Over the course of 48 hours between Wednesday and Friday, Lisette Bonano, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, was sick with worry about a man who calls her “mom.”
At first there was some good news. An ad hoc group of volunteers helped guide the man, who worked with her as an interpreter in Afghanistan a decade ago, to the relative safety of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“Team America help me a lot to get there,” said the man, Tawfiq, in a message to Military Times Wednesday night. Earlier in the week, Military Times passed along his contact information to Team America, the ad hoc group, who went on to guide him safely to HKIA. It is one of several groups working to save Afghans and Americans left behind as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan.
Team America “coordinate with US forces at the airport and direct through a safe route where there was no Taliban,” said Tawfiq, who is not being identified out of concern for retaliation by the Taliban since he still has family left behind.
But after the deadly explosion that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans Thursday, there were no more messages from Tawfiq. No way to know if he was alive or dead.
Bonano was frantic.
Then at 11:33 p.m. Friday night, Bonano received a hopeful sign.
“Tawfiq’s FB msgr was displayed as green just now, but still no response,” she said in a message to Military Times.
Minutes later, that hopeful sign turned into a happy reality.
“He just texted!!!! Praise Adonai!!!!! ,” Bonano messaged Military Times. “Tawfiq: Hi mom I am fine how are you? We are in Qatar right now.”
“I was actually walking like a zombie — didn’t know how what to think,” said Bonano of the hours of waiting and worrying. “Was going to ask Afghans still there to see if there was a list of the deceased. Didn’t have to!
About 6,800 people were evacuated Friday from Kabul in 32 U.S. military aircraft and 34 coalition aircraft. Maj Gen. Hank Taylor said at a Saturday Pentagon press briefing.
“Today, I can report an updated total evacuation that is more than 117,000, the vast majority of which are Afghan,” said Taylor. Of this total number, approximately 5,400 are American citizens. This is an incredible number of people who are now safer thanks to the heroism of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line each day to evacuate American and vulnerable Afghans. … Threats to our forces and to this operation remain real and significant.”
Still, tens if not hundreds of thousands more Afghans who helped the U.S. and allies remain behind, frustrating many current and former service members and government officials who have created private rescue networks.
The effort to save Tawfiq was part of that massive digital underground railroad.
Tawfiq was frantic and confused after returning to Afghanistan from the U.S. just days before the Taliban began their dramatic sweep of the country, trapping him in the middle.
Like thousands of fellow Afghans who helped the U.S. during the 20-year conflict in his home country, he was worried about what would happen once America left. But the speed at which the Taliban closed off the country left him with few options. So, he called Bonano, an American contractor he worked with in Gardez years ago.
“He was always there right by my side,” Bonano said. “We had a great relationship, he was always very loyal to me.”
Not knowing exactly what to do, Bonano began reaching out frantically to anyone she thought could help. That included Military Times, which sent Tawfiq’s information to Team America, which helped guide Tawfiq safely to HKIA.
During Saturday’s briefing, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times that such efforts have proven helpful.
“To the degree that they have brought to light information that we can act upon, to get additional people out, of course, that’s been helpful,” Kirby said. “We certainly share the concerns that these groups have for these individuals. We feel the same obligation that they do to it. So, to the degree they’ve been able to help us latch on and identify that, yes, that’s been helpful.”
Kirby said the State Department has been doing the bulk of communicating with outside groups like Team America and others. DoD has been “primarily responsible for helping provide that secure area of the airport, for them to be able to get through the process and get through to properly manifest them and to get them on flights out of there,” he said.
“I think a lot of us are getting emails and calls and texts from friends and colleagues, many of them are veterans, who are passing information to us to try to help get additional people out. We’re doing the best we can when we are contacted to get that information to the right stream, to the right people on the ground there at the airport, to continue to facilitate movement,” he said. “And, as the general said, we’re going to try to facilitate movement of evacuees right up until the very end.”
“The situation on the ground continues to be extremely dangerous, and the threat of terrorist attacks on the airport remains high,” President Joe Biden said in a statement issued Saturday afternoon. “Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours. I directed them to take every possible measure to prioritize force protection, and ensured that they have all the authorities, resources and plans to protect our men and women on the ground. They assured me that they did, and that they could take these measures while completing the mission and safely retrograding our personnel.”
Despite all the efforts, there are those left behind. Including some of Tawfiq’s family.
“I brought one of my brother with his family with me but still one left behind,” he said.
Saturday morning, Team America had to share an unhappy message with another person seeking to help an Afghan helper.
“Thanks for writing,” Team America responded. “This is such a heart-wrenching story for all of us. Unfortunately, right now the only people being admitted to the airport are those with US passports or green cards. I encourage you to have them apply for a P2 Visa via the State Department. I’m so sorry there is not more we can do to evacuate them immediately.”
When asked whether Team America and other groups should continue operating — given the security problems on the ground and the U.S. troops starting to pack up to meet Biden’s imposed Aug. 31 Afghanistan departure deadline — Kirby said that was up to them.
“I’m certainly not for us to tell them to stop caring about individuals that they know are in Afghanistan,” he said.
For Team America, as with many of the other organizations, it remains Charlie Mike, regardless of the odds.
“We came to this effort without ego or arrogance — we do not know better than each individual Afghan family what is best for them right now,” said Kirsten Clodfelter, a Team America team lead. “Our role has been to bring a torch in the dark — what info can we provide or clarify, what specific support can we offer, what coordination can we facilitate between allied orgs or other actors to support getting someone to the gate at the right time with what they need and then get on a plane to safety.
“As the window closes to help evacuate people from HKIA, there’s no shortage of facilitation, support and advocacy work that still needs to be done.” she said.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.