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As the Afghanistan withdrawal began, thousands of images of people scrambling to escape Afghanistan surfaced. Tonight, the NewsHour looks at a Herculean effort by former U.S. service members, diplomats and private citizens to help afghans leave the country. Jane Ferguson provides an inside look at who was at work, and why.
We have all seen the images of people scrambling to escape Afghanistan, but not seen nearly so much, a Herculean effort by former service members, diplomats and private citizens to help Afghans especially leave the country.
Jane Ferguson is back now with an inside look at who was at work and why.
The scenes of total disarray at Kabul's airport last week shocked the world, as promises made to get America's allies out of Afghanistan seemed increasingly impossible.
We waited for 24 hours at — outside Abbey Gate. I swear to God I saw kids, I saw women who were stamped, who — people who run them over. And I don't know if they are alive or not, but I saw those things.
And people kept pushing to get closer to the gate. And by the time I reached to the U.S. forces, I kept asking them: "I'm going to die here." I was about to faint because of the heat, because of the lack of oxygen and so much crowd.
U.S. passport, U.S. green card, that's all I get.
As the crowds of people desperately tried to get through the gates and onto planes, any working system to sort those with a valid case from the others disappeared.
I kept asking them to please check my documents, because it has been 24 hours, and I fought between life and death to get here. Just check my documents. If my documents are correct, please let me in. If not, I will just turn away. I will just turn back and go home.
But they didn't even bother to check the documents. They say, no, go away. We're just allowing U.S. passport holders and green card holders.
They're searching for me. They think that I'm a translator. But, in reality, my wife is leaving in U.S. That's why I'm going in U.S. That's why I cannot live in my own house. They are searching for me.
If you are lucky enough to have someone to vouch for you, the likelihood of getting in is so much higher. The sad reality is that the rules have become so blurred. It's very much so about luck and about connections.
When it became clear that battlefield allies risked being left behind, non-U.S. government volunteers stepped in, as an army of American veterans and activists fought to ensure it was American partners in combat who made it through first.
Capt. Jeffrey Phaneuf (ret.), U.S. Marine Corps: I got a call from a friend who was on the ground in Kabul and realized just how bad the situation was.
And based on that, I started reaching out to people to see if I could potentially help or at least convey that word, and realized that there were many, many people on the ground who had nowhere — no idea where to go, which gate to go to, how to process their paperwork, how to get through the gate.
And I'm not the only one. There are a thousand other people doing this exact same thing. But I think that I was uniquely positioned because I happened to know some of the Marines who were at the Abbey Gate throughout the course of this. And knowing them allowed me to connect them with Afghans, American citizens, green card holders and others on the ground who were trying to get through.
Captain Jeffrey Phaneuf is a U.S. Marine now studying for a master's. He began helping get the names of former interpreters and Afghans who other service members vouched for to the Marines at the gates, often getting them to write the names of the U.S. soldiers they were to connect to on a placard and hold it up above the crowds.
Other veterans went one step further, flying into Kabul in person to help make this happen.
Jariko Denman, Former U.S. Army Ranger:
I had one guy with his family. And I said, hey, what are you wearing? I'm wearing this, this and this.
OK, you're wearing a baseball hat. Put the baseball hat on a broomstick and put it over your head and wave it around, so I can see you. I didn't end up finding him, but those were the things that we did.
I found the family of an SMW pilot. And I said, hey, get a piece of cardboard and write "Bigfoot" on it and hold it up. And that's the only way I found them, is because they were holding up a sign that said "Bigfoot."
Jariko Denman is a former Army Ranger who served several tours in Afghanistan. He spent much of last week helping find former Afghan Special Forces soldiers he and his comrades fought alongside, and plucking their families from the crowds.
It's indescribable, both at how hard it was, but more so how inconsistent it was, right?
So, for example, I brought some Afghans in from the gate, dropped them off at the line to get screened, left, found out they were on a plane. The documents that they had on them were less than other documents of guys I brought later who were kicked back off HKIA.
So, for me, it was an inconsistent set of information or an inconsistent set of standards, really.
A cruel irony is that many of the most at risk are men who sacrificed the most fighting the Taliban. Those who fought to the end didn't have time to apply for visas.
What's happening now is, the people who were most committed to fighting for the country of Afghanistan are the people who are the most disadvantaged at escaping now.
Because if I'm an Afghan commando and I say, I'm fighting for my country, I'm not setting myself up a backup plan. I'm not going out and getting a visa. I don't want to go to the United States. I want to fight for my country.
But even getting people into the airport was not always enough. There have been numerous reports of private flights arranged and paid for by volunteers having to leave almost empty amid the confusion and chaos of the evacuations, like this one apparently organized to fly to Uganda, where the government had agreed to allow Afghans to arrive.
Capt. Jeffrey Phaneuf:
So, this was a very serious frustration for many of us who were focused on getting people through the gate, because getting people through all the Taliban checkpoints, all the way to the gate of Kabul, checked through by the Marines there and then onto the airfield was hard enough.
And then we heard that flights were leaving empty or nearly empty.
Why were they not being filled up?
You know, Jane, I don't know the specifics, and I imagine that the State Department officials and the military on the ground were doing everything they can.
But, obviously, there was a disconnect here in planning ahead to make this operation successful.
After days of warnings from the U.S. government, an ISIS suicide bomber eventually waded into the crowds and detonated, taking over 170 Afghan lives and killing 13 American troops still outside the gates trying to help Afghans inside, some of them Jariko Denman had worked with to get people out.
None of them thought they would have to do that. And, most importantly, none of them were trained to do that.
They were all just learning as they went. And, God, they were impressive. It gets me, like, choked up, but just being good people and watching them have to swallow so much frustration and continue to do their job.
So, I was absolutely, like, just humbled by seeing them work. And I can just see it on their faces, the 1,000-yard stare of total saturation of emotion and physical exhaustion.
The killings hindered final evacuation efforts, as the U.S. forces struggled to extract final American citizens before the deadline to leave runs out tomorrow.
We have failed to properly prioritize the people who have really gone to — literally to combat on behalf of the United States. There is no way we are getting all those SIVs through. There is just no way.
To those who can't make it out, the army of people involved in trying to get them out says it won't quit. The next phase of evacuations will be more dangerous, secretive, and urgent.
What I will say to our Afghan allies who are still on the ground is that we are not giving up on you. And that's the promise we can make.
Even if it feels hollow right now, at least to those who are working this issue, we promise that we will do everything in our power to find a way.
The U.S. service members who died have been credited with helping over 100,000 Afghans make it out of Afghanistan and onto new lives in the U.S. and elsewhere. The private army of people who worked with them do that now ask that Americans honor those efforts by welcoming the Afghans who they helped get here.
And Jane joins me now here in the studio.
And, Jane, again, welcome back. And we're so glad you are safe.
So, let's talk about what's going on, now that this last flight has left.
What is security going to be like for the people who are there, the Taliban in control?
That's really going to be the biggest question moving forward.
Can the Taliban maintain control? How solid is their grasp of the capital of the country? This has clearly been, with the bombing on Thursday, a message to the Taliban from ISIS, their enemies, their rivals within the within the country, that their control is not unshakable entirely.
We have been hearing reports as well of some pushback against the Taliban just socially. People, whether or not they're brave enough to step up and say we're going to protest against you or we will criticize you in the street, there's so many questions to be asked about whether or not the Taliban can actually control the population, whether they can control this massive city.
Don't forget, they didn't really fight for this city. They didn't win it militarily. They walked into Kabul. We watched them walk and drive down the street to take this city. So, their ability now to control it will be very much so linked to their ability to provide some semblance of services and security to the people.
If they don't, they're likely to get pushback.
And that leads to the question, what kind of life can people have with the Taliban in charge, in terms of going to work, going to school, going about their daily business?
What can people expect who live there?
People sitting in the city tonight are still wondering that themselves. What is life under Taliban rule really going to be like?
The Taliban have invested a lot in this kind of P.R. pushback, where they have said it's going to be Taliban-friendlier, not as harsh as before, but it's very unclear how implementable that's going to be, no matter how much their political leadership would like to sell themselves to the world.
We have heard them say women can go to work, but then order women back into their homes. We have heard them say the media can operate, but then we have seen media workers be threatened or beaten. So, it's very unclear exactly how normal life will be.
We do know that there have been door-to-door searches and some reprisal attacks against people associated with the security forces from the former government. So, the scenes at the airport are really indicative of how frightened people are that things will go south very quickly.
And speaking of fear, it was ISIS-K that took responsibility for the terrible bombing that killed so many people, wounded so many last week.
What is it that people think could happen with ISIS, which, clearly they are there in Afghanistan?
They are there. And they have been there for years.
It was roundabout 2015 when they really started to first show up. And the Americans and coalition forces really led a campaign against the group that massively degraded them. And, ironically, at the time, that campaign — that was an aerial campaign that involved also the Taliban fighting the group in this sort of very loosely, un-directly coordinated fight, where you had American airpower and the Taliban on the ground fighting the group.
Since then, it's believed to have been reduced to just a few 100 people. But now you're going to have the Taliban in an awkward position where they risk losing fighters to ISIS if they're seen to be too soft, to be too liberal, to be too Westernized, if they're seen to compromise as they try to rule a country and actually govern a country.
So you will see that rivalry reignited, the rivalry for foot soldiers, for resources, for land and territory.
And the last thing, Jane, we know that the Biden administration has been saying they are looking to the Taliban to make sure that people who still want to get out of the country are going to be able to get out.
But what is the reality for people still there who didn't get out who wanted to get out?
The reality, Judy, for people there tonight is, they now have no functional airport right now. And they don't know when it will reopen.
The commercial flights stopped weeks ago, and the airport is not operating or receiving commercial flights. There's attempts to get it up and running. But that could take weeks or even months. There are overland routes out via Pakistan. But those are still very dangerous. People would still have to travel across.
They're — if you're in hiding, the last thing you want to do is present yourself to any kind of Taliban officials at a border post. So this is an extremely difficult position. For anyone still trying to get out, it's likely that they will go to ground and hide for a while.
But the Taliban has said they will let people go?
They have been saying that for some time now, that they won't stop people from leaving.
But, then, again, you will see them do the opposite. They will stop people from going to the airport. They have been for several days. And it really will depend on whether or not an individual who's leaving is likely to be hunted by the Taliban for their association with the former security services, or whether that person will just face a kind of pressure or a kind of disapproval for leaving.
Somewhere on that sliding scale, people will take their chances and try to leave or they will try to hide.
So many questions and so much fear still very much there in Afghanistan.
Jane Ferguson, thank you for your extraordinary reporting.
Thank you, Judy.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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