S. government and are stuck in a country now under a Taliban regime.

These evacuations came before countries clamped down on accepting people from Afghanistan and before many nations required reassurances from the United States to let planes with those fleeing land on their soil.

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The operation completely relies on volunteer contributions made by people who have separate full-time jobs, but enter the realm of a self-described "Digital Dunkirk" at the end of their workday.

These volunteers coordinate with other members spread across the country, most of whom are veterans, through the signal app to keep messages secure, and help to compile an ever-growing database of people left behind in Afghanistan through communication relayed by trusted informants with years of active service.

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"Task Force Argo is one of the subgroups of the Digital Dunkirk effort, and we link it to operation Dunkirk from World War II because it, too, was a group of civilians rescuing soldiers on their private boats," said Rebecca, a veteran who is one of the lead organizers of the rescue mission, and a current federal employee who requested anonymity for her last name.

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"We're carrying out a similar mission, except it's all done over the phone. We're essentially doing the U.S. government's job alongside our daily day jobs -- with very little resources and very little money."

Rebecca was one of the two Task Force Argo members who coordinated Ali and her family's escape from Kabul in August.

She said that the idea of the rescue operation grew out of the distress she experienced after she saw the horrific footage of Afghans hanging onto a U.S. Air Force transport jet in a desperate attempt to escape, some falling to their death shortly after the plane took off.

What started out as a plan of action scribbled on a legal pad soon materialized into a whole organization once Rebecca started to reach out to her contacts in the military, the Department of Defense and other agencies.

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But her largest recruitment of volunteers came through a post she made on the Air Force Office of Special Investigations page on Facebook.

"I put out a request asking for handlers who could coordinate with Afghan families on the ground, data entry specialists, data scientists, people who could reach out to donors for funds. And, within a few hours, I had around 60 volunteers," Rebecca said.

By the first week of September, Task Force Argo had more than 184 people contributing to the operation, who had now curated a presence on social media and within the broader network of privately funded rescue operations being carried out in Afghanistan.

Currently, the operation serves to evacuate American citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents, Special Immigrant Visa and P1/P2 visa holders and applicants -- visa designations for Afghans who were affiliated with or worked for the U.S. government at any point -- plus their immediate families.

Only in rare circumstances does Task Force Argo help individuals who don't qualify for either of these categories, but are at-risk targets under the Taliban regime, such as journalists and female educators, according to Rob Tackett, a veteran and firefighter based in South Carolina who serves as a handler.

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Despite the organization's success in safely getting vulnerable Afghans onto a departing flight and their rigorous vetting process, it has not been able to win the full support of the U.S. State Department.

Jesse Jensen, co-president of Task Force Argo and a decorated veteran who served two years of combat tours in Afghanistan, said the State Department wasn't even aware of the total number of Americans and qualifying immigrant visa holders stuck in Afghanistan.

Moreover, he said, the State Department was hesitant to issue a "Do Not Object" letter or a "Non-Object Cable" that would allow these privately chartered planes to land in foreign host countries that were willing to take in Afghan refugees.

Though Secretary of State Antony Blinken did issue a blanket diplomatic letter Aug. 24 stating that the U.S. government had no objections to foreign governments accepting individuals from these flights and providing assistance to them, it also said the "United States does not make determinations of the immigration status of the individuals transported by these private or non-governmental organizations."

According to Jensen, many foreign heads of state were hesitant to accept refugees on the basis of just this letter and requested direct correspondence from the U.S. government or State Department.

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"Specific countries, rightfully so, want to make sure that they're not going to upset the United States government by accepting people from a foreign country that they're being asked by a private group of citizens to take. It's a completely rational concern," Jensen said.

As of now, the State Department has not agreed to issue country-specific letters directed to these foreign governments, leaving rescue operations such as Task Force Argo with people who could fill planes, but with no destination for them.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the State Department said these flights posed significant challenges, as no military personnel were on the ground to ensure the immigration eligibility of the passenger names provided by private rescue groups.

The spokesperson added that identity checks carried out upon the arrival of these planes also revealed that many passengers were not eligible for relocation to the United States and, in some cases, did not match the list of names provided by these groups, despite their best efforts.

However, the spokesperson did not provide any insight into the State Department's issuance of a Non-Object Cable, and called the evacuation and relocation effort a "monumental task."

Despite these obstacles, Task Force Argo remains committed to helping those in need and aims to keep raising more funds to sustain the objective of its mission.

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"My country has been in the headlines since my earliest memories, and I just had to watch it get bombed every day, and see Afghan lives reduced to numbers that didn't exist anymore," said Aishah Bostani, an Afghan-American based in New York whose extended family is trapped in Afghanistan.

"How do you make those numbers intimate to other people? You can't just manufacture care."

Bostani hopes that, like Ali's, her family, too, can make it out someday, and that people don't just stop caring.

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