Two months ago, Rambo, the code name for a commander in the Afghan National Army’s Special Operations Command, and seven other commandos were kidnapped by the Taliban. A video of the commandos’ execution was sent to members of Operation North Star, an all-volunteer organization working tirelessly to secure safe haven for thousands of Afghan allies abandoned by the State Department in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
After watching the video hundreds of times in search of Rambo, volunteers “assumed the worst,” according to Ben Owen, a former U.S. Army infantryman and president of Flanders Fields, a nonprofit that raises funds for evacuation organizations Operation North Star and Task Force Argo.
Two weeks ago, Flanders Fields received a request to acquire a safe house in Afghanistan for an unidentified high-value target. An hour later, Owen received a pixelated photo of a familiar Afghan man being embraced by his family members on the safe house floor. Rambo had escaped Taliban captivity.
Maintaining Rambo’s safety presents constant monetary and logistical struggles for Flanders Fields and Operation North Star. Rambo “is essentially trapped in a meat grinder with his family,” according to a former U.S. Army recon platoon sergeant and Operation North Star volunteer we will call Duke. Rambo had inadequate time to apply for the documents the State Department requires to enter the United States prior to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Applying for the passport the Taliban require to exit Afghanistan would also put Rambo’s life at risk.
The only solution, according to Duke, is for the U.S. government to set up “a surged second wave of evacuations” to a host nation where at-risk Afghans like Rambo can “be further vetted by the State Department.”
Every day, Duke receives images and videos of Afghans, including children, executed by the Taliban. He sends the gruesome files to Amnesty International to document the Taliban’s relentless violence against the 10,000 to 100,000 Coalition Forces allies who remain in Afghanistan. Much of the proof he receives now comes from Rambo, whose “commando brothers [are] being tortured and killed,” Duke says. “It breaks my heart … that [the U.S. government] would leave this man and his family. Nobody at North Star is going to leave him. Never.”
Afghan Stories Paint Grim Reality
An interpreter, whom we will call Nasir, is one of around 500 people Operation North Star has successfully exfiltrated from Afghanistan. After working with the U.S. Army for 10 years, Nasir was one of 18,800 interpreters mired in the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa backlogs when Kabul fell.
In early August, he began receiving threats from the Taliban, who said they would take Nasir’s 10- and 13-year-old daughters as wives, “execute his pregnant wife, and cut the baby out of her in front of him before they kill him,” Owen said.
On Aug. 23, Nasir and his family joined the throngs waiting outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, hoping to be evacuated from Afghanistan. The first day, his three-year-old son was nearly killed after being trampled in a stampede incited by Taliban gunfire. The following day, Nasir suffered heatstroke and lost consciousness.
On Aug. 25, hellbent on getting through to the Americans, Owen says Nasir “plowed through Taliban” with his vehicle, which was riddled with bullet holes by the time he arrived at the meet-up point Owen had arranged with American contacts. After a tense handover period, Nasir and his family were brought to a U.S. facility where they remain now until Nasir’s background check and SIV is processed.
Another man’s evacuation story, who we will call Hassan, nearly ended in tragedy when the Operation North Star safe house he shared with a group of six Afghan Christians was raided by the Taliban. As an LGBT activist and gay man, Hassan was in serious danger when the Taliban, which reportedly maintains a kill list of homosexual Afghans, took him into custody. Miraculously, Hassan talked his way to freedom.
During eight weeks of shared hardship in their safe house, the leader of the Christian group became Hassan’s close friend. The group of seven has been evacuated to a third country, where they await the extensive vetting, including biometric identification and a lie detector test, that must occur prior to entry in the United States.
Operation North Star’s manifest includes about 30 dual citizens, and around 2,000 Afghan allies, government personnel, activists, minorities, and policewomen who are stuck in Afghanistan. Around 90 percent of these individuals do not possess the State Department paperwork required to enter the United States. For enemies of the Taliban, awaiting visa processing and vetting in Afghanistan is a dangerous proposition.
Just last week, when Feroza’s interpreter husband was killed by the Taliban, she also lost the chance to use the SIV program he qualified for. Now a widow in a country she cannot escape, Feroza cannot work or receive an education.
“Had the State Department not impeded every effort to evacuate [Feroza’s husband] and his family,” Owen told the Washington Examiner, “he’d still be alive.”
In July, U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Doug Ramsdell received a call from his former colleague, an Afghan commando we will call Noor Mohammad, who needed assistance leaving Afghanistan with his imperiled family as the Taliban gained ground in the country. Ramsdell jumped in headfirst to save his colleague, and Operation 620 was born. By mid-August, Noor Mohammad’s family of 10 had become a family of 260.
The Afghans on Ramsdell’s early manifest were Taliban targets, backed by U.S. military personnel willing to vouch for their honorable service to the United States, but none met the criteria to apply for the SIV program, which is limited to interpreters and personnel directly employed “by or on behalf of” the U.S. government. Ramsdell pursued Priority-1, Priority-2, and Humanitarian Parole visas in order to ensure these forgotten allies reach safety.
The day prior to the Aug. 26 bombing at the Kabul airport, Ramsdell directed his group to travel by bus to Mazar-i-Sharif. On their nine-hour overnight journey, the group went through 16 Taliban checkpoints. At a stop outside the city, one bus was robbed under the guise of taxation. Several Afghans were pulled off the bus that followed. Under interrogation, they thanked the Taliban for “sav[ing] [them] from the wicked western philosophy,” Ramsdell said. They were allowed back on the bus.
When plans to fly the group out of Afghanistan did not materialize, Ramsdell located safe houses and optimized security measures. Over the following weeks, the organization continued to grow. Today, 620 Afghans, including teachers, medics, and aircrew chiefs, are putting their faith in Ramsdell’s team to find them safe haven outside their homeland.
Despite constant efforts from Ramsdell’s all-volunteer team to provide for their safety, more than 50 Afghans from Operation 620’s original manifest are missing. Ramsdell says they have been “disappeared” by Taliban hit squads, who have access to biometric data and personnel lists left behind by the U.S.
For a time, the Taliban’s stranglehold on media kept evidence of these reprisals from reaching Western audiences. Finally, last month, Human Rights Watch reported having “credible information on over 100 killings” of former Afghan military, police, and intelligence personnel in four of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces between Aug. 15 and Oct. 31.
Diminishing Funds, Increasing Needs
Due to shortcomings with the SIV program, a chaotic withdrawal, and a lack of assistance to stranded allies or the aid groups assisting them, Afghan allies stuck in Afghanistan face constant danger with little hope for their future. Evacuation groups working to bring them to safety need millions of dollars to transport Afghans to host countries where they can await visa processing and vetting, and to support and sponsor Afghans as they await humanitarian parole adjudication. They also need assistance from the U.S. government.
As it stands, Operation 620 and Operation North Star spend between $12 and $30 per person every day to provide protection, food, water, and safe houses for at-risk Afghans who are hunted in their home country for their service to the United States. The costs to these groups will likely increase as winter and a devastating food crisis arrive.
At present, both groups are struggling to meet their funding needs. Operation 620 is currently $95,000 in the red. Operation North Star has twice run out of funds, severely affecting their ability to assist those in dire need. Even as funding diminishes, the number of struggling Afghans does not. Owen says he receives “thousands of messages” from Afghan allies in need of aid every day.