Private Group Keeps Afghanistan Evacuations Flying Despite Ground Halt
Group leader: “There are Americans saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ And the State Department is saying, ‘Fill out your form in triplicate.’”
While the U.S. government is working to re-establish a regular flow of chartered evacuation flights for the Afghan interpreters and Americans left behind, one small veteran group is pulling off flights on its own. But not everyone’s happy about it.
Project Dynamo’s latest set of evacuation flights got another 47 Americans and legal permanent residents out of Afghanistan last month. The group’s chartered planes took off from Kabul and landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Dec. 18.
Despite that success and others, the group has not been included among the larger #AfghanEvac coalition of more than 150 veterans groups that have been welcomed into U.S. interagency planning. The coalition has worked with the State Department to help several thousand Afghans and hundreds of Americans—including some of Dynamo’s evacuees—depart through land routes and on State Department-chartered flights since Kabul fell. The coalition is also looking at the long-term picture and the humanitarian needs of those left behind. Group leaders recently met with the National Security Council to discuss the way ahead.
Thousands more special immigrant visa holders and at-risk Afghans, along with some Americans, are still in Afghanistan. But in mid-December, the Taliban halted U.S. government-chartered flights after coalition officials refused to provide seats on the aircraft to members of the group.
Project Dynamo founder Bryan Stern thinks the window of opportunity to help those allies is closing fast. They say they’re going at it alone because the larger group is taking too long to act.
This has made Dynamo unwelcome among the coalition, members of which cited concerns about its rogue approach.
“We've got people that are feeding folks; we've got people that are doing safe transportation, safe houses, providing medical support, I mean, thousands and thousands and thousands of people,” said one member of the #AfghanEvac coalition who asked not to be identified. “This isn't fucking Rambo. Nobody's Jason Bourne. This is a humanitarian effort. The military stuff is done; the spy stuff is done. We are trying to help these real-life humans get the help that they need.”
Dynamo’s Stern is a Navy reserve officer and an Army veteran with multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Like other veterans driven to save their interpreters, Stern decided not to wait for the U.S. government to act to get them out. So he and a few others flew to Uzbekistan instead.
Unlike the other groups, Stern goes into Afghanistan himself to get the evacuees out.
“So Kabul is like my old stomping grounds, right? So when I work, when I deploy, I wear plainclothes, I work the street,” he said. “I'm not tactical. I'm not wearing a tactical backpack with all kinds of loops and patches all over it, with, you know, with wraparound Gators glasses and a huge giant watch with an altimeter on it.”
“I have spent the night in my own safe house,” Stern said. “I know if my toilets work. None of the rest of them can say that.”
Stern isn’t the only leader of an Afghan-focused veterans group who has decided to pull back from the coalition process. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret who founded Task Force Pineapple a day after Kabul fell, said his group was part of the larger coalition initially but has since refocused on keeping remaining allies and their families hidden, sheltered, and fed through the winter.
“There’s nobody in [Pineapple] that is at odds with Dynamo,” Mann said. “I didn’t get on an airplane and bring people back, so I sure as hell am not going to sit around and criticize it.”
“We’ve got to get over ourselves and focus on the massive herculean problem we have, which is helping green card holders and at-risk Afghans. We don’t have time for infighting.”
Stern said he’s been able to get his flights in by working old connections and by being pragmatic about who is now in power.
“I don't say, ‘Oh, the Taliban.’ I say, well, the new government of Afghanistan. Because that's exactly what they are, whether I like it or not. That's a fact of life.”
To date, Stern said he’s flown 150 Americans and other legal permanent residents back to the U.S. The December flight had a dozen kids on board, the youngest was 11 months old. Despite the U.S. government charter pause, Dynamo was able to get its aircraft out.
“I apply for landing rights the same way everybody else applies for landing rights. I just know how to ask the question the right way,” Stern said. “So because I understand the culture a little bit better, and the political scene a little bit better, and I make sure to talk to somebody who I know will also represent us well, and ask the question the right way, such that it's all okay. Not necessarily good. And maybe not necessarily safe. But I get to a ‘yes.’”
Stern thinks Afghanistan’s security situation is unraveling fast. To him, meeting with the larger coalition to discuss differences of approach is a waste of time.
He’s working additional evacuations now, including mustering the money and resources to pull them off. The aircraft for the December flights, for example, were made available by Texas-based defense contractor Berry Aviation. Stern said he’s “shamelessly” fundraising now to beat the clock.
“It's been a really, really, really long time, since an American was, you know, shot in the back or anything resembling anything like that [by the Taliban]. At some point that will change, and I think that actually changes pretty soon,” he said.
Stern is quick to emphasize he’s been going into Kabul as a private citizen acting on his own.
Defense One reviewed documents to confirm Stern’s military service. A Navy official who also confirmed Stern’s military service said the Navy is not involved and that Stern makes these trips on his own time.
That sensitivity mirrors what the Pentagon has been saying about civilians left behind since their official withdrawal on Aug. 31: The U.S. military is not in Afghanistan, and it will not lead an effort to get the remaining Afghan evacuees and U.S. citizens out.
“For the American citizens he’s pulled out of there, they’re obviously grateful, but DOD and the Navy hasn’t had any comments or reaction because he’s doing this as a private citizen,” the Navy official said.
A State Department official said any independent actor who moves evacuees outside of the established agreements risks U.S. diplomatic relationships in the region and could reduce the chances of securing a long-term process to get more people out.
“There have been significant challenges with some of these privately organized flights,” the State Department official said. In September, six chartered flights were grounded for days at Mazar-i-Sharif because of concerns about who was on the planes.
Inconsistencies on flight manifests “damages the bilateral relationship of the United States with the destination countries; and makes it more difficult for the U.S. government to rely on those partner countries to assist in future relocations out of Afghanistan,” the State department official said.
Stern said every thing he’s done has been aboveboard.
“I won't move anyone without the State Department at least knowing about it. Wrong to say ‘approve’ – too strong of a word. But every manifest we've ever done, I share it with State and ask for feedback. They usually don't give feedback.”
Stern has been focused on Afghanistan since the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the young Army corporal exited the New York subway at the World Trade Center stop on his way to a briefing. He’d begun assisting bystanders when the second plane struck; the collapse shredded his pants to his underwear.
Stern admits he never made a very good soldier.
“I’ve been a problem child my whole career,” he said. “I’m just not built that way to work with the government. I wish I was. But what drives me now is there are Americans saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ And the State Department is saying, ‘Fill out your form in triplicate.’”
“In January 2022,” he said. “That seems just really hard to understand.”