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Escape from Kabul: Inside the volunteer effort by US troops to rescue their families from Afghanistan

By Katie Bo Lillis

An hour after a suicide bomb exploded outside the Kabul airport on August 26, killing 13 US service members and scores of Afghan civilians, Fahim Masoud, a US military intelligence officer, made a frantic call to his sister.

She, along with Masoud’s parents and two other siblings, were in a CIA-organized bus navigating the crushing crowds and constant gunfire around the airport, desperately trying to escape Afghanistan.

Masoud, a Second Lieutenant in the Illinois National Guard, had just seen classified information suggesting another attack might be imminent. From his home in Virginia, he told his sister to hand the phone to the bus driver.

“I can’t tell you where I’m getting this information,” he told the driver. “But you need to get out of there.”

For weeks, Masoud, a native Afghan who became a US citizen in 2015, had been working furiously to get his family out of Afghanistan. He’d rented a safehouse for them to hide out in and cold-called senior US military officials asking for help. Now, even in a bus sent by the CIA to help ferry them into the Kabul airport, his family seemed no closer to safety.

In the end, there was no second bomb. Masoud’s family, after spending close to 12 hours trying to get through dangerous checkpoints, eventually made it safely through a secret CIA-run gate on the north side of the airport.

Less than 15 minutes later, they were aboard a C-17 bound for Qatar. They are now safely housed on a military base in Virginia, waiting to be vetted before they can come to live with Masoud and other family members already in the US.

The successful escape of Masoud’s family is one of countless informal rescue missions put together during the chaotic final days of the US withdrawal by a hodgepodge of current and former US officials with experience in Afghanistan.

Two months after the final US military plane left Kabul, some of those same people are still working tirelessly to extract family members of US service personnel stuck in Afghanistan — all with what sources say is little or no official help from the US government.

Interviews with active-duty service members, former military officers and current lawmakers working on this issue reveal a deep level of frustration over the lack of formal government assistance. Lawmakers say they are in the dark about the best official avenue to help constituents who call asking for help. And military personnel with family stuck in Afghanistan say they’ve been left to figure things out for themselves.

“Nobody cares about my family”

Many of these troops, like Masoud, began as interpreters for the Americans, then immigrated to the US and joined the military, leaving family members behind in Afghanistan. Two service members who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity said their association with the US military has put their family at risk, and that things have only gotten more dangerous since the US left at the end of August.

With no embassy on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban in control, and a sclerotic immigration process widely seen as dysfunctional and far too slow, US service members are left to work the same ad hoc, do-it-yourself networks used by Masoud to rescue their families still there.

“The military says, ‘family first, no one will be left behind,'” said one active-duty service member who told CNN he had received no help from the US government in evacuating his family members. But “nobody cares about my family,” he said. “And nobody cares about people that were left behind.”

Since there is no official government database tracking them, it’s impossible to say exactly how many family members of American service personnel are still in Afghanistan. Estimates range into the hundreds.

“The system is essentially overwhelmed,” said Masoud.

“I went into a panic”

After the fall of Kabul in mid-August, dozens of volunteer groups made up of current and former officials from all parts of US government emerged to help at-risk Afghans and US citizens escape the country. During the evacuation, many worked informally with the US military and intelligence services using WhatsApp and pay-as-you-go cell credits to coordinate meetup points and help small groups of evacuees get into the airport.

Masoud initially tried official government channels to get his family out, putting together a packet for what is known as a “P-2” visa. “Nothing happened,” he said. In late August, he started getting desperate. He cold called Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s office and Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau — a Hail Mary move for such a junior officer. And he reached out to a former CIA officer for help.

Soon, Masoud started to get traction.

Hokanson assigned his executive officer to help, and together with the former CIA officer, Masoud began staying up late into the night calling US contacts inside the Kabul airport to try to organize a bus that could bring his family in.

Masoud directed his family to go to a gas station near the airport, where they waited for twelve hours amid nonstop gunfire between the Taliban and CIA-trained paramilitary units.

On August 26, “we worked our magic,” Masoud said. The CIA dispatched a bus with a hired local driver to ferry his family to the airport.

What followed was another terrifying ten or twelve hours as the bus failed at each official entry point, turned back by the US-trained militia manning the checkpoints and buffeted by crowds and gunfire and chaos. Masoud, getting real-time updates from his sister on the bus’s location, stayed in touch with a contact inside the gates. On the bus was also a child who was a US citizen, Masoud said, offering his family a perverse kind of insurance policy: if their bus was detained by the Taliban, American forces would come after the child with a US passport, he believed.

When Masoud saw news of an explosion near Abbey Gate, he feared the worst. “I thought they had definitely been killed,” he said. “I went into a panic.”

After Masoud re-established contact with his sister and delivered his urgent warning to the bus driver, his CIA contact inside the airport directed the driver to go to the secret gate, now known as Glory Gate. There, once again, they ran into a roadblock: The State Department official manning the gate would not immediately allow them to pass without US passports or a visa.

Masoud, along with the former CIA officer and Hokanson’s executive officer, all negotiated with the State official for what Masoud guesses now was a nerve-wracking 20 minutes before the officer finally verified their identities and let them in.

Once he knew they were safe inside the airport, a wave of relief washed over Masoud. He called the former CIA officer he had been working with and they both broke down on the phone, he said.

“I had never felt like that before,” Masoud said. “I keep telling people I went through this essentially Kafkaesque metamorphosis. I cannot be the same person that I was anymore given what I went through.”

“What can we do to get our people out?”

Over time, some of the task forces running jerry-rigged rescue efforts like Masoud’s have formalized into volunteer-run nonprofits. Now, they work to charter aircraft to leave out of Kabul and, using some of the same tactics they employed during the evacuation, help other would-be escapees navigate over land to Pakistan.

Days after his family got out of Kabul, Masoud received calls from the offices of two US senators, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Both offices had the same question: “What can we do to get our people out?”

Masoud couldn’t believe it.

“I was like, wow, here is a United States senator’s office calling a guy like me, who’s a nobody, asking me how they could get people out. That’s how desperate they were,” he said. “It speaks of the lack of coordination that existed between the State Department and other government agencies or a place like Congress.”

The State Department has formed a team to coordinate across government agencies and with outside groups to facilitate the departure of American citizens, legal permanent residents of the US and Afghans.

But a State Department official insisted that the government is limited legally in what it can do to help family members of US military personnel, absent action from Congress, according to a State Department official. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the State Department can assist only dependents under the age of 21 — meaning that the parents or adult siblings of US service members would need to turn to the slow and often frustrating Special Immigrant Visa process to be admitted.

Getting anyone out of Afghanistan these days remains an uphill battle. Most evacuation flights scheduled to depart Afghanistan last week were canceled, according to a State Department email sent to US citizens in the country, CNN reported. A few flights from Kabul to Doha carrying some US citizens have resumed this week, but it is unclear if any military family members were on board.

“It absolutely leaves many people in a situation of having to rely on other governments and [non-governmental organizations] to do this,” said Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat of Colorado who has been outspoken about the need to evacuate at-risk Afghans from the country. “Going back to August, the NGO community was one of the primary avenues of evacuation for folks, and that remains the case.”

Asked last week about stranded family members of military personnel, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “remains committed to making sure that we continue to do everything we can to get our Afghan allies who want to leave Afghanistan to help get them out.”

Kirby added that there is “not a US military component or element to that effort.”

One current enlisted soldier whose parents and siblings are still trapped in Afghanistan and in hiding from the Taliban said trying to navigate the Pentagon’s strict bureaucracy has been a dead-end endeavor.

“There has not been any specific instructions by the DOD. There has not been any official effort that we know of to help our families,” said the soldier, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal. He said he was aware of at least 20 other service members in the same position.

“Every single one of us brought this to our immediate superiors — and I want to make a note that our immediate superiors worked and fought extremely hard in order to evacuate our families to safety and it made it pretty high up within our chain of command — but we just don’t know what happened when it made it higher up,” the enlisted soldier said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, has been among the most vocal members of Congress in the effort to rescue service members’ family from Afghanistan. McCaul has been pressing the State Department and the Defense Department for more information on what they are doing to help the families of American service members.

“They’ve been very callous about this whole thing and I haven’t seen a whole lot of concern or empathy at all about what’s happening,” McCaul said. “They just want to wash their hands of this and just move on.”

On Sept. 10 McCaul sent a letter to both departments asking for more information. He didn’t receive a response from the State Department until Oct. 19. “The Department of State shares Congress’ interest in ensuring the family members of US service members are able to safely depart Afghanistan,” said the letter, obtained by CNN. “While US government evacuation flights out of Afghanistan have ended, our commitment to US citizens, Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs), and at-risk Afghans in Afghanistan remains steadfast.”
McCaul has yet to receive a response from the Defense Department.

When McCaul gets calls from constituents looking for help rescuing family members still stuck in Afghanistan, he often refers them to these private groups — with some success. Last Thursday, his office received word that two groups of service member family members whom he had been involved in helping were successfully evacuated out of Afghanistan, one into the UAE and one that escaped across the border into Pakistan, according to his office.

Hunted by the Taliban

For the service members whose families are still trapped inside Afghanistan, the terror is ongoing.

Both the service members who spoke to CNN and McCaul expressed deep fears for the safety of the family members left behind. McCaul noted that the Taliban have access to extensive manifest lists and biometric data on individuals who tried to get out in the waning days of the evacuation and were unable to, information that they inherited when the US pulled out and the Afghan military collapsed.

“The Taliban has all of this information, and they’re currently hunting them down to kill them,” McCaul said.

The Taliban is also able to identify family members of US service members through their social media profiles, the enlisted soldier said.

“We posted our pictures on social media because we didn’t see this day coming,” he said. “We don’t regret posting on social media because we’re proud of everything that we did, but it puts our families in a very tremendously dangerous situation.”

The other service member, who also spoke on background for fear of reprisal, said Taliban militants searched his family’s house, looking for evidence of their ties to the United States. “They couldn’t find any proof because luckily they got rid of my pictures, they got rid of everything” that could prove they had a child in the US military, he said.

Although some of his family members were able to get with the help of private efforts from veterans and others in the US, this service member is still trying to get others out of the country. Those family members are hiding for fear of becoming targeted for their connection to the United States, the service member told CNN.

“They can’t go to work. They can’t get out most of the time. Their kids can’t go to school because they don’t want to be compromised and they don’t want to die,” the service member said.

In hiding, these families are unable to work and are running out of money, in some cases living in tents or on dirt floors, Masoud and the enlisted soldier said. With winter approaching, their situation is becoming increasingly perilous.

Crow said the families should receive priority for rescue, not only because they are at heightened risk because of their association with the US military but also because their peril represents “a readiness and national security issue.”

“If we have our servicemen and women who are focused and worried about their family members, as anybody would be, then that makes it harder for them to focus and do their job,” he said.

The enlisted soldier said that since the fall of Kabul, he has been plagued by old nightmares of his brother being slaughtered by the Taliban — recurring dreams that he had thought were behind him.

“Over the past two months, my spouse has woken me up multiple times because I was either screaming or she saw that I was really struggling and I was in pain while I was sleeping,” he said. “I recovered somewhat over the course of the past few years but just recently, I can tell you that my mental state has deteriorated.”

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CNN’s Alex Marquardt and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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