As the last US military plane took off from Kabul just after midnight on Tuesday, it left behind an estimated 60,000 Afghan allies and hundreds of American citizens who had been unable to escape in time - for many, a dismal and dishonourable finish to the 20-year conflict.
For retired LTC Scott Mann, who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, it was not something he was prepared to live with. “We know instinctively, you know, in our gut, in our solar plexus, that we don’t leave our friends. We don’t leave anybody behind and we keep our promises” he said.
Mr Mann, along with other Afghan veterans, is launching Operation Recovery, a major mission to continue the evacuation and resettlement of the Afghan partners and their families that were left behind.
In an interview with The Independent: he said: “We are about to embark on a private recovery operation of western citizens as well as Afghan allies who we made a promise to.”
“If you’re a citizen and you’re in duress, you know, we will eventually find you. Stay low, stay safe, be smart and do everything that you can to survive. Same with our Afghan partners. We’re doing everything that we can to find you, to reach you and to help you reach safety.”
Mr Mann explained that the US made a promise to its partners: “If it got too hot or too dangerous based on their sacrifice for their country and us, then the State Department would provide them a special immigration visa to get their family to safety.”
But as the August 31 withdrawal deadline drew nearer, hands were wrung from Washington to London when it became increasingly clear that in thousands of cases, that promise was not going to be kept.
Meanwhile Mr Mann, along with an ad-hoc group of retired Green Berets, SEALs, Marines and other volunteers, were busy leading a monumental effort to get as many as possible of those at risk out, in an operation dubbed ‘Pineapple Express.’
The group, working remotely, used an encrypted app on their mobile phones to leverage on-the-ground networks and trusted relationships that, as Mr Mann described, “run 20 years deep.”
Members of the group coordinated the passage of those they were helping through the city, which was peppered with Taliban checkpoints, to Kabul airport. Mr Mann estimates as many as 700 were brought to safety in three days, often through utterly harrowing journeys.
“There were secret passages between the Taliban checkpoint and the actual airfield itself. There were holes in the fence. You had to move through sewage canals and things like that.”
Families endured beatings and other horrors during their dangerous journeys, and many were lost along the way.
Mr Mann, a veteran who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army, 18 of that as a Green Beret, said: “It was the most horrific and and challenging thing that I’ve ever had to see.”
Today, Mr Mann is calling on President Biden to direct embassies to be ready to receive American and UK citizens as well as those Afghan allies who were granted visas.
‘You gave them the applications, you approved and now they are coming and so have your embassy staff ready to process them. That’s the right thing to do and to do otherwise is a moral travesty.” he said.
He added: “We need a presidential finding to Congress that clandestine activities need to continue in Afghanistan with the Department of Defence and other agencies, with us, with the Pineapple Express and other volunteer organisations, so we can responsibly hand off the recovery effort that we’re doing. It would really go a long way to addressing all of the strategic and policy wrongs that have been done here.”
As a former combatant, his motivation for the mission is clear. “To abandon our American citizens and our Afghan allies behind Taliban lines – that’s going off the cliff into the moral injury of this, not just individually, but as a collective nation. That is a complete loss of our narrative. And our soldiers and veterans get that. In fact, I think most Americans get that.”
Mr Mann added that he had a direct message for President Biden.
“We are going to move these people, they are coming out of this country, we‘re not asking permission. We’re honouring our promise as combat veterans.”
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