How One Tech Entrepreneur Is Scaling Up Veteran-Led Evacuation Efforts
Volunteers in the U.S. are telling fleeing Afghans where Taliban traps are.
On Aug. 15, as the world learned that Kabul had been overrun by the Taliban,Worth Parker, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, got a call. One of the interpreters he had worked with in Afghanistan, who had since become a Marine reservist, needed his help.
“He said, ‘Sir, my parents and two brothers are in Kabul. My dad was a squadron commander with the [Afghan] Special Mission Wing. They’re already getting phone calls from the Taliban” urging them to turn themselves in, Worth said.
Parker started making calls but his voicemail was soon inundated with similar requests from other people who needed help. He is now part of a fledgling, veteran-led effort called Task Force Dunkirk to evacuate Afghans who have worked with the United States.
Almost immediately, Parker realized he needed help with scale. He had a handful of contacts, at the Kabul airport and elsewhere, to help Afghans obtain the paperwork they needed to get on U.S. aircraft, but things weren’t moving fast enough. The need was simply too great.
Parker reached out to Joe Saboe, the founder of Trendlines, which provides consulting and software to help develop workforces. Saboe and his team are now finding and coordinating veterans who can help identify potential evacuees and get them the information they need to get them out of the country. He calls the effort Team America.
“We basically started recruiting our friends who had combat experience,” Saboe told Defense One on Monday.
They’re up to about 150 people, mostly—like Worth—veterans of the infantry, Special Forces, or other special operations units. These volunteers become what Saboe calls “battle captains” in a virtual tactical operations center, or TOC, which they manage via a variety of apps. (For operational security, Saboe declined to name them). The battle captains have been working in shifts of three or four, 24 hours a day.
“We have evacuated about 116 people already,” Saboe said. “We have [communications] with 800 individuals right now. They’ve all passed through vetting and evaluation process so we can get them out.”
Once they identify a candidate for flight, they establish an evacuation plan for the person and possibly their family. All of the plan details are entered into a master tracker. The plans include information for getting in touch with the individuals, along with other details, such as whether they are traveling with children or elderly people, and if they are connected to special operations forces.
The group then provides the evacuees with a live, secure communication feed.
The group remains in communication throughout the process, sometimes with extended family elsewhere in the world as well.
“Typically we’re collecting from everything we hear from the families on the ground,” Saboe said. That data collection provides the group with a unique window into exactly what’s happening on the ground, which they can then share with the people they’re trying to help evacuate.
“We’re also monitoring open source information. Sometimes we are providing the families with maps of where gates are, or where we want them to go that maybe isn’t a gate, or where Taliban activity is. We’ll also talk them through the Taliban [tactics, techniques and procedures] and how to avoid them.”
The Taliban, Saboe said, have already begun phishing efforts against Afghans, looking for people who may be seeking to evacuate, by sending emails purporting to be from the United States States Department or other sources. “Often we will help verify the authenticity [or lack thereof] of certain emails,” Saboe said.
Despite White House assurances that the State Department is in contact with all U.S. citizens on the ground in Afghanistan, that hasn’t been Saboe’s experience.
“We have 11 U.S. citizens in one house right now. They have received no communication from the State Department. Zero. They called to ask if they should go to a specific location and we told them no because of intelligence we had. It was a trap,” he said.
The Taliban are also actively trying to infiltrate their operation, Saboe said. “There are active countermeasures being deployed by the Taliban to try and crack into groups like ours. We’ve gotten phishing emails.”
But Saboe’s frustration right now isn’t just for the Taliban.
“I had a U.S. senator’s office the other day, a senior staffer, tell me that they saw this as an issue that’s primarily, a concern to veterans… That’s deeply concerning. Another senator asked if these people were residents of his state.”
There are currently multiple veteran-led volunteer groups working the evacuation problem, all with different capabilities.
Parker says Saboe and his team were essential in helping him and other veterans to coordinate and scale up their efforts.
“I would tell you they’re an absolutely key part of that,” he told Defense One. “We’re a bunch of old guys that know how to network and gain access to assets. These guys are making it happen.”