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Perspective: When Biden dropped the ball in Afghanistan, America showed up

From NGOs to mothers on maternity leave, Americans stepped up to help their Afghan allies

Families walk toward their flight during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 24.
Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via AP

When I first asked Corinne Snow if I could talk to her for a piece about grassroots efforts to evacuate and aid Afghan refugees, she demurred. She told me, “I would be more than happy to talk to you but I don’t feel comfortable being highlighted. There are private citizens chartering planes, putting themselves in harm’s way, doing incredible things and I’m just sending emails and texts in between feeding my baby while on maternity leave. I would just feel really foolish taking credit when there are people out there doing really heroic stuff.”

Snow wasn’t alone in her humility; every single person involved in the efforts to rescue Afghans who I asked to talk to for this piece felt similarly.

While Snow may not be chartering planes, her efforts have contributed to the successful evacuations of Afghan families and individuals and more than 8,000 items purchased off of Amazon wishlists she put together for U.S. troops and refugees in conjunction with troops stationed in nearby Qatar. Alongside countless other Americans, Snow played a vital role in getting as many Afghani allies out as possible following the quick and dramatic fall of the government to the Taliban.

None of the individuals I spoke with could pinpoint the moment they became involved: Sometime in the past several weeks, they started to receive requests for help from both those still inside Afghanistan and from individuals around the world who cared about people there. Message after message rolled in, and eventually groups of individuals with connections in the military, on the ground, in the government, or just concerned citizens were formed on WhatsApp and Signal.

Snow worked with another woman, Simone Ledeen, who described her grassroots work as being a communications hub and facilitating connections between parties. Ledeen was the perfect woman for the job. Thanks to spending more than a year in Afghanistan across two deployments — one that brought her around the country, and one stationed in Kabul — Ledeen had a large and varied number of contacts on the ground. A former government employee, Ledeen has an extensive network in government in Washington, D.C., as well, all of which she harnessed over the past two weeks as she worked to connect those who needed help with those who would have a hope of providing it.

Washington, D.C., has a bad reputation as “The Swamp,” but it has shown its best colors these past two weeks. I spoke to a Washington-based human rights advocate at a prominent nongovernmental organization working on a dossier of hundreds of cases of hopeful refugees for which to advocate and coordinate logistics. As a matter of security, he asked to remain anonymous.

He extolled the beauty of the cooperation on the Washington scene over Afghanistan. As a nonpartisan, he expressed his view that the Biden administration undeniably dropped the ball — a belief shared by most. Still, everyone I spoke with involved in these grassroots evacuation efforts enthusiastically described how staffers across the government, from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon to the departments of State and Defense, worked together and across the aisle to save as many lives as quickly as possible.

“The one thing about this experience is how it shows Washington and its power can work for good,” he said. “Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen amazing stuff. I’ve seen major CEOs get in the trenches and fellows in the dawn of their career taking on massive leadership roles because they’ve proved they’re willing and ready. The only thing people cared about was, ‘Do you have a bucket and are you willing to bail water?’ — not if someone is a Republican or Democrat.”

These efforts have not come without significant heartbreak. Writing for National Review, John McCormick explains the number of Americans, residents and allies we left behind at the hands of the Taliban:

President Biden withdrew all U.S. forces from Afghanistan on August 30 despite the fact that at least 100 to 200 U.S. citizens remained stuck in the Taliban-controlled territory.

Thousands more legal permanent U.S. residents were left behind.

As for the Afghans who were America’s closest allies in the war — and thus face the greatest risk of being slaughtered by the Taliban? It’s hard to pin down an exact figure, but The New York Times estimates that the United States left behind “at least 100,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement in the United States for their work with the Americans.”

State Department officials acknowledged on Wednesday that a “majority” of Afghans who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas by working as translators and in intelligence for U.S. forces were left in Afghanistan, and NBC News reports that it was in fact an overwhelming majority:

“More than 120,000 people of all nationalities were evacuated from the Kabul airport as the U.S. military withdrew, but initial figures suggest that only about 8,500 of those who left Afghanistan in recent months were Afghans, according to numbers released by the Biden administration and estimates from advocates...”

Everyone I spoke with expressed their frustration, anger, sorrow and horror at the number of vulnerable people they know are left in Afghanistan, who they couldn’t get out in time before the Kabul bombing and the official American withdrawal. The human rights advocate explained, “We get a lot of calls begging for help, saying ‘They’re going to kill my brother and you’re his only hope.’ I’m not a doctor; I don’t usually deal with life and death.”

A scene from the Kabul airport, described as “Dante’s Inferno,” as one family attempted to escape the country. Minutes later, an Islamic State bomb detonated, wounding the father who took the photo — an Afghan interpreter — and killing his son.
via Simone Ledeen

Ledeen was similarly shaken by the events of the past two weeks. She related a story about how close one family came to evacuation. The scene at the airport was “Dante’s Inferno,” with throngs of people waiting for possible entry. Ledeen worked with former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus on coordinating extractions, and Ortagus too was shaken by reports at the airport, with one family she was trying to help trapped outside the airport without food, water or diapers for their 3-month-old twins.

The family Leeden was working with were in a similar situation, but hope was near: The WhatsApp group she was part of had made contact with military inside of the airport, and the father, an interpreter, was standing at the Abbey Gate trying to identify himself amid the mass of other desperate people. He was instructed to take a selfie of himself and his family to send to those inside to help identify them and to hold up a sign with a codeword to signal where he was.

These communications between people on either side of the gate and those in Washington were happening on WhatsApp chats in real time when the Islamic State bomb detonated, killing the father’s son and gravely wounding the father. Leeden sent me the photo the photo the father took minutes before the bomb went off, with the son who was killed sitting on the ground alongside his three siblings. In the picture, the boy of no more than 10 years old, who would just minutes later lose his life, looks up into the camera, and into your very soul.

The human rights advocate I spoke with described two straight weeks of 16-hour workdays, and Snow, Leeden and Ortagus were quite obviously emotionally and physically drained from their efforts as well. Why did they do it?

Ortagus, who was nursing her own baby back to health after an illness and in the middle of launching her own company, linked her decision to help rescue Afghans with her own Jewish faith.

“All of these stories you read about the people who saved the Jews and part of me thought that I hope that I’m part of something like that, saving these Afghans,” she told me, then quoted a famous line from the Talmud: “If you save one life, you save the world.”

A Harvard-educated lawyer and his extended family that Morgan Ortagus successfully evacuated to Qatar.
via Morgan Ortagus

That Jewish teaching has been cited a great deal in relation to the airlifts that brought thousands of Afghans out of harm’s way. Ortagus shared with me an image of an entire extended family she tirelessly worked to evacuate: a Harvard-educated Afghan lawyer, Saeeq Shajjan, and all of his relatives. It’s hard not to see 24 worlds in that picture, taken from a room in Qatar a week after they were all brought out of Afghanistan, escaping certain death to find safety.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and his staff turned their office into a war room for the effort to evacuate Americans, residents and our allies. As the work wound down, one staffer expressed his appreciation for the effort, as well as his frustration that it had to be undertaken at all.

This is the story of the American spirit — stepping up and doing the hard work because it is what we are obliged to do as decent, freedom-loving people. It’s a travesty and a tragedy that our government has left tens of thousands of people at the hands of the Taliban, but for as much as the Biden administration shamefully dropped the ball, it’s important to hear the stories of the Americans who worked tirelessly to right the wrong we’ve done in the haphazard and shameful way we left Afghanistan.

America is more than any individual administration, and the past two weeks have shown the strength and compassion of the American people.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News, editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.