In this episode of “Roamings and Reflections,” humanitarian assistance and international development expert Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff joins host Nicholas Heras to recount the massive effort to evacuate Afghans as the Taliban seized Kabul. Ghosh-Siminoff provides an account of one of the most unique civil society efforts in U.S. history as America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan came to a chaotic end.
Nick Heras: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s segment, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Roamings and Reflections podcast series. I’m your host, Nick Heras, and I am the senior analyst and program head, the State Resilience and Fragility Program here at the Newlines Institute. I’m joined today by Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff. Sasha is the executive director of PDC, Inc., an organization that facilitates humanitarian efforts the Middle East and other world regions. Sasha was part of a unique moment in U.S. history when he, along with thousands of others, joined in an effort called “digital Dunkirk,” which sought to facilitate the evacuation of Afghans who had worked with United States and our NATO allies in Afghanistan as the Taliban and its partners marched on Kabul. Sasha will provide us with never before heard details on this digital Dunkirk effort, as well as to provide us with a nuanced perspective on what it was like to try to manage a coalition of civil society organizations spread out across the United States and the world, interface with the Biden administration, as well, as U.S. foreign policy officials who on their own time tried to help the digital Dunkirk effort in some of his reflections on how this unique moment may be remembered by historians. Sasha, thank you for joining us today. Now walk us through what it was like when everyone realized that Kabul was going to fall and all the Afghans that had been working with United States and its allies had to get out.
Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff: I would say around August 13th to 14th in this period of time, it became very clear that the collapse of the Afghan government was imminent. And there was just suddenly this moment of realization that the airport in Kabul might be the only way for people to flee. There’s a lot of people who obviously work on Afghanistan and have worked on Afghanistan for many years who saw the warning signs and were working from May on to try and speed up the departure of their colleagues or coworkers, but I think the moment where everyone was like, “Uh-oh we have a serious problem,” was that weekend of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and all of the sudden I started seeing news and messages and requests from people I work with in the foreign policy space basically saying, “Hey, we need help. We got to get people out. We got to get people out right now.” And obviously there was quite a bit of media attention, looking at the gains that the Taliban had made across the country, but I think there was still a sense that the Afghan government would be able to hold Kabul or at least, do a better job of defending it than what happened. And once we, once people started hearing that the Taliban were physically at the outskirts of the city, it was just a mad scramble to figure out how people would leave and how many people could be evacuated and who, and what were the parameters, because we had obviously American citizens; we had Afghan-American citizens, so people with dual nationality; we had people who were green card holders or holders of other types of U.S. visas; we had people who had gone to the special immigrant visa process who needed to leave and whose applications maybe they were approved, maybe they were in process, but it was clear that they had some connection or tie to U.S. government or U.S. government affiliated institutions or organizations. Now, broadening that out, there was also the reality that it wasn’t just the United States. It was also all the NATO partners who had participated in the war in Afghanistan who also had responsibility to get their citizens out and the Afghans who work with them. So perhaps while we could say that the United States bore the largest share in terms of people they were responsible for, they were by no means the only ones on the ground attempting to get people out. From the very beginning it wasn’t clear — what was the system, who was the point of contact to figure this out, how do you ensure that people can get access to the airport, what were the parameters for being approved to get on an evacuation flight. There was a massive amount of unknowns that suddenly everyone needed to figure out and it was in this moment that
I got sucked into helping with all these other civilian volunteers to try and figure out, amongst this chaos, how we could support Afghans evacuating and getting out of the country.
NH: You’ve painted quite the picture for us. You have an “oh shit” moment. It’s weekend in Washington in the height of the dog days of summer. Everyone is watching this disaster unfold on the news. You have an administration that is trying to find its own coherent response to this. And it seems like a number of the folks whom you’re engaging with may themselves either have been in the administration, or friendly with people in the administration, or looking to go into the administration. And this created a dynamic that must have been quite the whirlwind of emotion as well as a lot of — how do you do this in a way that people can still continue to serve their country? Not get into hot water with the authorities that be, but also do some real good more than half a world away. You guys made the decision to do something. What was it like manage in this whole coalition of people with different interests going in?
SGS: This was purely organic series of events, a purely organic process. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As example, I was in a foreign policy group — foreign policy for America — and the number people in that group who have actual ties from work or from colleagues to Afghanistan started asking in the groups that we’re all part of if anyone had clear information regarding helping people evacuate. Then other people who are in other professional foreign policy groups like Truman National Security Project and others said they were working to try and help create some sort of mechanism to coordinate. I want to say first of all, I’m not someone who’s actually ever worked on Afghanistan, and I’m not an expert on Afghanistan. I’ve worked in conflict zones and in non-permissive environments across the Middle East and North Africa for the last decade, but this particular conflict I haven’t worked on. However, the dynamics of what was happening I recognized and I’ve dealt with before in Syria and Iraq. So, the first thing was figuring out how best to help. And for me, personally, having local colleagues and staff who have worked with me for years — some people have worked with me now for 10 years on Syria — imagining that they might be left there at the mercy of authoritarian regime or an extremist movement that may do them harm, I just couldn’t fathom not helping, given I know what it’s like to have that fear that my own friends and colleagues and staff working on the ground — they’re doing a risky job as is, but to be left with no ability to escape just seemed wrong. And I think that a lot of us who are in the foreign policy space, especially those of us who work in aid and development and we work with people in the field, where those of us in the military, we have very particular experience of working with people on the ground and feeling that it’s our duty to support them, and if need be help them escape. Because our work on the ground in these non-permissive environments is impossible without them. But it’s like a soldier’s bargain that if they’re going to put their lives on the line to help us with our work, it’s our responsibility to then help them get out if need be later down the road. So given all that, I felt duty-bound to help, and I just started joining all these different groups on a secured communications platform and working with a whole variety of different NGOs and organic basically groups and movements who were trying to organize and get people out. Some of those groups were very veteran-heavy. Some of them were very aid and development-heavy. Some of them were very policy-heavy. What was so interesting is that no one tried to own the space in the sense that there was no hierarchy. There was no demand that there be some sort of committee. It was just everyone saying, “You have this resource? Okay, let’s work together to get these people out. You have this connection to this government? Okay, use this connection to get these people out.” It was the most bipartisan thing I’ve ever worked on
in Washington, D.C., because no one cared whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, whether you were military or non-military — everyone focused on one goal for basically three weeks straight, which was to get as many people out as they could knowing that time was not on our side, knowing that once the last U.S. plane left that meant evacuating people via the airport would no longer be an option, and really not knowing also what the Taliban would do or how they would react once the Americans and the rest of NATO had left and if they would facilitate the evacuation of anyone that had worked with the NATO alliance once the Americans had left. So within that frame, it was quite amazing to see everyone suddenly come together, converge, and use whatever strings they had to pull, and that included informal conversations with people and colleagues that we all have in the U.S. government who likewise wanted to help and wanted to try to find a way to facilitate people leaving — both American citizens, green card holders, visa holders, and Afghan allies.
NH: Because we saw some reporting, at least, as this crisis was unfolding, some commentators said that it had this effort this non-government Coalition effort actually at some points did develop the features of a public-private partnership due to some of these channels into the administration. Did You observe any of that in the course of your work trying to get the Afghans out?
SGS: Yes. Absolutely. There were people that I knew in the administration who had worked on Afghanistan previously, who suddenly were basically, when they were not at work — so literally, they finished work their official day with the U.S. government and then would start working on helping us on their time off. And I don’t think any of those people got any sleep. I mean, we didn’t get any sleep, but they had to also go to work, be a government employee, finish their job, and then literally do a whole nother job and try to use, again, whatever relationships they had in the U.S. government to facilitate the evacuation of everyone. I got the sense here in Washington, D.C., a lot of people in the foreign policy space, no matter whether they again, you’re a military, NGO, nonprofit humanitarian aid and development — so many people in this city have worked on this conflict in Afghanistan, because it’s gone on for so long. There was just this feeling that we could not leave these people there, that that was not an option, and that irrespective of whether you worked for the administration or not, something had to be done even if the policy from the administration was not clear at the time. So on the one hand, I think there was a lot of frustration from the civilian side, or the non-governmental side, with the lack of a clear and public coordination effort from the U.S. government, but we all had allies inside the U.S. government. helping us, and we couldn’t also have done half of what we did if they hadn’t helped us. So it was again, in that sense, truly organic and truly symbiotic in the sense that everyone was just doing whatever they had to do in order to facilitate people leaving. And I think there was a lot of people who maybe took personal risk, career-wise, or in terms of their positions, to try and do this and facilitate this. And so I think they deserve credit even if they can’t be public and even if they can’t be named.
NH: What was the risk to them? Obviously, you aren’t a U.S. government official but you are part of this coalition. You understand very well the challenges in terms of policy, but also through your decade-long work with humanitarian and other types of assistance in conflict zones in the core Middle East, the greater Middle East. So you understand these dynamics. What were
the direct challenges to people in government who are trying to facilitate this public-private partnership, as you saw?
SGS: The risk people took is that when it comes to the U.S. government, they have formal processes for engaging in certain policy decisions or certain initiatives, this being a highly complex, highly sensitive one. So the risk always is going outside your lane, which is never a good thing if you’re in government. But again, there is this feeling that since there was not the type of formalized structure in place that there normally would have been to facilitate this evacuation, that everyone had leeway, or felt they had the leeway, to just do what needed to be done to help people out. And again, can’t say that I’ve ever seen that happen for any other conflict space I’ve been involved with. I think it also highlights how many people in the government and outside of the government have been involved in this conflict, know people on the ground whose lives have been personally touched by being involved in this conflict, and couldn’t imagine sitting there and doing nothing while the Taliban took over because people who work on Afghanistan knew what was going to happen to all the people that worked with the minute the Taliban were in control, and we’re seeing right now as the Taliban somewhat systematically hunts down many people that worked with NATO and with the United States. Those fears were justified.
NH: Was there a sense to this point, when you have as you mentioned, you know, Afghanistan was used as the prime example of a quote-unquote forever war — the Obama Administration really began the process of withdrawing, Trump administration continued that process, the deal with the Taliban was made, the Biden team inherited that deal and a desire to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan at least militarily. And as you said, so many people in Washington had been engaged with Afghanistan both in terms of conflict, but also humanitarian issues, civil society capacity issues, diplomatic issues, geostrategic issues, and it in a lot of ways became such a focal point of a particular period in American history. As you were involved in this great effort, was there a sense of what the media called a Dunkirk moment? Did people that were involved in the things that you were doing to get the Afghans out from Taliban and out of their reach, do they feel like they were part of a historical moment and that they were there just close the gates sadly, or for some happily, on an era of U.S. policy and in U.S. history that has become quite contentious?
SGS: I think people understood that what was happening was unprecedented and no one was quite sure how complicated the situation was going to get and/or what kind of a response there would be from U.S. and its NATO allies. Again, I know we’re kind of focusing on the American part of this, but there was also the British, the Germans, the Canadians, the French. There was so many other countries that had made promises to get people out and were part of this process and they all had their own individual processes and paperwork. So it did feel — I’ve heard people use this term, “digital Dunkirk.” For me. It was more like a digital Schindler’s List, because you’re receiving people’s packets of information and identities and explanations of why they’re at risk and you just have this sinking feeling in your stomach that if you don’t help get these people out there going to be killed. From that, it was like this feeling that for every person you’re helping and you’re getting on a plane, you’re saving their life, but also realizing that for every person you help there’s hundreds or thousands of other people, you’re not able to help. And that was why for many of us there was a hope that the evacuation would be extended and that we would be given
more time to facilitate more people leaving. But unfortunately the ISIS bombing at Abbey Gate, which killed 13 Marines and other military members made that excessively difficult for there to be any real extension. And I want to say about the Marines at Abbey Gate — they were helping get people in. I was working with some other people to coordinate where basically I would get requests from other friends and colleagues who had Afghans they were trying to get into the airport and I would go through a couple other people who had ties to the military, who would literally ping those Marines at Abbey Gate and ask them. “Can you help facilitate entry for our people?” We would prepare all the documents, all the paperwork, so that it was clear okay, this person is connected to the U.S. in some way or to a NATO ally and help facilitate their entry and they were literally then at the gate while we talked through, with the Afghans in real time on the ground, who were moving through the morass of people to get to the front of Abbey Gate and then make contact with whichever Marine was helping and then they would basically hoist people up and get them through into the gate, and from there, hopefully onto a plane.
NH: Were you talking to Afghans at the time of the bombing itself? Can you walk us through when the bombing occurred and it became clear that American lives were lost in that bombing as this effort to get as many Afghans out of the country as possible was going on, what was, how did this coalition of organizations you were part of, how did they respond? What was the mood? Obviously the mood was somber and sad and upset, but how did it respond? And I want to ask, you use the term digital Schindler’s List — could you unpack that for us?
SGS: So for me, the reason I characterize this as a digital Schindler’s List is because of the magnitude of the number of people that needed to be evacuated and still need to be evacuated, the real risks that there were. I heard so many horrible stories about people who had already lost family, who’d been killed by the Taliban, who maybe lost family, while trying to flee to Kabul to get on a flight. I was involved in a number of cases with minors whose parents had more than likely been killed by the Taliban and we were trying to just help them leave the country to be reunited with extended family or even immediate family outside of Afghanistan. And you’re just receiving people’s document and looking at their passports and their faces and learning their stories and understanding that every person is not a number or a name, but you’re learning all about all the work they did to support U.S. and NATO programs and policy on the ground, and you feel deep down inside that maybe this effort that everyone was doing was their last hope for survival. And to me that felt more like a digital Schindler’s List than a digital Dunkirk because many of these people are people who are just civilians, who worked in humanitarian aid, worked in aid and development, were media, were journalists, were activists, were human rights advocates. They never held a gun in their life, but they’re going to be the first to be targeted because they’re the easiest to be targeted, and they deserved a chance to get out and continue fighting for their country. But from the outside and the way, in the best way they knew how — through advocacy and through the space, the civil society space and the humanitarian space that they had operated in before. Having to see people’s families and having to learn their names and their lives, it was just, it was another level of participation and emotional connection to the people you were helping that really was very jolting. And I’ve worked as I said in all these other conflict zones, and I’ve seen many, many horrible things happen, but this was different in terms of the speed and the number of people you were trying to help. I must have gone through hundreds of files by myself. So you can imagine how many files everyone else went through, people who were much more connected or had worked for a much longer period of time in
Afghanistan, how many people they were responsible for in terms of helping. It’s just unbelievable. What was going on at all the different gates, because there is a number of gates to enter the airport — different gates were being used to facilitate entry of both people with different connections to different NATO allies and then for different groups of people that had different legal status. So some gates, they were only letting in citizens; some gates citizens and green card holders; some gates, just for SIV or parallel processes that other NATO allies had in place as well that were similar to SIV. The first thing was to try and figure out which gates were open, given the security conditions, which gates you could potentially get your people past the outer perimeter, which were Taliban checkpoints, because you still had to risk getting your people past the Taliban. And then once they got to the gate, there’s thousands of people waiting, hoping, begging to be let into the airport so they could escape. And so then you had to contend with moving whoever you are helping through those crowds to a rally point where they could potentially link up. So, my job in this case was basically, I was speaking with someone here in the United States, or maybe they were based in other countries in the West who had Afghans on the ground they were helping — I would work with them to package their Afghan allies’ information, their bio-data basically, and give it to my mil contacts, who are in touch with the Marines, so that all that data and information could be sent to them physically. Again all this is happening in real time — often it was 2 a.m. in the morning here in the United States, because of the time difference with Afghanistan. And then those Marines would be at the gate and they would search for whichever family or group of people we were trying to help link up and then get in. So it was just a very unique and strange process because we’re doing this all through digital communication and we’re doing it again all in real time, which is why none of us really slept for that entire period. Just because you couldn’t sleep because you needed to be on the same time zone as Afghanistan so you can help people in real time to do this. We basically did that whenever we could up until the bombing. When we first heard about the bombing it was unclear as to exactly what had happened. We were unsure about the size of the bomb. We were unsure how many bombers there were. We weren’t even sure if it was a bomber or if it’s a car leading up to Abbey Gate. There was a couple Taliban checkpoints, but they didn’t actually search anyone or do anything effective in terms of crowd control. They spent most of their times just firing their weapons in the air and beating people, but it didn’t stop thousands of people from trying to push towards the gate to try and get in. So there was really no attempt by the Taliban to provide any real security cover for accessing the gates, which is why having the outer perimeter being controlled by the Taliban was problematic from the get-go, but there was no choice in this matter given how the evacuation and the U.S. withdrawal unfolded.
NH: Well, you’re trying to outwit the Taliban constantly throughout this process. What was that like? How was it, trying to, in real time, in this process of digital Dunkirk, outwit an opponent/potential partner in this process who is your enemy, when they’re on the ground and you’re so far away?
SGS: A lot of it came down to the capacity of the Afghans we were working with a lot of these people. They’ve lived this conflict their whole lives and they understood that they would have to come up with creative ways to convince the Taliban that they encountered that they should be let through. Sometimes people paid money. Sometimes people were not successful the first time. Numerous families we knew would try to go, Taliban would fire in the air and disperse people, or they would beat everyone, everyone would run away. But then another set of Taliban fighters
would be on patrol who were perhaps more lenient or didn’t really care about whether people wanted to leave or not and would let people pass. It was constantly changing, fluid situation in which you never knew what kind of Taliban you would end up encountering in your attempts to get to the airport. There was one gate where we were working with to get families in that had multiple checkpoints, but there was some sort of agreement between the Department of Defense and the Taliban with regards to a formal system of communication, to facilitate people to evacuate. And basically what the Taliban demanded was an official written list that was then approved and vetted by the Department of Defense and handed to them that showed that whoever wanted to be evacuated had been given prior approval by the U.S. government to leave. There was a mechanism of sorts to have that formal communication. As far as I could tell it didn’t go past. “Okay. Here’s the list. We have agreed to take these people. You as Taliban, we agreed with you that you would let these people pass so let these people pass.” I can’t speak to how much more in-depth the communication was but I know that that system existed and was being used to move buses of people — again, a mixture of people, sometimes SIVs, sometimes they had humanitarian referral like P1 or P2, sometimes they were green card holders or even American citizens — but just to facilitate the movement of people and get them through the Taliban checkpoints. Security conditions would change and sometimes we would want to send a family to a specific gate only to hear that the threat level had changed and that gate was now closed and we’d have to search for another gate that we hoped was open that we could maybe potentially facilitate access through. And then on top of trying to figure out whether the Taliban you’re going to encounter are going to be friendly or not, it was also a matter of literally finding a point of contact at the gate on the U.S. military side, or the other NATO allies like the Germans of the British that you could contact and say, “Hey, I have people on vouching for them. They’re vetted. Please let them in.” Stars had to align every time you wanted to get people through to have all these conditions line up so that you could get people into the airport. And that was just the beginning of the process. After that, they had to be manifested on a plane, they had to get through the system, they had to wait for biometric screening, and then they had to wait on tarmac — some people waited four days before they got on two flights, usually, without frankly, food or water. So we started telling all of the Afghans were helping bring several phones with several charge batteries. Bring food, bring water. Don’t bring anything else but bring enough that if you’re sitting on the tarmac for one or two or three days, you can survive while you wait to get on a flight to leave. So it was a really complicated process from the beginning to end.
NH: You describe that this digital Dunkirk effort was a lot of people, in a way, collaborating as they went. But from what you described, the process from getting someone through past the Taliban, to the gate, into the airport, getting them to get through all the other processes that would get them on the plane and to their destination country — did ad hoc committees or ad hoc councils develop? Within the coalition that you’re a part of where, there’s some people that found, hey, I’m better at getting people on the manifest or, hey, I’m better at making sure that our person actually gets on the plane, or others — look, I have the humanitarian background, I can manage some of these complicated challenges that come with what you need, sadly, when you have to flee somewhere. Did this develop?
SGS: Yeah, definitely people had specific resources that they brought to bear. There was a definite set of organizations and groups that threw all their weight and support behind getting commercial flights booked and paid for so they could land, and then manifesting people and
getting those manifests to the Department of State for approval so that they could get on planes and leave. And there was groups that were very specifically just working on that issue and you knew that when you had people that you could get through the gate that you would need to talk with them and potentially get them manifested on a flight. And so that was the good thing about all these coordination groups is you just asked and you said, okay, I have these people, this is their information, who can help me, get them onto a flight? And someone would say my organization can do that, and you would then just make a separate group, talk with them about it, and get them manifested. And that’s how a lot of people got onto flights that were — at least the chartered flights, the commercial flights. There was also, of course, the military flights were — which could take a lot more people, obviously, and they were also facilitating people on planes. As example, for myself, because of my time in my experience in the Middle East. I’ve worked with numerous governments. I know many Foreign Service officers that work for other governments, and quite a number of them had cycled through Afghanistan. And so I would be told in the group chats, “Hey, these people have German visas. These people have British visas, these people have Canadian visas.” So I used my contacts to find out from those governments who was in charge, who are the points of contact, who could help facilitate these people’s evacuations, and then I would do my best to try and hand their files off to that point of contact with that government to help get them out. So that’s kind of how I first got involved. It was actually more about trying to help people who had visas and had transit paperwork with other NATO allies.
NH: What was it like engaging with these different NATO allies? Were there certain themes that you picked up on as your part of this effort, in terms of how different countries looked at the process of bringing an Afghan person from Afghanistan to their own territory? And how would you compare that with the United States? Some — how some of these countries approached this whole process versus how the U.S. approached it.
SGS: Well, they all made clear first and foremost that the bulk of their force protection was being provided by the U.S. military. So their ability to stay longer and help evac more people was highly dependent on how long the Americans stayed. They were all very clear about that. They had different numbers of people that they potentially thought they needed to evacuate, and they definitely had different systems and different sets of paperwork and different requirements. So earlier on around August 15th through 20th type period of time, I was told and I saw that other NATO allies were willing to take a little bit more risk, one could say, to go out into Kabul to grab people and bring them back. I know from obviously media reports the United States did similar efforts, but in a different way — again, they had other resources available to do that, and obviously the United States has the largest amount of infrastructure on the ground to do some of that. I would say everyone that I encountered in terms of these Foreign Service officers. They did the best they could with the resources they had, given the situation. Everyone was cleared. We have the tickets. The clock is ticking. We only have so much time. Get people to the gates. Tell us that they’re at the gate, so we can facilitate their entry, do this as quickly as possible. And the only time that that request changed was when it suddenly became clear that ISIS was going to spend its time targeting people at the gates and then we would have to do this thing where we would have to understand if there was an active security threat that was closing down the gates, and whether that would be the thing that would prevent our people from getting in. Because one of the difficulties is that if you got people past the Taliban checkpoint, and you got them to the
gate where U.S. and NATO forces were on guard, if there was no one there to let them in, your people were suddenly at risk of being beaten or potentially worse by the Taliban. So, the Taliban would be, like, as long as those people are let in through the gate, then okay, there are done. No worries. We don’t worry about them anymore. But if your people got stuck at the gate, and then on the other side wouldn’t be let in, often the Taliban would beat them and disperse them. It was not a good outcome, obviously, when you’re trying to get people evacuated.
NH: Was there a qualitative difference in how the Taliban approached this entire process after the ISIS attacks? And did you get a sense that the Taliban understood that the entire world was watching whether it could actually act as a state-like authority and facilitate a highly delicate diplomatic dance that it would be judged on in the future?
SGS: I think the Taliban knew that the international community and especially international media were focused on Kabul. And lots of news media were there. They were very careful, to a degree, in how they dealt with people. That’s not to say they didn’t do bad things. They most certainly did. But they were definitely more careful versus pretty much immediately in other areas of the country where there was no coverage or not, was no media presence, we heard about reprisals and killings and executions almost immediately. And there were as many people who fled other parts of the country and came to the airport because staying in their home province was just no longer an option due to those reprisals and due to maybe their work with NATO allies or their work with the Afghan government itself. I don’t believe that the Taliban have fundamentally changed since they were last in power, and I don’t believe they have any interest in creating the conditions for compromise or amnesty with the people who formerly worked with the Afghan government or with NATO. But so long as the NATO presence was there at the airport, they had to put on a good show.
NH: So what do you look back, Sasha, at your role in this digital Dunkirk effort, what are you most proud of, and if you could take just a moment of introspection along with that, what are some of the missed opportunities that you were — the people that you worked with potentially felt that they wish they had back — if they had just a little bit more info or they’re just been a little bit more something else than provided, you could have achieved more.
SGS: I was the most proud that I could just help at all. Being someone who’s not an expert in Afghanistan or has not worked in Afghanistan previously, I mean frankly, when I started, my intention was not to get so involved. My plan was just to try and help everyone sync up with other contacts that I had that I thought could be useful or helpful. And then it just ballooned into a whole nother thing where I was enmeshed with all these groups and helping because the need was so great and you’re in these coordination groups, with sometimes several hundred people — once you explain that you have an access to a specific contact, or a specific way to facilitate, you would get 10, 15 requests. So it was just a crushing constant workload of people saying, can you help with this, can you help with that? And I know, from my experience in other conflict zones, what that’s like. And I also know what it’s like when you have someone who has good access and they suddenly disappear and that access disappears. And that’s at your most desperate moment. So I didn’t want to be that person. So I knew, okay. I’m helping. I now have to stay for as long as I physically can stay to help because that’s what I would want if it was my people I was trying to get out whose lives were on the line. So I was really proud of the organic nature of this whole
process. I was really proud that no one’s ego got in the way of helping, no one cared who you were or what background you came for. If you had a way to help and you had a good access, or you had a good system, or you had resources and you’re willing to help that’s all that mattered. And that’s not something I’ve seen happen very often in the foreign policy space. I would say if there is one thing that — obviously, more time would have been great. We would have gotten more people out. But I think the downside of such an organic process is there’s a degree of chaos and a degree of duplication of efforts. That if we had more formal guidance, you can say, from the government or a bit more hierarchical system for coordination, we probably would have been more efficient with our time and our efforts, but frankly the situation just didn’t lend itself cleanly to that — an organization or system. So the organic nature and made the whole process quite versatile and quite agile, but I’m sure we, we duplicated efforts or we wasted time, trying to figure certain things out that probably someone else had already figured out. We just hadn’t spoken to that person to know that that information was correct. We spend all spent a lot of time verifying information and verifying sometimes the same information over and over again because there was that one point in like 20 different coordination groups just trying to figure things out.
NH: This makes me wonder this effort that led to this digital Dunkirk moment in U.S. foreign and national security policy history — could say it was a moment across the United States, could be part of our history, our shared American history. We now were about to welcome tens of thousands of new Americans from Afghanistan. Do you think the same coalition effort can be used to help integrate Afghans who come to United States in their new country? And what would you hope were the lessons that you all learned in this process could be applied to helping them settle?
SGS: So I think one of the areas where the United States is very strong is that one, we have an Afghan-American community here and it organized super fast. It’s really efficient. It got tons of donations and tons of funding very quickly, and I think they are ready to help people resettle and integrate. I think because we’re a nation of immigrants there’s a clear understanding from many of us that our families were maybe in that situation not too long ago. Some of my family were immigrants. Many people I worked with were, like, yes, my family were immigrants at some point. We’re going to help these people. And so I do see that there’s this definite emphasis that we’re all going to pitch in and we’re all going to help. And we have tons of resettlement agencies that, although frankly they were crippled by the last four years of the Trump administration, have tried their best to get all resources up and running and streamlined as quickly as possible and are doing their best. The fact that this is all being done and the initial resettlement is being done by having people being housed on American military bases is a little bit of a difference in the sense that we have to go through DOD and DHS to get access to people who are on military bases to help facilitate, but I’ve just seen an outpouring of support and help including many lawyers to provide pro bono work to help people with their legal status and figure out their paperwork, which is, frankly, one of the more complex sides of this thing is that everyone has a whole variety of different status that needs to be addressed. It’s not like everyone is simply SIV — people have all sorts of different status that are at different phases in the process. But I do say that I think what’s happened with Afghanistan has shone a light on some very deep-seated problems in our immigration system that I think all of us are aware of and have been aware of for quite some time, but I
moving forward, we can find a way to fix our immigration system and create a more streamlined process so that in the future, when people under similar conditions to what’s happening in Afghanistan need to leave and we can be a safe harbor, we’re able to facilitate that more efficiently and effectively.
NH: Well Sasha, this has been such a rich discussion, and so I want to end the discussion with a general question for you: When you look back at this effort that you were part of, this great, bipartisan, American effort to honor those who helped us and stood next to us in one of the most formative periods of our nation’s history for its foreign and national security policy, when you look back at the efforts that you put into this moment in Afghanistan, how do you want history to remember digital Dunkirk? How do you want history to judge what was done? And you have this last opportunity to tell us and to tell history some of the nuances that may not be picked up by historians in the future.
SGS: I think right now, for example, we have a long and complicated discussion about civilian-military relationships here in the United States. I would say, what happened with this evacuation highlighted, in some ways, the best, and the worst of that dynamic all at the same time. The best in the sense that, again, I saw all sorts of people, current military, former military, who worked every angle, every corner, every connection they had to get people into that airport. They worked with civilians, they worked with people who they did not know who they put on faith and trust based on being vouched for by a connection or a referral that they could trust these people to work with them, myself included. They tried really hard, given that people in the military are very much about sticking with the chain of command, being very careful not to overstep their boundaries and to respect their superiors, and despite all of that, they were committed to saving the people that they work with, in Afghanistan. They were committed to working with all of us in the civilian space to try and do that as best as they could. And I’m talking about the rank and file within the military. Obviously, the higher ups, it’s a whole different story, but same thing for the Department of State, same thing for USAID. I mean, the media, I think focuses a lot on the high-level decisions that the White House made and what types of policy was set down, but the rank-and-file, the people I deal with, the civil servants, the Foreign Service officers, these people, they tried. They did everything they could to help facilitate people’s evacuation. And even if history does not look kindly on the way in which the evacuation occurs, I hope history will look kindly on the good faith efforts that people within the U.S. government made despite constraints put upon them by policy to help facilitate people, and the reality that again, everyone worked from my experience without ego, just focused on this one goal of getting as many people out. And I hope that as the United States evaluates its role in other conflicts, we’ll be able to come together as a country and do that again for people we are working with another conflict spaces as well in the future.
NH: Well, thank you very much, Sasha, for joining us for this segment of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Roamings and Reflections podcast series. It has been an honor to talk to you, and all the best.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.