The White House has approved a recommendation by the nation's top military officer that the administration create a “public/private partnership” with the ad hoc groups that have been working to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans from the country, a White House and two State Department officials told POLITICO.
On Tuesday at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley met for the first time with representatives from a number of the groups, according to eight people familiar with discussions and an informal readout sent to volunteers.
Under the proposal discussed at the meeting, the U.S. government, including both the Pentagon and the State Department, would act as the central point of contact for the various groups coordinating rescues.
“Once approved, we would then work as a fusion center for all of our organizations to deconflict the ground and air space,” according to the readout. “This will permit us to move people and get them to safety — providing top cover for all that we do.”
Representatives from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s office and the National Security Council attended the meeting, along with five three-star officers on Milley’s staff, but no one from the State Department attended, the people said. When asked why the State Department did not attend, a senior State Department official would say only that the department was "working closely" with the Pentagon.
While the military evacuation effort ended on Aug. 31, the State Department has taken the lead in continuing to help Americans and Afghan allies get to safety. But at the same time, outside groups have mobilized resources, chartered aircraft and worked with third-party countries to evacuate the Americans and Afghans independently of the government.
That work is “tremendously valuable,” yet the challenge is that the Taliban often won’t permit people to leave the country without the proper documentation, the senior State Department official said.
“There is a lot of overlap, there is a lot of fuzziness about status,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal issues. For example, the State Department has seen a number of cases in which one group will include the names of American citizens who are ostensibly on the ground trying to get out, but after investigation it turns out those people are actually already in the United States."
The new effort will focus in part on deconflicting the various lists of potential evacuees that each of the groups has independently put together, and verifying each person’s status, the official said.
“We need to get a better structure in place for us to communicate with these groups, for these groups to communicate with us, and try to put a bit more consistency and focus around it so that if … we have opportunities to get groups out, if and as we see opportunities where the Talibs are going to be a bit more flexible for whatever reason, we are all working to a common set of parameters and hopefully off of a common set of priorities,” the official stressed.
A spokesperson for the Joint Staff declined to comment for this article.
Dozens of grassroots volunteer groups made up of former U.S. special operators, congressional staffers, aid workers, intelligence officers and others with experience in Afghanistan sprang into action in mid-August after Kabul fell. Some of the members coordinated meetup points at the Kabul airport over WhatsApp from thousands of miles away, and others on the ground in Kabul launched daring missions to shepherd evacuees to safety.
The members often worked directly with the Defense and State departments to coordinate what they called “snatch and grabs,” alerting them when potential evacuees had arrived at the airport so troops posted at the gates could quickly retrieve them from the crowd.
“It’s really an underground railroad,” said Scott Mann, a retired Army Special Forces officer leading a group that calls itself Task Force Pineapple, in a video message to supporters in August. Mann attended the meeting on Tuesday, along with representatives from Task Force Dunkirk, and EVAC, which runs a program that helps support Afghan women’s education, according to the people.
Together, the groups helped thousands to safety, and are still working to evacuate people more than a week after the American military evacuation formally ended.
During the meeting, Milley was “complimentary” about the volunteer effort, and told attendees to expect “regular meetings” going forward, one group member said. He also said he understands the desire by veterans to help those who fought alongside the U.S., the person said. The withdrawal is deeply personal for Milley, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and often speaks about his experience.
It is not yet clear the extent of the Pentagon’s involvement in continuing evacuation operations. While attendees speculated that it could involve air support or funding, others said that was unlikely.
“It’s important to try to manage expectations. This is about coming up with good data and coming up with a common operating picture about really what the pool of people are that outside advocates are most worried about, where are they and how can we try to … position ourselves to help them depart Afghanistan,” the senior State Department official said, noting that the challenges until now have involved “physically securing access for these people to leave.”
Securing airlift and temporary housing locations have not been a problem, the person said.
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