Like a lot of people, I’m trying to help with evacuation efforts in Afghanistan. There are thousands of people working this effort in their spare time and not part of their official or professional capacity. After days of emails, rabbit holes and lots of broken leads, I think I finally made progress for one family. However, there are a lot more out there. Conducting a large-scale international evacuation driven by volunteers is not only incredibly inefficient, it’s also time consuming when time is a finite resource.
“Send me as much detail as you can. Everyone is getting ‘their’ person out,” I heard over and over again. I found this to be tragically accurate within the first four hours of trying to help a former colleague and friend get his family out of Kabul. The last five days trying to figure out how has been nothing short of dystopian. I figured there would be some sort of process to identify and evacuate Afghans quickly. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption.
Mind you It’s a very good thing that 42,000 people were evacuated over the past few weeks and I know many are grateful. However, even as US evacuation efforts are ramping up with flights leaving every hour and the U.S. exceeding daily evacuation rates, there is still a sense of frustration among people who have someone in country and are worried they will run out of time. Everyone I talked to was in the same boat, trying to get “their” person out, I was told and were just as frustrated and scared as I was and, like thousands of other colleagues, ended up leveraging my own networks. I ended up posting on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to ask for help and any leads on how to get people out of the country safely. Given that I’m a former intel analyst at U.S. Central Command, that is something I never thought I would do. My posts were among thousands asking the same questions. Everyone was trying to help “their guy.” I’m not sure anyone could have predicted that in 2021, actions on the ground have caused random people, many who did not know each other prior to last week, to cobble together makeshift extraction teams as they race against the clock. Even with increased efforts to move people, my frustration has turned to sadness and then and then sadness turned to rage. These volunteer efforts are not sustainable or scalable.
This is not remotely acceptable. It is beyond unacceptable. It’s personal.
Watching strategic setbacks unfold in real time are unfortunate for three important reasons, the first being that random people, working around the clock on their own time, piecing together grassroots, informal networks, bound only by a vested interest in Afghanistan and personal relationships should not be doing the work that we should expect government organizations to do. These people helped us. They served alongside us as our friends and colleagues for 20 years. How could this happen? How could we let this happen? What kind of people let this happen? I figured since I was a researcher for a living, true crime enthusiast and a more-than-decent Facebook and Instagram sleuth, that I had as good of a chance as any in making progress. I followed up with every DM. Every lead turned into a conversation, a vetting process and exchange of information. This takes days and there is no guarantee anything would pan out.
At one point, I ended up in a Clubhouse room with people who wanted to share resources. I got a DM with a zoom link to a meeting with a national security and innovation group. They were trying to leverage their network to help get people out. There were people there from MARSOC, Google, think-tanks, advocacy groups, DoD and the private sector who were there in an unofficial capacity because they wanted to step up and help. Like I said, it’s personal to a lot of people.
If you would have told me in 2020 that in 2021 there would be thousands of people working round-the-clock from their couch, trying on their own to navigate a labyrinth of information to help get their friends out of a fallen Afghanistan, I would have told you that you were crazy. Many are finding themselves spending time vetting and messaging complete strangers, pleading for help to get “their guy” “or their family” out. It’s encouraging to read successes on social media. These successes, however, are seldom repeatable. What works one day may not work the next. Once someone burns a favor, asking for another one for someone else gets all the more difficult.
The second reason, and one that we often forget is that the world is watching what promises we keep. Trust is a key component in strategic competition and social capital is more valuable now than ever. China is a fierce competitor for regional and global order and is playing the long game. Our shortsightedness in this conflict will benefit them in the long run. Russia is already capitalizing off our failures. When Russia is offering to fly displaced Afghans to safety, that’s something worth paying attention to. I dd not have that on my 2021 bingo card. That thousands of veterans and national security professionals are mobilizing en mass, taking matters into their own hands, while federal agencies are scrubbing sensitive information from their websites after-the fact, is not a good look.. In the race to get ahead in strategic competition, we are falling behind. In terms of compound security threats and public health, we are losing in vaccine diplomacy. Now, we are being publicly eclipsed in Afghan evacuations on a public stage.
We are also in danger of not only losing trust and credibility internationally, but also at home. Thousands of military and national security professionals, journalists and NGOs have spent years supporting or covering efforts and operations in Afghanistan. The collapse of a country that is so important to so many people should not go unnoticed. Thousands of posts urging people to “check on a veteran today” only amplify to the outside world what we have already known: That Afghanistan and its people and the Americans who died there mean something. While Americans, until the past week, have largely ignored Afghanistan, an entire generation who served always remembered. They want to feel like their time there wasn’t wasted. The next few months will be crucial and our future strategy is also an implicit message to those who served. How we handle this matters to our force, Afghans and Afghan-Americans, and also to our national security community.
Lastly, the shift to public-private partnerships has been gaining ground in DoD. The idea that defense and national security could leverage cutting-edge commercial technology and integrate it within everyday practice has been a very public and very expensive undertaking since innovation and emerging technologies have been a key line of effort in 2021. However, the events of the last few days has made it painfully obvious that there is still lot of work to do. It has revealed that not only are we slow to anticipate and react to this crisis but also slower to harness innovation and emerging technologies quickly that may make evacuation efforts easier to navigate and quicker. As much discourse as there’s been about the importance of leveraging the creativity and innovation of the private sector, many startups, tech companies and academic institutions find themselves working in-spite of bureaucracy, taking matters into their own hands to help people who desperately need it. Again, it’s not a good look. If the national security community is serious about moving beyond innovation tourism, this is an excellent time to leverage existing relationships in the private sector and work with them.
This crisis also shows the utility of open source intelligence. That a bunch of civilians who, on their own time and through their own volition, through open source intelligence and cobbled together networks can, in less than a week, make progress where others cannot through formal channels is a curious turn of events. Open source intelligence has been long underestimated but valuable nevertheless. It’s time our defense community recognizes that and prioritizes it.
Ultimately, how we fail is often as important as the failure itself. Over the next few months with the anniversary of 9/11, we will see a lot of chatter about “lessons learned” from the GWOT and in Afghanistan. Afghanistan in its new chapter has a lot to teach us and it is my hope that our leaders are listening.
Karla Mastracchio (she/her) is a communication professor, consultant and former intel analyst who has worked with U.S. Central Command, Defense Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department. The views expressed are hers and hers alone.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.