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The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Digital Dunkirk—A 21st Century Public-Private Extraction

Ending a War Then and Now

Ambassador Sarah E. Mendelson, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in D.C., and Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy, wrote her dissertation and first book Changing Course on the Soviet intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan. Jon Reisher is a U.S. Army Captain who served in Afghanistan and is currently pursuing his Master of Science in Public Policy and Management at Heinz College. In this exchange, Mendelson contrasts the eras in which the Soviets withdrew with the recent American withdrawal and talks to Reisher about the work he did as part of the global digital movement to help extract Afghan colleagues and their families after the Taliban took power in August 2021.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan contrasts in multiple and important ways with the U.S. war in Afghanistan. To begin with, one was internationally condemned by over 100 countries, while the other was internationally sanctioned by the United Nations. Indeed, the Americans were bolstered by international forces. The Soviets sustained approximately 15,000 military casualties while the United States lost 2,218. The casualty count among Afghan civilians was extremely high in both cases: some experts estimate half a million killed in the Soviet war while others place the casualty rate at about 200,000 in the US war. The Soviet war lasted nearly a decade while the U.S. effort spanned nearly two decades. The Soviet costs of the war are difficult to tally precisely but certainly nowhere near the approximately $2.313 trillion that the United States spent on the military but also on development and humanitarian assistance.

Beyond these quantitative metrics, perhaps the greatest contrasts revolve around the way in which the withdrawals occurred as well as the global contexts in which they took place. The Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 was accompanied by much less international attention, and initially at least, less chaos. The iconic photo of Soviet convoys crossing the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge may be what, if anything, observers recall of the end of that war. In the pre-internet era, perhaps that’s not surprising. But it is also the case that so many other events in 1989—a year of seismic geopolitical change, marking the beginning of a global rise of democracy struggles and movements, some unsuccessful and others successful—did capture the public imagination (thanks to the world press). These included witnessing the bloodshed following Chinese students’ attempts at a democratic uprising in Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, sweeping democratic reforms across much of Central and Eastern Europe, and a decisive referendum in Chile ending the military dictatorship, part of a justice cascade that had begun on that continent a few years prior. The lack of international attention to the Soviet withdrawal undoubtedly is also explained by the fact that the Afghan government retained power in Kabul for three years after troops withdrew in part because of continued Soviet support, until the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The Afghan Government subsequently collapsed in 1992, succumbing to the Afghan Civil War which set the stage for Taliban control in 1996.

The drama of the U.S. withdrawal in 2021 occurred against a strikingly different global context, one marked not by the steady rise of democracy but by 15 straight years of democratic decline. It also occurred during the digital era. In August, because of technology, the world had front row seats to the desertion by the Afghan government, unfurling in a matter of hours and days—not weeks, months, or years—with the Taliban again taking control. The withdrawal was described by the Joint Chiefs Chair, General Milley, the most senior US military official, as “a logistical success but a strategic failure.” 

While some observers were quick to criticize that characterization and others who had served wondered why there was not a “clearer plan for helping tens of thousands of [our] Afghan partners,” credit for getting many Afghans out needs to be understood as part of a still unfolding story: “Digital Dunkirk.”   For the first time in modern military and diplomatic history, the withdrawal included an ad hoc, public and private, digitally-based effort involving, literally, thousands of people around the world—inside and outside the U.S. government—extending a digital hand to pull former Afghan colleagues and their families to safety as quickly as possible.

Heinz College’s own Jon Reisher (MSPPM ’22) was one of those people.

Sarah E. Mendelon: Jon, please describe your service in Afghanistan. When were you there, where did you serve, and what was the main mission that you and your unit were tasked with?

Jon Reisher: I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as a rifle platoon leader with 1-187 Infantry, 3rd Brigade “Rakkasans,” which is part of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. My unit was sent to Paktia Province in Eastern Afghanistan and charged with disrupting the Haqqani and Hezb-e-Islami (HIG) networks. This was the tail end of President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, so our unit spent a lot of time ensuring that routes were clear for the closure of some of the more isolated outposts. Finally, my platoon worked with Afghan police in Gardez, Afghanistan. Mentoring chiefs of police who were two decades my senior and battle hardened was a humbling experience as a 23-year-old second lieutenant.

SEM: I confess, based on my eight years studying the Soviet intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan, I have long harbored grave concerns about the U.S. and international effort there. I anticipated the day when the U.S. would leave, and the fate of those who wanted to build a rights-based Afghanistan would be in grave danger. And yet, the way in which this occurred has left so many colleagues across the U.S. government, the NGO community, and around the world, shocked and upset. There are now multiple Inspectors General investigating the withdrawal. What was the expectation by you and your colleagues about the course of the withdrawal, and how did it contrast with what went down?

JR: This is a challenging question because the withdrawal has become so politicized. It is also difficult because I think everyone is still fully processing the end of the war and the evacuation in August. However, from the perspective of a veteran, it is important to recenter the discussion on the human cost of the conflict. There’s a lot of discussion about what this means for America’s gold star families, that is families who lost someone overseas. Additionally, there is grave concern about our Afghan allies and what the Taliban take over means for them. Even for Afghans that were able to resettle in the United States, the Taliban continues to take retribution on their extended families. This hits home for us because the Afghans that worked for us not only risked their lives but also their family’s lives. Most veterans feel that the Afghans working and serving alongside us were very much part of the unit. It adds to the confusion because there is a general feeling that we’ve left folks behind, a cardinal sin in the military.

Finally, there is the issue of human rights. The Afghan War had many faults but elevating women to positions of power and increasing educational opportunities for girls was a significant victory. I do not think international pressure will be enough to force the Taliban to extend fundamental human rights to minorities or women.

SEM: Where does the term “Digital Dunkirk” come from?

JR: There might be competing narratives about the origins of Digital Dunkirk. For me, it is an homage to the May 1940 evacuation of more than 338,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops, who were facing capture by the Nazis, from the coastal city of Dunkirk, France. Dunkirk was a national effort; regular people banded together to organize and sail civilian boats across the English Channel to save Allied troops stranded on the beach. Many British civilians even came under fire by Nazi aircraft while transporting soldiers. The significance of Dunkirk is that those 338,000 troops became the core of the British Army and Free French Army that would liberate North Africa, Italy, and eventually Western Europe. The Digital Dunkirk name is not meant to diminish the valor exhibited by British civilians at Dunkirk, but to honor that spirit of cooperation and teamwork to achieve a goal.

SEM: Was there a particular tool or skill that you have acquired in your time at Heinz College that helped or enabled your work for Digital Dunkirk?  More broadly, can you give some examples of exactly how the digital effort worked?

JR: Digital Dunkirk was an enormous conglomerate of at least 17 veteran-run groups. I worked with Allied Airlift 21 which continues to advocate for resettlement of allies and at-risk Afghans. So, I was an extremely small part of a very large organization. I don’t know if we will ever know the exact number of people who helped, but it was amazing to see the number of civilians, State Department, IT security professionals, Ambassadors, generals, and senior business leaders pitch in. Ultimately, I think that Digital Dunkirk will be an interesting future case study of informal networks and the power of human capital when organizational culture isn’t an inhibitor. No one cared about your rank or previous job, which enabled me to directly engage with very senior folks to get the work done.

The overall effort started slowly. I think everyone began getting requests for assistance around the same time when Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15th. Originally, a group of West Point graduates created a small WhatsApp group to figure out how to evacuate an Afghan classmate. This group expanded rapidly as veterans pivoted to using their own social networks to connect with veterans trying to help their interpreters.

After a few days, the WhatsApp Group morphed into Allied Airlift 21 and was organized like an Army battalion with its own staff. We had a command group, open-source intelligence, personnel, logistics, and IT staff. We also had case workers that were helping Afghan families by providing situational awareness of Taliban check points, best practices to get past Taliban fighters, optimal routes to the airport, and which gates to try. Case workers also used informal networks to determine when Hamad Karzai International Airport (HKIA) was not accepting anyone so we could hold families back in an effort to not overwhelm the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and others working on the evacuation. The veteran community was uniquely postured to assist with the final evacuation because we had the related skills and, critically, we had the personal connection with the Afghans who needed our help. The military structure of Allied Airlift 21 has since morphed again into a non-profit organization led by retired senior military leaders and a few business executives.

When Kabul fell, I was on vacation visiting family. My initial effort was focused on helping my stateside Afghan interpreters get their at-risk families out of the country. In addition to helping them directly, I was working with several other families during their attempts to evacuate. I also linked friends into the resources for their own Afghan contacts. As time went on, I helped counter Taliban disinformation attempts aimed at disrupting the evacuation effort. I created a certified information ‘pipeline’ for our caseworkers so that they could be certain that the information they were consuming was accurate. Accuracy is of utmost importance when you are trying to help a family navigate a highly volatile situation 5,000 miles away. Your assistance and guidance, Ambassador Mendelson, played a big role in helping us discern legitimate evacuation opportunities.

Professor Borzutzky’s “Human Rights, Conflict, and Development” course here at Heinz College for which I served as a TA gave me the vocabulary and frameworks needed to communicate effectively with non-profits and begin to coordinate for long-term humanitarian support for evacuees.

SEM: Can you detail some of the attempts to get folks out—successful, and as yet, to date, not successful ones? It’s hard to convey the extreme drama that was going on, but I sensed it all from emails you and I and other colleagues exchanged over many days in August, including knowing whether information was accurate or authentic, the runs to HKIA, then various entry points being welded shut, and of course, the suicide bombing at the airport on August 26, and then getting through land borders once HKIA was no longer an option.

JR: I think there was a lot of success overall. Allied Airlift 21 was able to assist over 400 Afghans flee to safety before American troops departed on August 31st. In addition, Allied Airlift 21 continues to work with the Department of State to evacuate many more Afghans.

However, the at-risk families I have personally been in contact with are still trying to flee Afghanistan, largely because their Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) packets are still awaiting processing. The evacuation has been difficult for American citizens and green card holders as well. I am still working with three green card holders that are stuck in Afghanistan. I am not sure when we will be able to get them out. To date, my biggest success has been simply talking an Afghan family off Abby Gate shortly before a suicide bomber killed 170 Afghans and 13 American service members. That family is still in Afghanistan, but at least they are alive.

Generally, I focus on the small victories of the evacuation effort. Every person evacuated is a success. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.

SEM: My understanding is that a lot of this work continues including through legal means with IRAP—an organization that people can donate to if they feel so moved. Can you talk a bit about that effort?

JR: I have a close friend who is a lawyer and has taken on some DACA-related work. His firm had connections with the non-profit community, including IRAP. Initially, I participated in an IRAP training that was meant to assist people with learning the SIV process. I created a document based off that training and distributed it to Allied Airlift 21 to help people create SIV packets on behalf of their Afghan counterparts. The training had a significant impact because just knowing what paperwork needs to be done is half the battle. IRAP continues to support Afghans by providing legal assistance with navigating the convoluted SIV process.

SEM: Many thanks for sharing your experience. I understand that after the service and sacrifice that you and colleagues went through, it has been a trying few months, but it is important to have shared the story. Anything you would like to add? Final thoughts?

JR: Thank you for taking the time to assist with the evacuation efforts in August and continuing to spread awareness now. The problem of Afghanistan is not going to go away because America left. There will be an enduring need to engage with Afghanistan to assist with ongoing evacuation efforts and manage the looming humanitarian catastrophe. This catastrophe is not only about human rights but also about the ability of the Taliban to administer the country. With the pull-out of America and the international community, Afghanistan’s economy has essentially collapsed. Afghanistan is also facing a drought induced famine that will further destabilize the country. Finally, as the Taliban grapples with the transition from fighting a war to administering a country, there is no guarantee that the Taliban-run government will be successful either. This is a problem because ISIS-K is a growing threat. And as we saw in Syria and Iraq, ill- and un-governed spaces are a prime opportunity for ISIS to build strength and capacity.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.