The American withdrawal from Afghanistan is now complete, but the effort to bring Afghan interpreters and their families to the United States by veterans -- known as Operation Dunkirk -- will continue.
“Just because the government is pulling out doesn’t mean our veterans are,” said Matt Zeller, advisory board chair for the Association of Wartime Allies.
Zeller made those comments to CBS Eye On Veterans in a recent broadcast.
Veterans are currently on the ground, helping to get American allies out of harm's way after the Taliban regained control of the country earlier this month, Zeller said.
“Just because the American government has decided it’s done with these people doesn’t mean the American people are,” he added. “The commitment is simple. No one left behind, even if it takes years.”
According to the latest count, about 114,000 people have been evacuated since Aug. 14 from Afghanistan, and about 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul over a 24-hour period Monday aboard 26 U.S. military flights and two allied flights, per The Associated Press.
Zeller is an Army veteran who deployed to Afghanistan more than a decade ago. He is also a former CIA officer and co-founder of No One Left Behind, an organization working to bring Afghan interpreters and allies to America.
Zeller recalled an incident that happened in 2008 when he had been in-country for only 14 days serving as an embedded combat advisor with Afghani forces. He described the firefight where he first met his Afghani interpreter. Janis.
“While we were in this battle, the remainder of our training team back in our little outpost had decided they were going to spin up there own rescue convoy … when they left that outpost to come get us, they asked for volunteers and an interpreter named Janis stepped forward and said I’ll go. He grabbed his personal AK 47, personal body armor that he brought out of a bazaar that was all Indian army surplus stuff and mounted up."
What happened next is etched in Zeller’s mind forever.
“He saw I was pinned down and there were two guys running across the battlefield that were Hto get me dead to rights because I wan’t paying any attention to them
"He ran across the battlefield and knocked me out of the way and killed them at the same time, saving my life right before they were about to shoot me.”
“At the time he did this, I had met him 10 days prior in a receiving line,” Zeller said. “Here he was authentically a complete stranger, now as responsible for my existence as my parents are. That day, April 28, is my alive day.”
That’s what makes the current situation in Afghanistan so deeply personal, he said.
Zeller predicted that thousands of people who were unable to leave during the withdrawal of U.S. forces will die at the hands of the Taliban. “I can’t even discuss the moral injury that’s coming to veterans because of this,” he added.
Zeller called the visa application process that the interpreters have to go through in order to come to the United States broken. He added that blame for the application backlog and chaos in Afghanistan falls on both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
“We were tracking, the day Kabul fell, at least 88,000 just Afghan wartime allies meaning Afghan interpreters and their families who the government knew of who were in the visa application system for the special immigration visa,” he said.
Zellar noted that in the first year of the Trump administration, 4,000 Afghan families were welcomed into the United States. By the end of the first year, that number had fallen to just under 2,000.
That didn’t prevent people from applying for the visas, and a backlog built up. In a report to the Biden administration in early February, Zeller’s organization discussed the systemic failures of the special immigration visa program.
“We calculated, at the time the Biden administration took office, even if they quadrupled the number of staff processing visas, it would still have taken four years to get through the backlog,” he said.
Zeller’s group recommended evacuations well in advance of the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan agreed to by the Trump administration and later the Aug. 31 deadline set by the Biden administration.
“Our nightmare scenario is exactly what is playing out under the Biden administration,” he said. “We tried to warn them and no one listened.”
The hashtag #DigitalDunkirk has been adopted by both veterans and veteran service organizations to bring attention to the importance of saving American allies from the Taliban. The name comes from the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II and the effort t5o save Allied troops pinned down by Nazi forces.
Vets like Zeller hope that Operation Welcome home is something more than a hashtag.
As American forces left Afghanistan on Monday, Zeller said Operation Dunkirk will transition to Operation Welcome Home. The best thing Americans can do to help in that effort is to welcome the Afghans who come to the country, Zeller said.
“We’re about to get some amazing new citizens,” he said. “I can promise you, if you open your homes and your hearts to these people, they are going to enrich your lives in ways you can’t even imagine.”
Zeller called the Afghan interpreters who will settle in the U.S. returning war veterans who will need to connect to their fellow vets.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.
Reach Phil Briggs at Phil@connectingvets.com.
Want to get more connected to all the news and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here for our weekly newsletter.