Escape From Afghanistan – War on the Rocks

Editor’s Note: We have published a members-only podcast about this article on the WarCast feed. This special members-only podcast series will feature the stories of efforts to help Afghan airmen escape from the country after the Taliban takeover.

 

 

Sunday Aug. 15, 2021 was another hot and cloudy day in Northern Virginia. That morning, I received a message from my friend Massoud, who had just landed back at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan. Massoud and I had recently served together in the famed Afghan Special Mission Wing PC-12 Squadron (Call Sign TUFON). As the last commander of the wing’s Special Operations Advisory Team-Central, I had befriended a number of Afghans during my deployment, yet my closest relationships were with Massoud, Stone, Mo, and Erfan. These men had trained me on the PC-12, flown combat missions with me, and, in doing so, became my brothers.  

In the days leading up to the fall of Kabul, the Taliban employed an aggressive messaging campaign to minimize resistance within the city and strike terror into the Afghan people, particularly within the units that had been their fiercest enemies throughout the preceding 20 years. The Special Mission Wing was among those units. Those of us who had worked with them understood the danger they faced and the importance of getting them and their families out of the country while the airport remained under the control of coalition forces.  

With his silver tongue and kind words, Massoud was a persuasive negotiator and experienced mission systems operator. Stone was a polished and thoughtful leader who struck the critical balance between accomplishing his missions, caring for his men, and appeasing the echelons above. A seasoned instructor pilot with the look of an Afghan tribal leader, Mo conducted much of my PC-12 training, and together we trained and evaluated Afghan students enrolled in the Special Mission Wing PC-12 Aviator Qualification Course. Erfan was another instructor pilot who taught me to fly the PC-12. He had a big smile and quick sense of humor. Yet, his concerns about Afghanistan’s future and that of his family sometimes showed through.  

Crossing the Border 

Massoud informed me that a number of Special Mission Wing aircraft had crossed into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan earlier that day, but that his flight of five TUFON PC-12s had been held south of the border and not permitted to enter Uzbek airspace. Due to low fuel levels, they returned to Hamid Karzai, the only airfield in Afghanistan that was then secured by coalition forces. As the Special Mission Wing enterprise was collapsing around them, TUFON was looking for an alternate means of refueling their aircraft, and Massoud asked if I could help.

When people face dire, even deadly circumstances on a repeated basis, relationships are everything. I had met Doug from the interagency through a close mutual friend a number of years before and had unexpectedly worked with him during my time in the Special Mission Wing. When I asked if he could assist TUFON in procuring fuel, Doug enthusiastically offered to make it happen. I sent a message to TUFON: “Team, call my friend Doug, who is going to help you get fuel.” Prior to receiving my message, however, they had already requisitioned fuel “by force” from one of the many foreign contractors at Hamid Karzai. Yet, acquiring fuel was only the first problem TUFON faced. Even if they were able to successfully depart the airport in their flight of PC-12s without being obstructed or shot down, how would they obtain clearance to cross into Uzbekistan or Tajikistan?

Another relationship that proved pivotal in this situation was the one shared by my brother-in-law, Gus Garcia Jr., and Congressman Vicente González of the 15th Congressional District of Texas. Gus had just connected me with Congressman González virtually to discuss options for helping my Afghan brothers and their families obtain visas and immigrate to the United States. I called Gus and explained why I needed to speak with the congressman right away. Gus immediately got me on the phone with Congressman González, who was in Spain on vacation with his wife Lorena. I explained the situation on the ground at the airport and asked if he could help TUFON get into Uzbekistan or Tajikistan in their PC-12s. As fate would have it, Congressman González was, and is, the chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Uzbekistan. Without hesitation, he agreed to “make some phone calls” and see what he could do to secure access for TUFON.

With this new and encouraging information, I advised TUFON to try to cross the border into Uzbekistan again, and told them that my congressman was working to contact the Uzbek government. Time was critical, as the PC-12s would soon be taking off and flying north. I messaged TUFON as they were rolling down the runway to depart Hamid Karzai International Airport for the final time in their storied careers: “The congressman is Vicente González — he is the chairman of the Uzbekistan Caucus. Use his name on the radio.”  Within minutes, Congressman González informed me that he had spoken with his friend Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan. Minister Kamilov had granted permission for the PC-12s to cross the border into Uzbekistan, and had assured the safety of the aircrews. I provided Congressman González with a list of TUFON airmen flying north, and I messaged them in the blind: “tell the Uzbeks when you land that U.S. Congressman Vicente González has communicated with Foreign Minister Kamilov, who has assured your safety.” Later that afternoon, I received a message from Stone: “Brother, we came to Termez, Uzbekistan. They are taking our phones.”

Getting Into Hamid Karzai International Airport

With Hamid Karzai airport secure and aircraft available, TUFON had intended to fly shuttle runs between Termez and Kabul in order to evacuate additional Special Mission Wing members and their families to safety. The Uzbeks had other ideas. 

The day after landing in Termez, Stone told me that Congressman González’s message had been delivered to the Uzbeks. Although the Afghans were safe and being treated satisfactorily, they were not allowed to leave their billets, and most were not permitted to use their phones. They were concerned about being returned to Afghanistan, which would have meant almost certain death at the hands of their Taliban adversaries. As Special Mission Wing leaders were negotiating phone usage and other “privileges,” Stone and I began establishing accountability for the men’s family members and developing plans to evacuate them to safety.

I shared this information with a group of U.S. Army Aviators operating alongside sister-service personnel within U.S. Special Operations Command in a country over-the-horizon. Cody, Mike, Laura, Willie, and I had all worked together in the Special Mission Wing, and I was well aware of what these amazing people were capable of. Cody was a seasoned commander, instructor pilot, and Master Army Aviator with a distinguished combat record. On the path to being an expert and crusty aviation maintenance officer, Mike was wise beyond his years and passionate about delivering results. A relatively new Army Aviator on her first Army deployment, Laura brought genuine creative thinking and an impressive work ethic to our dynamic situation. A rather arrogant lad, Willie was an intelligent officer and accomplished instructor pilot who added resolute momentum to the team.  

These U.S. Army Aviators worked tirelessly on behalf of thousands of American citizens and Special Mission Wing personnel and their families, processing U.S. Forces-Afghanistan evacuation forms, submitting P-1 refugee applications for personnel in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, and corresponding with the undersecretary of defense for policy’s staff. Our U.S. Army Aviators were also creating multiple extraction plans that included air and ground options. Finally, they helped citizens, Green Card holders, and some Special Mission Wing members and their families get through personnel gates at Hamid Karzai.

There were numerous military and civilian organizations, as well as other ad hoc efforts, working on the same tasks. I was connected with several, and the information flow was immense. The requirements for people to be admitted into an airport gate and/or granted a U.S. visa were ambiguous at best. This was particularly frustrating since many of our partners and their families had already been vetted (including biometrics) and needed to be evacuated quickly as Kabul became increasingly unstable. In one of my message groups, someone stated, “There is no rhyme or reason as to who gets in.” What worked at one gate did not work at another, what worked in the morning did not work in the afternoon. Requirements changed constantly as the chaos ensued, and the Taliban was closing in. 

As others were struggling with military and civilian protocols, our U.S. Army Aviators were taking action and achieving results, with mission-focused Special Operations Command leadership and top cover. Yet, there was a gap in our process that only Doug could fill.

Whiskey

With the Taliban warning people in Kabul not to go to the airport, we were working to get as many citizens, Special Mission Wing airmen, and their families into the relative security of Hamid Karzai as possible. With each passing day, the airport’s vulnerability increased and as of Aug. 22, none of the Afghan families I was enabling had made it through a gate. On Aug. 23, I reached out to Doug on the ground in Kabul, who again responded with enthusiasm and agreed to assist us. 

The following day, we began moving people to Doug at one of the airport entrance gates. We asked family leaders in Kabul the size of their groups, their readiness to move, and an anticipated time when they could be at the airport. In the interest of their safety, we never asked them to reveal their location unless they were in the immediate vicinity of a gate. Doug told families where to report and required a named point of contact, the number of people in each family group, and a cellphone number for each family leader. At that point, we activated message group Whiskey to achieve more efficient communication and some level of operational security and personal anonymity. To that end, Whiskey consisted of only four individuals — Doug, Cody, Mike, and me. 

During the early morning hours of Aug. 25, Whiskey achieved its first success when Doug brought a group of 17 Special Mission Wing personnel and their families through a gate. With that momentum, we positioned multiple other groups to be contacted and admitted into the airport. I instructed one group of 11 people and another of five to move to the airport. Amidst growing pandemonium created by nefarious Taliban activities in the area, the gate that Doug was watching over closed. Upon its reopening, we sent another group there, but they were turned away as Doug was making his way back. Abruptly, all of the gates closed and no one was permitted access. On Aug. 26, I communicated to one family, “Your choice — stay longer, or go home and wait for me to contact you.” The family leader decided that his group of 11 would wait near the airport. Other families were given the same options. Some went home. Most stayed. While this was happening, our U.S. Army Aviators stayed in the office over a 50-hour period, maintaining constant contact with our partners at the link-up point. They had decided that if the Afghans were going to stay, so would the Americans. 

Doug messaged via Whiskey that he would try to get some people into the airport at a predetermined time that morning and we passed that information to our groups. A gate guard had told Mo’s brother that someone from the inside could bring their group in. I directed him to stay close to that guard, and to take a selfie and some pictures of the area around his location, which I forwarded with his cell number through Whiskey. Following several hours of ambiguity, Whiskey moved Mo’s group of 11, as well as another group of 12 Special Mission Wing members and families through the gate. That afternoon, the Mo family flew to Germany and began the next phase of their new lives. We would not have contact again for almost a week.  

With many other families prepositioned, we learned that there had been an explosion at Abbey Gate. Initial reports indicated that a bomber wearing a suicide vest had caused multiple injuries. As is well-known now, the bomber killed 13 Americans and at least 170 Afghans. After establishing the accountability of our Special Mission Wing families, we advised them to go home and wait for the situation to stabilize. 

After the bombing, it became doubtful that any of the airport gates would reopen. Yet, Whiskey held out hope and had the remaining families prepared to again move and pre-position for a potential link-up with Doug. By the early morning hours of Aug. 27, Whiskey had over 100 people back in position, awaiting the possibility of a gate reopening.

I have held leadership positions in military and civilian organizations since I was a kid, including commanding a Theater Fixed Wing Company, a Theater Fixed Wing Battalion, and a Special Operations Advisory Team in combat. Yet, it was only that morning in the comfort of my Virginia home that I truly realized the burden of leadership. The decisions Whiskey made from multiple countries in the coming hours would potentially mean the difference between life and death for our partners and their families. My determinations would be based on a number of factors. We prioritized wives and children, as well as those facing the greatest threat and those whose locations were the most promising. I had to accept the reality that not all three of my remaining families would get into the airport. 

As Whiskey began our last push, sequencing people for Doug to meet and bring in, my priority narrowed to wives and children. With the Erfan family being the only one in that category, they would be first. I explained this to my TUFON brothers in Uzbekistan. For two of them, that news was difficult to accept, as their extended families would be left behind. Doug was getting dozens of people through the gate as tens of thousands, including the Erfan family, continued to wait their turn. Then, out of the blue, we received a message from Doug that the Erfan family had been “secured.” 

Whiskey passed multiple other groups to Doug, scrambling to get as many of our people into the airport as possible. Shortly afterwards, the American leadership on the ground at Hamid Karzai determined that they had reached the threshold of people who could successfully be evacuated, and all of the gates were closed permanently. No additional people were granted access. Gates were cemented over or demolished, with nearly 100 Special Mission Wing personnel and family members waiting in sight of a gate, praying they would get in. We had another two groups of 100 waiting in their homes, ready to go. They never received the call to travel to the airport.  

Cody, the leader of our U.S. Army Aviators over-the-horizon, sent a message to our partners letting them know that we could no longer get anyone into the airport, and that we had to shift to finding other ways out of Afghanistan. The head Afghan coordinator of the Special Mission Wing evacuation effort outside of the gates, and the highest-ranking member now stranded in Afghanistan, responsible for successfully shepherding more than 149 of his people and their families to safety, replied to Cody. He said he understood, and that in Afghanistan there is a saying, “the land is hard and the sky is far away.”

Lt. Col. Marvin L. “Lee” Chase currently serves in the U.S. Army Reserve as the Commander of 2-228th Theater Fixed Wing Battalion and operates as a UC-35 Pilot in Command. He previously served as the Commander of Special Operations Advisory Team-Central in the Afghan Special Mission Wing and PC-12 Pilot in Command. His articles have appeared in Army Aviation Magazine.  

The author would like to recognize Cody’s contributions to this article. He would also like to thank his wife, Lorraine, his brother-in-law Gus, Congressman Vicente González, Lorena González, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, and Cody, Mike, Laura, Willie, and Doug.

Although the people and events described in this story are real, certain names have been replaced for organizational sensitivities and to protect individual identities. This piece has been cleared for open publication by the Department of Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kayla Newman



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