Escapes from Afghanistan, coordinated from a home office in Connecticut
The 'Digital Dunkirk' effort involved a network of people with Afghan contacts
FAIRFIELD — Across the hall from his twin daughters’ sun-splashed bedroom, where Mickey Mouse and a menagerie of stuffed animals stand watch from bunk beds, Alex Plitsas typed furiously on his iPhone, relaying encrypted messages to a terrified Afghan family outside the airport at Kabul.
The Afghan father had been beaten the previous day by the Taliban, his pregnant wife whipped across the back. Plitsas sent a signal to them to flash to American personnel who would admit them to the airport gate. To the Americans at the airport gate, he relayed a photo of the family, a hollow-eyed selfie.
They were just four meters from the gate, an exit from Afghanistan.
Improbably, they had been guided there by Plitsas, an Army veteran and suburban dad standing in stocking feet in a home office in a tidy neighborhood on the other side of the world. He is one of the many players in a crowd-sourcing exercise that, at least for Plitsas, would reach a crescendo Thursday night.
An interpreter he helped already had flown to safety. The pregnant woman was under the care of American medics. And a more difficult case, coordinating the rescue of four unaccompanied minors whose plight had been the subject of a CNN story, had found a happy ending.
At 11:07 p.m., a text message arrived with a picture of four children and three words: “In the wire.”
The wire was the fence separating the American-controlled portion of Hamid Karzai International Airport from the chaos and carnage of Kabul. On a day when suicide bombers killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghan civilians outside the airport gate, four kids were saved.
There were others, their stories certain to unfold over time.
All were beneficiaries of a network of military veterans and others with contacts in Afghanistan. They used social media, off-the-shelf encryption communication apps and satellite maps in what’s been dubbed the “Digital Dunkirk,” a nod to the civilian flotilla that evacuated trapped British troops after the fall of France.
As midnight approached, the end of a frenetic 36 hours, Plitsas struggled to explain what he felt. It had been a day of frustration, false starts, grievous losses and scattered gains. Finally, he said, “I could throw up right now.”
A sense of obligation
Plitsas, 36, served with the Army in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at the Pentagon as a civilian Department of Defense employee, the latter post during the Obama administration. On the morning of their daughters’ christening in 2014, his wife said, he had started the day in a meeting at the White House.
He now is an I.T. consultant for aerospace and defense clients and serves as the Republican town chair of Fairfield. He lives in a cream-colored clapboard home around the corner from a marina and park on Long Island Sound. The only checkpoint in his world is at the park: A man in a security hut checks beach permits.
On the wall of his home office hang a Bronze Star from his service as an Army sergeant in Iraq, a Pentagon civilian commendation medal, a National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation, a folded American flag, and an autographed photo of George W. Bush, the president who first sent Americans to Afghanistan 20 years ago.
Plitsas agreed with the decision by President Joe Biden to withdraw U.S. troops, hewing to a timetable set by the Trump administration and Taliban. But to describe the execution of that withdrawal, he used the epithet that is bouncing around military chat channels, likely destined to be the title of a book about the debacle: “Shit Show.”
Photo sent by U.S. person from an Afghan cousin who took and sent the photo right before the complex attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul. The Afghan cousin is said to have been killed in the attack. pic.twitter.com/mReEtLisiK
— Alex Plitsas 🇺🇸 (@alexplitsas) August 26, 2021
Twenty years of American involvement cost nearly $1 trillion and the lives of 2,300 U.S. troops, including 13 Marines and other troops killed Thursday. But it also produced a generation of veterans who left with a connection, a sense of obligation to Afghan interpreters, construction engineers and others.
When the Afghanistan government fell to the Taliban, Plitsas was vacationing on the Amalfi Coast of Italy with his wife, Lisa, who is a CPA with an international consulting firm, and their daughters, identical twins who turned 7 during the trip. On Twitter, he mentioned he might be helpful to people trying to exit Afghanistan and invited direct messages.
A CNN journalist sent him names of U.S. green-card holders stranded in Afghanistan.
From Italy, Plitsas shared details with old contacts, some no longer in government, like a woman in Maryland who played a role Wednesday in helping get aid to the pregnant woman. Others were on the ground in Afghanistan, blandly described by Plitsas as U.S. government employees.
Plitsas heard directly from Abdul, a 42-year-old man in Kandahar, an Afghan who had been an interpreter at a U.S. special forces firebase from 2006 to 2009.
It was a mistake, actually. Abdul, who asked that his full name not be used to protect family and friends still in Afghanistan, mistook Plitsas for his former base commander, who had the same first name, a similar last name, and the same dark beard as the Alex on Twitter in Fairfield, Conn.
He sent Plitsas a picture of himself and the other Alex taken at the firebase in 2009, his only readily available credential. He asked for help, saying he had been getting anonymous calls from young men posing as relatives, asking him to explain why he had worked for the Americans. They called him “an infidel” and an SOB — a “son of Biden.”
“OK, brother,” came the reply from Connecticut Alex, Abdul recounted. “I’m not the guy that you sent me, the picture. But I can still help you.”
Plitsas said he vetted the man with his sources, who confirmed Abdul had been an interpreter with American special forces — “and a rock star, at that.”
Abdul told his story Thursday in an interview conducted via Zoom from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The interview was arranged over WhatsApp, the encrypted group chat app Plitsas used to help Abdul, his wife and their seven children navigate from Kandahar to Kabul, then the more perilous last 5 kilometers from the city’s center to its airport.
9 years ago in Afghanistan. Feels like forever ago and yet like yesterday with what’s going on. pic.twitter.com/v8zUDUFjNw
— Alex Plitsas 🇺🇸 (@alexplitsas) August 26, 2021
A week ago, Abdul was hiding in a hotel, uncertain how to reach the airport. Warned by a deskman that the Taliban had come looking for collaborators, he left a desperate voicemail on Plitsas’ phone. Two days ago, he and his family were being placed on plane for a flight south over Pakistan and the Gulf of Oman to Dubai. Now, he was smiling, telling his story to an American reporter.
“It is magic,” Abdul said.
Abdul had been on Plitsas’s mind last Saturday, when he got to Rome for the flight home. Abdul’s voicemail had contradicted Pentagon officials who insisted the path was open to the airport under an agreement with the Taliban.
Everyone was masked at the terminal in Rome, a COVID precaution. But Plitsas did a double-take when he saw a woman in the distance with a streak of purple hair, a fashion favored by the senior member of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, Rosa L. DeLauro, a Democrat of New Haven.
He pulled down his mask, introduced himself to DeLauro and played the voicemail from Abdul.
“I wanted to make sure a Democrat who was connected to the administration could at least raise her hand and say, ‘I heard this firsthand. I saw it myself,’” Plitsas said. “She was genuine and authentic and caring and gracious with her time.”
DeLauro, who was coming home from Italy ahead of a hurricane that had been forecast to come ashore in her district the next day, corroborated his account in an interview Thursday.
In congressional offices like hers, the typical caseworker fare of contested Social Security benefits turned to urgent matters of escape and survival. DeLauro said Thursday that 21 constituents were seeking help in evacuating relatives.
Roya Rahmani, the former Afghanistan ambassador to the U.S., called to say her brother, sister-in-law and 8-year-old niece were stranded, though they now are reported safe. Mark Shriver from Save the Children sought help on behalf of five staffers with no ready exit from Afghanistan.
Her role, DeLauro said, was ensuring that all those cases were “on the radar” of officials in the upper ranks of the State Department. While the State Department’s official position was to keep its distance from the Digital Dunkirk, DeLauro applauded the crowdsourcing.
“They are identifying people, and identifying where they are, their names. All of that is critical. So, I think every opportunity is something we have to take,” DeLauro said.
Abdul said the only reason he and his family are alive is the unofficial effort. Talking about Plitsas, he smiled and displayed his knowledge of American vernacular.
“He’s the man.”
The American on the ground
On Wednesday morning at 11 a.m., Plitsas toggled between text threads involving a half-dozen cases listed with a red marker on a white dry-erase board in an office he wryly called his ops center.
At the top was a success, Abdul’s evacuation.
One of the twins peeked in the half-open door.
Their dog, Molly, a boxer with soulful brown eyes, circled Plitsas’s desk, nuzzled a visitor and left. Lisa, who said they still were jet lagged, brought her husband coffee in an oversized mug with an inscription, “Who needs a SUPERHERO when you have DAD.”
In a voice call, Plitsas told an English-speaking relative of the group outside the airport gate — an injured husband and pregnant wife with children — they needed to stay in position, holding up the signal until Americans could find them.
The husband had just rejoined them, his leg wrapped in gauze, back from treatment for the beating from the Taliban.
People arent having a problem accessing the airport? This was sent to me by a man trying to get in who was beaten by the Taliban. They also whipped his pregnant wife.
— Alex Plitsas 🇺🇸 (@alexplitsas) August 25, 2021
“He’s doing OK,” the relative told Plitsas. “But the wife, we’re worried about — to make sure she doesn’t collapse.”
Plitsas said he needed a picture of the family’s view of the gate, something that could help the Americans locate them.
“There’s medical personnel standing by to take care of her as soon as we can get there,” Plitsas said. “So as soon as they send the information, please relay it right away. I got guys on standby. This situation is changing from minute to minute, and the Taliban are being a pain in the ass about letting people in.”
“Yeah, I know,” the relative said. “I know. I know.”
A text came. It was about a training session that night for Republicans in Fairfield. He shook his head, dictated a quick response, “Sorry, I’m slammed.”
Then came the call Plitsas wanted. It was from an American in Afghanistan directing the attempted rescue of the four unaccompanied children, whose missing father had been an interpreter for the U.S. military. Plitsas said their mother had taken them to Pakistan, but a family member forced them back to Afghanistan.
The holder of a green card, the mother now was in Albany. Plitsas offered no details of how the children had been found and sent to an apartment to await extraction. But the word on the ground was not good. An extraction team could not reach them. The streets were blocked.
“We’re doing the best we can. We’re trying to find if there’s any, any other assets that can get there,” said the American on the ground, whom Plitsas would not identify. “But right now, it just doesn’t seem like there’s a way to get to them by ground, at least not from the safe house.”
Plitsas asked if the children could be walked past the blockade.
“It is not one single blockade. It is several. And I think it was still pretty far away from them. They tried from different approaches,” the man said. “So it’s just a shit show. It’s a complete shit show.”
On Thursday night, Plitsas declined to give details on how the children eventually were reached or how they accessed an airport supposedly closed tight after the suicide bombings. There were others trying to get in. Whatever path was taken must remain off the record for now.
With a CNN reporter in the chain of people involved in the rescue, he assumed it eventually would be widely told, just not now.
Plitsas was headed to bed.
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