Secret Gate Used by Special Operators to Sneak Evacuees Into Kabul’s Airport
The images are now part of history. Thousands of people crowded in dusty avenues, among sewer canals, all trying to reach a gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, and from there get out of a country now under Taliban control. All the while, U.S. special operations forces were using a secret gate to get people into the airport to safety, at least in part, as part of a reported deal with the Taliban.
A report from CNN today says that the U.S. military made an agreement with the Taliban that saw the latter group escort American citizens safely into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul at various times in the past two weeks. During these runs, the Americans would enter the airport through a “secret gate” in the perimeter managed by U.S. special operations forces personnel.
“The officials said Americans were notified to gather at pre-set ‘muster points’ close to the airport where the Taliban would check their credentials and take them a short distance to a gate manned by American forces who were standing by to let them inside amid huge crowds of Afghans seeking to flee,” according to CNN. “One of the key muster points was a Ministry of Interior building just outside the airport’s gates where nearby US forces were readily able to observe the Americans approach.”
“US special operations forces set up a ‘secret gate’ at the airport and established ‘call centers’ to guide Americans through the evacuation process,” the piece adds. “Americans were notified by various messages about where to gather.”
This secret gate allowed Americans to avoid the more widely known official gates into Hamid Karzai International Airport, which were constantly jam-packed with thousands of Afghans hoping to secure entry and presented significant security risks. Last Thursday, terrorists from Afghanistan’s branch of ISIS launched a deadly attack outside one of the formal gates, known as Abbey Gate, which killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghans, and wounded many more.
“It worked, it worked beautifully,” a U.S. government official told CNN of the secret gate and the arrangement with the Taliban that serviced it.
CNN‘s story does not say when the Taliban began escorting Americans to the airport or how many total U.S. citizens were brought there in this way. It does say that at certain points the Taliban were moving groups of people “several times a day.”
U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), had alluded to all of this in his remarks yesterday where he announced the end of America’s military presence in Afghanistan after nearly two decades. He had also highlighted the Taliban’s contributions to the evacuation operations multiple times, often talking about his former enemies in unusually positive ways. However, he had indicated that the U.S. special operations-led effort had also brought in non-Americans, as well.
“Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces reached out to help break in – bring in more than 1,064 American citizens and 2017 SIVs [individuals eligible for Special Immigrant Visas], or Afghans at risk, and 127 third-country nationals, all via phone calls, vectors and escorting,” the CENTCOM boss had said. “They [the Taliban] were actually very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations.”
There are also multiple reports that indicate that this U.S. special operations forces effort may have at least interfaced to some degree with a number of ad hoc groups, as well as individuals, working to get at-risk Afghans safely inside the airport. Active and retired U.S. service members inside Afghanistan and in the United States, as well as a host of others, have reportedly been involved in these activities. These rescue missions were largely coordinated using secure message boards and chat programs, as well as other online tools, in what became dubbed a “Digital Dunkirk.” This is a reference to the famous U.K. government-led evacuation in 1940 of elements of the British Expeditionary Force from France during World War II.
Last week, in an episode of the Zero Blog Thirty podcast, which you can listen to in full here, U.S. Marine Corps Major Thomas Schueman shared his own story of how he helped an interpreter he had worked with in Afghanistan get to the airport. That interpreter and his wife and four children, all under the age of five, who are seen in the picture in the Tweet below, are now safely out of the country. However, he is still only referred to as Zak to protect his immediate family, as well as other family members and individuals connected to him that are still in Afghanistan.
Schueman specifically mentioned the use of a “secret gate,” where Zak would have been challenged to say a coded phrase, like something one would expect to see in a spy thriller, as one option that was considered. It’s not clear if this is the same gate mentioned in the CNN report or if there were multiple such passageways in operation over the course of the evacuations. Ultimately, the Marine officer was able to coordinate directly with U.S. military personnel at the airport who plucked Zak and his family out of a crowd right next to a Taliban checkpoint and pulled them inside.
Earlier this week, a report also came out about a group called Task Force Pineapple that had spirited hundreds of Afghans into the airport, including as many as 500 as part of a single push dubbed Operation Pineapple Express. That effort was going on right up until last week’s terrorist attack. Though that story does not specifically mention the use of secret gates, it does describe the employment of specially-designated individuals who would challenge evacuees to say coded phrases or present some other form of password to get into the airport, such as a picture of a pineapple on their phones.
Regardless, these reports of secret gates operated by American special operators, the use of coded signals, and deals with the Taliban, only add to the still growing and oftentimes bizarre-sounding story of the final days of America’s nearly two-decade-long military presence in Afghanistan. We can only expect more stories of ingenuity, heroism and unusual agreements of convenience to emerge as time goes on.
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