December 10, 2022

Inside the Afghan Evacuation: Rogue Flights, Crowded Tents, Hope and Chaos

On the last day of August, when President Biden called the airlift of refugees from Kabul an “extraordinary success,” senior diplomats and military officers in Doha, Qatar, emailed out a daily situation report marked “sensitive but unclassified.”

The conditions in Doha, according to their description, were getting worse. Almost 15,000 Afghan refugees were packed into airplane hangars and wedding-style tents at Al Udeid Air Base, home to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing and nearby Camp As Sayliyah, a U.S. Army base in the Persian Gulf nation.

Two hundred and twenty-nine unaccompanied children were being held near the base, including many teenage boys who repeatedly bullied younger children. There were a “large number of pregnant women,” some of whom needed medical attention, and increasing reports of “gastrointestinal issues” among the refugees.

Tensions in the temporary shelters had “flared,” the report said, “due to prolonged stays and unpredictable exit dates.” At the Army base, “single males, including former Afghan military” had become unruly “and contraband weapons have been confiscated.” Overwhelmed, neither base was testing Afghan evacuees for the coronavirus.

The reports were daily distillations of the complexity, chaos and humanity behind the largest air evacuation in U.S. history, as scores of diplomats, troops, health workers, security officials and others scattered across the globe sought to rescue tens of thousands of refugees. Whatever plans the Biden administration had for an orderly evacuation unraveled when Kabul fell in a matter of days, setting off a frenzied, last-minute global mobilization.

Refugees pushed their way onto airplanes. Hundreds of children were separated from their parents. Rogue flights landed without manifests. Security vetting of refugees was done in hours or days, rather than months or years.

Mr. Biden and his aides have insisted that the evacuation of Kabul after the Taliban seized the city on Aug. 15 was done as efficiently as possible. But State Department emails and documents from the Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Defense Departments, as well as interviews with officials and refugee advocates, suggest otherwise.

The conditions at Doha were chronicled each morning after Kabul fell in a daily situation report emailed broadly to State Department and military officials on behalf of Brig. Gen. Gerald A. Donohue, the commander of the air base; Greta C. Holtz, a veteran ambassador who oversaw evacuation efforts in the city; and John Desrocher, the top diplomat in Qatar.

Within hours of Mr. Biden’s speech on Aug. 31 at the White House marking the end of America’s two-decade war, a private charter plane from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, arrived at the air base in Doha — one of 10 way stations in eight countries — with no notice, carrying no American citizens but hundreds of Afghans. The manifest for the plane, apparently chartered by an ex-Marine’s law firm, offered “no clarity” about whether its passengers deserved special visas for helping American troops.

“There are multiple other ‘rogue’ flights that are seeking the same permissions” to land, emails from State Department officials sent that day said. “We have 300 people in Doha now who are basically stateless. Most have no papers.”

Two days later, officials in Doha reported even more grim news: A 19-month-old child, who arrived from Kabul with “pre-existing conditions,” died at the air base amid ongoing concerns about dehydration, norovirus and cholera among the refugees.

“The child’s father is with her at the hospital,” officials wrote in an email with the subject line “Operation Allies Refuge SITREP No. 19.” “DOD and State are working to ensure the child’s remains will be processed and able to be returned to the family.”

Administration officials have acknowledged the rough conditions at Doha, but say they are working to improve them. White House officials declined to comment on the record for this article.

The total number of evacuees, and where they are currently waiting, is still not clear, though Mr. Biden said Tuesday that more than 120,000 had been evacuated. As of Friday, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said about 40,000 people had arrived in the United States at airports near Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Officials expect about 17,000 more to arrive by next Friday, and thousands more may ultimately end up living in a dozen other countries.

American officials have said the refugees are being thoroughly vetted, with the authorities feeding fingerprints, portraits and biographical information into federal databases to weed out potential risks. Mr. Mayorkas said the Defense Department had sent hundreds of biometric screening machines to 30 countries.

But unclassified briefing documents titled “2021 Afghanistan Repatriation Mission” reveal that in some cases, spotty information is being collected: Flight manifests have been at times incomplete or missing, visa or citizenship status is unknown, and there is a lack of basic demographic data.

The documents show that the flights into the United States started as a trickle. On Aug. 19, four days after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, 226 people on two separate flights arrived at Dulles International Airport. Jordan Air JAV 4825 included 44 dogs — but no information about its 58 passengers.

Ten days later, on Aug. 29, 13 flights landed at Dulles carrying 3,842 people, including six refugees who tested positive for the coronavirus and six unaccompanied boys: four teenagers, one younger school-age boy and one toddler. Flight CMB 581, which landed that day at 6:38 p.m., carried 240 passengers. But government records provide few details: “about 3” American citizens, including two people over 65 and one passenger who tested positive for the virus.

The rest of the details are listed as unknown.

Mr. Mayorkas said of the about 40,000 people who had reached the United States from Afghanistan, about 22 percent were United States citizens and legal permanent residents and the rest were Afghans, including many who were at risk of retribution at the hands of the Taliban.

Desperation at the gates of Kabul’s airport.
The confusion about the refugees began before they left Kabul, as overwhelmed consular officials struggled to identify and verify those who had valid claims to be evacuated.

A senior State Department official who was in Kabul described a desperate situation at the gates around the city’s airport and crowds that were so frenzied that officials worried they could slip “into a mob at any given moment.”

The Taliban changed its criteria at checkpoints “on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-by-hour basis,” the official said. At first, diplomats sent an electronic badge, or code, to Afghans who had been cleared for evacuation to show to guards at the gates. But it was shared so widely that officials no longer knew who should be let in.

“Within an hour everyone in the crowd had that new pass on their phones,” the official said.

“Every day was a constant improvisational effort to figure out what was going to work that day,” he said. “And I would say, everybody who lived it is haunted by the choices we had to make.”