As the Afghanistan government crumbled and the Taliban advanced toward Kabul in late August of 2021, the urgency of evacuating thousands of Americans and NATO partners as well as rescuing Afghans who had worked with the United States accelerated dramatically.
Although the situation on the ground was chaotic, a small Defense Department team had been working behind the scenes for months to develop an unprecedented, streamlined system that could handle the crush. Although many deserving Afghans could not be evacuated, this system ultimately saved some 76,000 loyal Afghan allies and helped another 45,000 Americans and NATO partners escape imminent danger.
To speed the process as the crisis deepened and the evacuation became inevitable, a team headed by Hila Hanif went operational on a 24/7 schedule. It reached across the U.S. government to simplify and broaden approvals for the evacuation of eligible Afghans, including uniformed women, special forces, pilots and security sector civilians.
“The [Afghan] withdrawal as a whole has taken some punches,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner. “But the actual feat of saving over 120,000 individuals in such a condensed period of time was a bureaucratic miracle, and this team was the driving force in making that happen. The heroism and selflessness they exhibited is a little beyond description.”
Paul McHale, a former assistant secretary of defense, said the situation was “not business as usual.”
“They were working under unprecedented pressure … and in crisis mode to save lives by moving thousands of people from a war zone to safety,” McHale said. “The team’s accomplishment was extraordinary.”
By the spring of 2021, as security conditions deteriorated, the 22-member team had shifted from a focus on policy issues to planning for quick and safe evacuation of Americans, eligible Afghans and other allies.
Hanif, who fled Afghanistan as a child, was described as the “intellectual and process engine” of the team. Umid Khikmatov, the team’s lead for humanitarian affairs and a U.S. Air Force reservist and immigrant from Uzbekistan, began an interagency effort to slash special immigrant visa processing times.
By early summer, the team had an agreement that enabled the Defense Department to submit names of Afghans directly to the State Department’s Priority 1 refugee referral system, starting with 10,000 members of Afghanistan’s security sector judged most at risk of retribution.
Typically, there are just a few dozen Priority 1 refugees a year throughout the world, said Kenneth Handelman, the principal director of the Defense Department’s Afghanistan-Pakistan-Central Asia Policy Office.
When the evacuation turned imminent, the group secured another agreement from the State Department to enter names directly into State’s system and create a process to communicate with the Defense Department. It opened a channel to manage the vetting, paperwork and senior officials’ approvals, and to relay the results to Afghans waiting for assistance.
Each refugee received a five-digit case number that served as a gate ticket, Handelman said. All told, the system allowed service members, veterans and DOD civilians to put thousands more Afghans on evacuation flights than would otherwise have been possible.
“They established their own pipeline into the refugee system,” Handelman said. “They did the job because it was critical, and it had to be done.”
As the project progressed, U.S. veterans of the 20-year Afghan war and active-duty service members joined as volunteers. Hanif said the emotional strain on everyone was enormous.
“Everybody in the U.S. government cared about the people they worked with—the embassy staff, the military members, the interpreters … having to choose and prioritize among human beings was difficult,” she said.
Ahead of the harried August airlift, Hanif’s team had made a number of decisions that included arranging military bases for temporary housing, untangling issues across the DOD and keeping the government’s senior decision-makers apprised of the withdrawal process.
Ratner, who had become assistant secretary a week before Kabul fell, said that throughout the first half of 2021, Hanif’s unit pushed for the government to prepare better for what they saw coming.
“The team was rallying and organizing on the policy front and organizing within the Pentagon,” Ratner said. “They were really the connective tissue of everyone joining the effort—the U.S. Central Command and Joint Staff and people on the ground in Kabul. They built something out of nothing and accomplished something that was unprecedented.”
Team member Khikmatov said as the situation progressed, it became clear that Afghanistan would quickly fall to the Taliban. “Our motto became, ‘One life at a time, keep pushing,’” Khikmatov said.