In August 2021, as the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan, Air Force veteran Travis Peterson decided to go back into the country on his own.
"Before I knew it, I was jumping on an airplane," Peterson recalls. "I had no idea what was going to happen after that."
Peterson, who served 10 years in Afghanistan, wanted to help the men and women he had worked and fought with to escape. Those who had partnered with the U.S. government during the 20-year occupation could be eligible for special immigrant visas, or SIVs. Peterson says that he felt obligated to help.
"I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for these guys," he told Reason. "There are a thousand other individuals just like me that wouldn't be alive because of the intelligence on the battlefield as well of putting themselves in front of me."
Eventually, Peterson would connect with a group of other veterans, private citizens, active-duty military, and philanthropists who had also decided to take matters into their own hands.
Many of these individuals were members of Afghan special operations units, trained and funded by the American military. They participated in direct combat against the Taliban and are currently in hiding because their lives are in danger. Because they weren't directly employed by the American military, the State Department hasn't evacuated them.
"If we could just re-designate these guys to qualify for special immigrant visas or a humanitarian parole," he says, "we could have them out today."
During that chaotic week following the U.S. withdrawal in August, 2021, Peterson extracted some of the men he'd worked with, picking them out of the crowds. He escorted them to a security checkpoint at the airport and verified their identities. Through private donations, he arranged for four flights out of Afghanistan over a two-week period.
Peterson was at the airport in Kabul on the day it was attacked by ISIS, which killed an estimated 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers.
Not everyone who was able to escape had worked with U.S. forces. In the course of searching for his men, Peterson also encountered three siblings outside the Kabul airport trying to get on a plane and he decided to help them. "They looked distraught and terrified, so I took these three under my wing." (They now live as refugees in an East Coast city and asked that we not reveal their names or location.)
When he got back to the U.S., Peterson connected with a growing community of volunteers also committed to helping stranded Afghans. Zach Van Meter, a venture capitalist from Florida, rented a conference room at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in August to coordinate a private volunteer effort to get people out.
"We set up tables and there were anywhere from 40 to 60 people working in there for a week straight, people sleeping on the ground," Van Meter told Reason.
They convinced the United Arab Emirates government to help with the evacuation effort, which assisted in getting out 13,000 Afghans.
Private entities and the U.S. government worked together to airlift out nearly 130,000 people. Most are now living at camps in the U.S. and other parts of the world, awaiting a lengthy vetting process. Tens of thousands are still in hiding.
Ben Owen is the founder of Flanders Fields, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees inside the U.S. and maintains a network of safe homes that keep the individuals in hiding fed and sheltered.
"We keep the rent paid, we keep them warm, and we try to keep them from getting bored. We send coloring books for kids," he says. "We keep food going, and that's a constant struggle."
Flanders Fields is part of a nonprofit network that maintains 60 safe homes in Afghanistan. Owen says he has taken out about $23,000 in personal loans to cover expenses.
Although the Biden administration is currently doing little to help with the evacuation efforts, there are many individuals within the U.S. government who worked directly with some of the stranded Afghans and are helping with the private evacuation efforts.
"We have a friend who literally is taking some of his government salary to send money so people have food," Van Meter says. "He's never met them before. There are a lot of people who don't want to be in the press."
The Afghans stuck in the country face a catch-22: To qualify for an SIV to leave, they must sit for an in-person interview. But the U.S. doesn't conduct in-person interviews inside of Afghanistan.
Josh Jenkins is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan for eight years. Now he works for the nonprofit Amplio, which uses technology to fight poverty and is now helping with the evacuation efforts.
Owen, Jenkins, and other 15 nonprofit organizations joined a federation started by Peterson called Moral Compass, which seeks to better coordinate funding, logistics, advocacy, and food programs for stranded Afghans by putting them under one umbrella.
The federation, which relies exclusively on private donations, is exploring new strategies to help more Afghans escape, such as attempting to build a humanitarian village in Kosovo.
"We had doctors and lawyers. Everything from the top to bottom was covered, even volunteers willing to just come out and volunteer," says Jenkins. "They had no expectations of being paid."
Jenkins says the Kosovar government said it would sign off if the U.S. State Department agreed to issue a no-objection certificate, establishing that it does not oppose the plan. It refused.
Thousands of Afghans are stuck in vetting stations on U.S. bases inside the U.S. and around the world. They have been awaiting processing for over six months now. If rejected, some will end up stateless. There are around 14,000 U.S. permanent residents and 400 American citizens still stuck in Afghanistan who have no pathway to immigrate or are unwilling to leave their families behind. During a press conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken felt like it was important to clarify that the American citizens who remain in Afghanistan carry dual citizenships.
The Biden administration not only oversaw the disastrous withdrawal, but it has also continued to enforce and defend the U.S.'s broken immigration system. In 2021, it admitted only 18 percent of the refugees allowed under its self-imposed cap.
The Biden administration has a new program that will evacuate roughly 600 Afghans per week. But there are an estimated 100,000 who qualify for SIV status, which means the evacuations could take years to complete. And they'll still have to go through vetting facilities already backlogged with thousands of unprocessed applications.
Jenkins says we are obligated to continue to evacuate our allies in Afghanistan.
"We need to come through and actually do what we said we would do."
Written and produced by Noor Greene; edited by Danielle Thompson; additional graphics by Regan Taylor; audio by Ian Keyser; shot by Isaac Reese, Adam Czarnecki, Mike Koslap, and Jim Epstein.
Photos: U.S. Air Force/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs/Newscom; Hassan Majeed/UPI/Newscom; EyePress/Newscom; U.S. AIR FORCE/UPI/Newscom; Mark Lawson/U.S. Central Command Public Affa/Newscom; Sayed Najafizada/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; EyePress/Newscom Rod Lamkey / CNP / SplashNews/Newscom; White House/ZUMA Press/Newscom; US DOD/U.S. Central Command Public Affa/Newscom; U.S. Marines/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs/Newscom; U.S. Central Command Public Affa/Newscom; Donald R. Allen—US Air Force v/CNP / Polaris/Newscom; Valery Sharifulin/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; CNP/AdMedia/SIPA/Newscom; U.S. Air Force/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs/Newscom; Cameron Smith/White House/Newscom; Sayed Najafizada/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; CNP/AdMedia/Newscom; U.S. Marines/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs/Newscom; SGT. BRANDON CRIBELAR/UPI/Newscom; STAFF SGT. BRANDON CRIBELAR/UPI/Newscom; Abaca Press/Europa Press/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; Shahramnabizada, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom; Sayed Mominzadah Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Halo FC, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; 1ST LT. MARK ANDRIES/UPI/Newscom; Cpl Si Longworth RLC (Phot)/Photoshot/Newscom; Leila Turayanova/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Sgt Jared N. Gehmann/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Mashal Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Chris Herbert—U.S. Air Force via CNP/Newscom.
Music: "There" by Laurel Violet via Artlist; "Lost and Found" by Theatre of Delays via Artlist; "Polemos Mons" by Charlie Ryan via Artlist; "First Launch" by Piotr Hummel via Artlist; "Mulholland" by Theatre of Delays via Artlist; "Attya Ensoria (The Holy and the Damned)" instrumental version by Ian Post via Artlist; "Distant Echoes" by Salt of the Sound via Artlist; "Odd Numbers" by Curtis Cole via Artlist; "The Old Friend" by Max H. via Artlist; "The Fall" instrumental version by Or Chausha via Artlist; "Blood Meridian" by SPEARFISHER via Artlist; "Goosebumps" by Veaceslav Draganov via Artlist; "No Decides" by Or Chausha via Artlist; "Take Flight" by Seth Parson via Artlist; "The Blue Dot" by Shahead Mostafafar via Artlist; "Shadows Rise" by Doug Kaufman via Artlist; "Legends" by C.K. Martin via Artlist; "Transition riser airy whoosh" by Amusia via Artlist; "Deep-end sub-bass drop distant boom reflection" by Adam Pietruszko via Artlist; "Hard heavy transition" by Eytan Krief via Artlist; "Belgium ambience parking lot cars distant traffic" by Eneas Mentzel via Artlist; "Antisystem glitch distortion beeping" by Sampletraxx via Artlist; "Cinematic fuel whooshy transition" by Giorgio Riolo via Artlist; "The glitch reverberant error" by Sound Response via Artlist.