On the last day of August, when President Joe Biden called the aerial removal of refugees in Kabul an “extraordinary success”, senior diplomats and military officials in Doha, Qatar, emailed a daily report on the situation, marked as “sensitive , but not confidential”.
Conditions in Doha, as he described it, were getting worse. There were nearly 15,000 Afghan refugees crammed into aviation hangars and tents at Al-Udeid Air Base and at Camp As Sayliyah, a US Army base in the Persian Gulf country.
Near the base were kept 229 unaccompanied children, including many teenagers who constantly harassed the younger children. There were “large numbers of pregnant women,” some of whom needed medical care, and more and more reports of “gastrointestinal problems” among the refugees.
Tensions were simmering, according to the report, “due to prolonged stay and unpredictable departure dates.” At the army base, “single men, including former Afghan soldiers” were restless “and smuggled weapons were confiscated.” None of the crowded bases were testing the rescued for the presence of coronaviruses.
The accounts were daily distillations of the complexities and chaos behind the largest air evacuation in US history as dozens of diplomats, soldiers, health professionals, security officials and others around the world tried to rescue tens of thousands of refugees. Whatever the Biden government’s plans for an orderly withdrawal, they fell apart when Kabul fell in a matter of days, prompting a last-minute global mobilization.
Refugees pushed their way to the planes. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents. Pirate flights landed without documentation. Refugee security screening was done in hours or days, not months or years.
Biden and his aides insisted that the evacuation of Kabul after the Taliban took the city on Aug. 15 was done as effectively as possible. But emails from the State Department, documents from the Health and Human Services and the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, as well as interviews with authorities and refugee advocates, suggest something else.
Conditions in Doha were reported each morning after Kabul fell, in a daily report emailed to State Department and military officials on behalf of Brigadier General Gerald Donohue, air base commander; from Greta Holtz, the veteran ambassador who oversaw the retreat into the city; and John Desrocher, top American diplomat in Qatar.
Hours after Biden’s speech on Tuesday at the White House, marking the end of two decades of occupation, a private charter plane from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth city, arrived at the air base in Doha — a of the ten stopover stations in eight countries—without warning, carrying no American citizens but hundreds of Afghans. Documentation for the plane, apparently chartered by a former marine’s law firm, did not clarify whether its passengers deserved special visas for having aided US troops.
“There are many other ‘pirate’ flights that are seeking the same landing permits,” said emails that day. “We have 300 people in Doha now who are basically outcasts. Most are undocumented.”
Two days later, Doha officials reported even harsher news: a 19-month-old child who had arrived from Kabul with “pre-existing problems” died at the air base amid fears of dehydration, norovirus and cholera among refugees.
Officials acknowledged the harsh conditions in Doha but say they are working to improve them — none wanted to comment openly.
The total number of rescued and where they are waiting is still unclear, although Biden said more than 120,000 had been removed. On Friday, Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said about 40,000 people had arrived in the US at airports near Washington and Philadelphia. Authorities expect about 17,000 more to arrive by next Friday, and thousands more could end up living in a dozen other countries.
Authorities said refugees are having fingerprints, portraits and biographical information sent to federal databases to eliminate possible risks. According to Mayorkas, hundreds of biometric tracking machines were shipped to 30 countries.
But unclassified documents titled “Afghanistan 2021 Repatriation Mission” reveal that in some cases the information collected is isolated: flight data is incomplete or missing, visa status or citizenship status unknown. On August 19, 226 people on two flights arrived at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Jordan Air’s JAV 4825 flight included 44 dogs but no information on its 58 passengers.
Ten days later, 13 flights landed in Dulles, carrying 3,842 people, including 6 refugees diagnosed with Covid and 6 unaccompanied boys. Flight CMB 581 carried 240 passengers, but records give few details, such as “about three” US citizens, two people over 65 and one passenger with Covid. The rest are marked as unknown.
Mayorkas said that of the roughly 40,000 people who arrived in the US from Afghanistan, 22% were US citizens and legal permanent residents, and the rest were Afghans.
Despair at the airport gates
Confusion over the refugees began before they left Kabul, as overcrowded consular officials struggled to identify and verify those with valid grounds for rescue.
A State Department official in Kabul described a desperate situation at the airport gates, with frantic crowds that could “turn into a rebel mob at any moment.”
The Taliban changed their criteria at the checkpoints “daily, sometimes hourly”. At first, diplomats sent an electronic code to Afghans authorized to board, but it was shared so quickly that authorities no longer knew who was supposed to enter.
This authority defined the situation as an improv effort every day.
Another officer, a 25-year veteran of the State Department, said she was squished between security forces the entire time at the gate as Afghan security threw nail-studded sticks into the crowd. Afghan guards often used smoke grenades and tear gas to try to disperse the crowd.
Up to 30 unaccompanied children showed up each day and were taken to a security building while authorities tried to find their parents, before they were taken to Doha alone. A 13-year-old boy had blood on his clothes because someone in the crowd had been killed in front of him.
These authorities described the events in Kabul in separate reports to journalists, but could not be identified under control rules.
places to land
As it rushed to evacuate the refugees from Kabul, the most critical question facing the Biden government was: where to put them?
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the government predicted it would need transit centers. But days after the collapse of the Afghan government, the Pentagon and the State Department rushed to secure agreements with countries in Europe and the Middle East to allow refugees to be housed temporarily in ten US bases. At the same time, military personnel began the “Welcome Allies Project,” setting up temporary shelters at eight US military bases.
The question of what will happen in the long run to refugees arriving in the US is a moving target. Some arrived with full visa applications in recognition of their work with the US military. These people and their families will become permanent residents and will be able to gain citizenship. But the vast majority are receiving the so-called “humanitarian conditional”, which allows them to live in the US for a fixed period, in most cases two years. They may have to apply for asylum and will have help finding a home in the US while they wait for their cases to be processed.
Officials say they were considering asking Congress to pass legislation to give all refugees legal status, as lawmakers did for Cubans in the 1960s and Vietnamese refugees in 1975.
As of Thursday (2), more than 26,000 Afghans who landed were taken by bus to a cavernous space near Dulles Airport, including 3,800 on Wednesday alone. Authorities said newcomers were generally there for less than a day for processing — and in some cases left in an hour or two.
On Thursday night, Secretary of State Antony Blinken learned that many people arrived dehydrated and in need of medical care; several women gave birth, including one who gave birth to triplets on the fourth. More interpreters were sent to the center to make up for the lack of people who spoke Dari or Pashtun.
Children ran through the maze of corridors between rooms separated by curtains, where people slept under blue blankets. Seeing three children standing to one side, Blinken stopped, crouched and introduced himself.
“Welcome to America, my name is Tony,” he said, patting his chest. “Nice to meet you.”