Sunday 3 December 2023

After Afghanistan Withdrawal, Biden Has Banked On Volunteers To Rescue Americans From War Zones


The Biden administration increasingly relies on skilled U.S. military veterans and volunteers to provide critical services for Americans stuck in areas struck suddenly by chaos, people involved in the help and rescue efforts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Groups composed of U.S. military veterans, often former special operators, jumped in to help ferry Afghan allies out of Afghanistan after seeing that the Biden administration abandoned thousands during the country’s collapse to the Taliban. After successive crises leaving Americans stranded in conflict zones — in UkraineSudan and now Israel — these groups have come to fill in gaps where the U.S. government lacks the resources, authorities or will to step in and bring U.S. citizens to safety, group representatives and experts told the DCNF.

“I think it might become more of a standard for conflict areas where a lot of Americans are and there’s a difficulty getting out,” Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer, who also worked on Afghanistan evacuations, told the DCNF. “In Afghanistan, it was a matter of ones personal integrity to keep our word.”

Volunteer-enabled evacuations have taken place in Sudan and Ukraine since the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal. In Israel, the circumstances were different; there was no army overrunning the country despite Hamas’ initial invasion and flights out, though limited, were still available.

In Gaza, “the ability to get people out was so contingent diplomacy that only the U.S. government and the Israeli government in official channels could engage in,” a State Department official with knowledge of the matter told the DCNF. “I don’t think the groups really were able to play the same kind of role in the situation that they were in the past.”

If the situation further deteriorates — if sparks on the northern border spiral into a full-on war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example — they will play an important supplemental role in arranging transportation for Americans to evacuate them from danger, Mulroy predicted.

“Should we have to do this? I don’t think so. Should there be a need for us to do this? I also don’t think so. But we do have to do it,” Tim Kennedy, a U.S. Army Special Forces master sergeant and sniper, told the DCNF.

Kennedy is co-founder of Save Our Allies (SOA), an organization that originated during the Afghanistan withdrawal to rescue members of the Afghan security forces who partnered with the U.S. military and received promises of safety in America. SOA and another veteran-run organization, the Special Operations Association of America (SOAA), worked together at times to evacuate Americans from Israel. 

Both groups describe themselves as nonpartisan and have active duty military members on their boards, their websites show. They fill in gaps where the U.S. government cannot operate, and Washington did not recruit or pay them to carry out humanitarian and rescue activities, group leaders and experts told the DCNF. The U.S. has not deployed special operations units in Israel for rescue and recovery or combat operations.

“That would fall into the purview of different organizations that have paramilitary units that are able to do that. There’s no Title 10 money — Congress hasn’t said we’re going to authorize the use of these types of groups to go and do this thing,” Kennedy told the DCNF.

“It falls into into a gray zone, that gray zone is a gap and that gap is where Americans effectively are trapped,” he added. “Not that I want to go into every war zone, but when it comes to Americans, I cannot stand by and let horrific things happen to Americans or our allies.”

Kennedy said one of his advantages was his ability to leverage contacts in defense contracting firms, the State Department and non-governmental organizations built up during his career in the military. In addition, SOA manages ground teams who do the footwork of helping Americans — performing route reconnaissance, filling out paperwork, securing transportation and moving people from one point to another without ambiguity.

“What we were doing was helping those people that were trapped there, get out. So that was in some instances as a liaison between the Department of State, the Egyptian government, the Israeli government [or] the NGO to the military, DOD or [Department of State] counterparts on the United States’ side to help streamline the evacuation of these people,” Kennedy said.

One example is Adam Friedrich, a pastor from Orange, California, who was on vacation in Israel with his elderly father. The two were visiting Jerusalem when the 3,000 Hamas terrorists attacked, and decided they needed to get home earlier than their planned leave date, he told the DCNF. Five airlines canceled flights out of Tel Aviv on them, and by that time Friedrich had maxed out his credit card.

The State Department told Friedrich, like other U.S. citizens wishing to get home, to “put your name on a list, and we’ll get in touch with you,” he told the DCNF.

The State Department relies on sending warnings to U.S. citizens in crisis zones for ensuring their safety as the situation heats up. It has warned U.S. citizens against traveling to IsraelLebanon and Iraq since the Oct. 7 attacks and subsequent escalation in hostilities involving anti-U.S. entities in the region.

In the worst cases, when no commercial transportation is available, the State Department might help Americans identify and potentially arrange options, but only if the agency has embassy personnel on the ground to do so, according to a Q&A on the agency’s travel website.

But, a U.S. government evacuation of roughly half a million U.S. citizens is effectively a nonstarter, Mulroy explained to the DCNF. The massive military-assisted Afghanistan evacuation airlifted roughly 120,000 from a conflict zone.

SOA arranged transportation for Friedrich and his father to the small Haifa airport on the other side of the country, where the pastor just had to confirm his identity to easily bypass security guards and barricades, he told the DCNF. Another operative met the two, shepherding them on board a charter plane to Cyprus.

“That morning the operator has called me and he said, ‘Is this Adam Friedrich?’ I said, ‘Yes it is.’ He goes, ‘Today it’s going to be an easy day,'” Friedrich said.

“I mean, if you had known the amount of pressure and we’ve been trying to just trying to get a flight has been so difficult … to hear someone say it with that kind of confidence ….” he told the DCNF.

The two organizations also supported State Department and international efforts to extract U.S. citizens from Gaza, although the security and diplomatic situation restricted their impact, The Washington Post reported. Five women, all aid workers hunkered in a U.N. compound in Gaza since the unrelenting Israeli air bombardment commenced on Hamas targets in the strip, were among the first tranche of Americans allowed to exit through the Rafah border crossing.

The organizations taught the women survival techniques, sorted through rumors about ongoing efforts to secure their exit and made sure their names appeared on the list of those permitted entry into Egypt, one of the workers, Emily Callahan, told the Post.

SOA and SOAA dispatched teams of about two dozen total members to Israel and Egypt following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel based on those individuals prior experiences working with the countries, Alex Plitsas, an SOAA board member and spokesperson who helped coordinate evacuation efforts, told the Post.

They ended up evacuating about 240 U.S. citizens, David Cook, SOAA’s executive director, told the DCNF.

On Nov. 1, the five Americans and foreign NGO workers successfully made it out of Gaza, Plitsas said. “You’re scared to even move that anybody’s gonna see you that you could be attacked. Save Our Allies, what they did, not only in Israel, but what they also did in Afghanistan, and Ukraine and others is actually get those people and bring them to their port of exit,” Friedrich told the DCNF.

SOAA volunteers saw themselves as enablers for the United Nations, other NGOs and the local Palestinians who threaded pathway to the Rafah gate connecting southern Gaza and Egypt once the U.S. and international partners negotiated for its opening, the Post reported. They steered clear of tasks like hostage rescue operations that strayed too far into government territory.

“We are grateful for the assistance private organizations and NGOs provide to all individuals who are exiting Gaza including assisting U.S. citizens get to safety,” a State Department spokesperson told the DCNF.

The Agency coordinated with the Egyptian government and positioned embassy personnel outside the Rafah gate with chartered transportation for U.S. citizens, the spokesperson added.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t our first rodeo. Throughout the three crises that we’ve worked together on in the last … two years, you gain a lot of trust,” Cook said.

Cooperation with the host nation can also end up complicating State Department efforts further, Amy Mitchell, a former DoD and State Department senior official who is now founding partner at Kilo Alpha Strategies and on the advisory board of the Vandenberg Coalition, told the DCNF.

“These are not organizations or governments the U.S. has friendly relationships with. That is why we are seeing an uptick in these nonprofit groups — they can and do work in that gray space that the U.S. government cannot by utilizing civil society networks and organizations to rescue Americans and partners,” Mitchell said.

“State Department tacit approval allows the groups to continue their work,” she added. Involvement from volunteer organizations may not always be positive, experts cautioned, although the U.S. government appears postured to cooperate with the groups. Critics have pummeled the Biden administration for contributing to the circumstances that put Americans and allies in dangerous positions.

Kennedy also characterized the need for groups like his as “strategic level policy failures.” “The passion many have shown publicly again points to the failure we are currently experiencing at multiple levels of government ,and because of this administration’s foreign policy decisions,” Mitchell said.

If the organizations are “viewed as being antagonistic to the U.S. mission, that they’re probably gonna not be as helpful as they could be,” Mulroy told the DCNF.

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