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A U.S. Marine assists an Afghan at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 26. The airlift evacuation, which took just over two weeks, saved more than 124,000 people.
A U.S. Marine assists an Afghan at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 26. The airlift evacuation, which took just over two weeks, saved more than 124,000 people. (Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps)

As Air Force planners in Missouri choreographed the largest evacuation airlift in U.S. military history, surveillance drones loitering over Hamid Karzai International Airport captured the disarray below, scanning for threats among the mass of civilians desperate to flee. It was Aug. 26, just before 6 p.m. in Kabul. A flash of flight followed by a plume of black flooded the video feed.

Military personnel at the 618th Air Operations Command outside St. Louis quickly concluded that there had been a bombing and that their decisions in the next few minutes would determine the fate of grievously wounded Americans and Afghans thousands of miles away.

A plane in Qatar stuffed with medical personnel and equipment roared to Kabul, about three and a half hours away. Another jet specializing in aeromedical evacuation was dispatched from Germany.

The bombing, which killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, and the scramble to respond while continuing the evacuation, spotlighted the split-second decisions and chaos that defined the military's 17-day race to pull off a daunting mission on a single runway at a crumbling airport under constant threat of attack.

While nearly every aspect of the airlift has been politicized at home in the United States, the rescue of nearly 124,000 people in such a narrow time frame will go down as a historic accomplishment — albeit one overshadowed by tragedy. This account of the operation is based on interviews with more than a dozen military officials and others involved in the evacuation, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The interviews reveal how troops, diplomats and others on the ground worked to the point of exhaustion and how commanders were forced to improvise as the Biden administration struggled to keep up with the unfolding crisis.

In all, 79,000 civilians, including about 6,000 American citizens, left Afghanistan on U.S. military aircraft between Aug. 14 and Aug. 30, when the last transports carrying heavily armed combat troops faded into the night sky over Kabul. Another 40,000 escaped on commercial, private or allied planes with U.S. military supervision. But thousands more Afghans were still seeking refuge when the airlift ended, and at least 100 American citizens hoping to be rescued were left behind, U.S. officials said. Others who declined to leave did so when faced with the wrenching choice of fleeing at the expense of leaving behind Afghan family members who were not permitted to come.

The airlift's centerpiece was the C-17 Globemaster III, a workhorse transport plane that has filled an essential role in ferrying people and equipment in and out of war zones for decades. At one point, half of the Air Force's entire fleet of 222 C-17s were dedicated to the round-the-clock mission. Some aircrews who refused to take a break requested waivers from their superiors so they could sidestep protocol and continue flying without the prescribed amount of rest otherwise mandated between missions.

"We would have to tell them no," said Brig. Gen. Dan DeVoe, who leads the 618th Air Operations Center. "Within the realm of what's physically possible, they were giving it their all."

For years, the Kabul airport, a fortress encircled by concrete blast walls, had weathered occasional attacks on its modest operation — a commercial terminal on the southern side mirrored by a military base on its northern edge, bisected by a single runway.

The facility devolved into pandemonium Aug. 15, after word circulated that President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, allowing the Taliban a swift victory. The U.S. military quickly ordered thousands of troops back to Kabul to evacuate as many people as possible by the end of the month.

Arriving personnel encountered terrified Afghans who had flooded the airport, paralyzing operations in their bid for escape. Nearly 15,000 people roamed the airfield at one point. On Aug. 16, the plane carrying Air Force Col. Colin McClaskey, who had been dispatched to Kabul to get the facility back online, couldn't even land. His aircraft orbited for hours. Below, as one C-17 rumbled down the airstrip, hundreds of desperate Afghans chased it, some clinging to its fuselage and landing gear — creating a defining image of the fallen city. When the plane began its ascent, two men fell to their deaths. Later, defense officials said, partial human remains were found in the plane's wheel well. The incident, including the decision to take off with so many people on the runway, is under Air Force investigation.

The next day, McClaskey, deputy commander for the 821st Contingency Response Group at Travis Air Force Base in California, was able to land and lead a 90-person team onto the airfield.

Nearly everything needed to run the airport effectively — airfield lighting, radars, weather systems — had been damaged or destroyed by crowds as they climbed over sensitive electronics and power supplies. European and American contractors running the airport, McClaskey said, had abandoned their posts as the crowd grew. Random gunfire echoed across the airport.

McClaskey, whose team specializes in setting up crisis flight operations, walked through empty rooms. Cold cups of coffee and sandwiches sat on desks. Someone's clothes had been left in a washing machine.

"It looked like someone just stepped out for fresh air," McClaskey said.

The scale of destruction forced McClaskey and his team to improvise. Runway lights were initially off, he said, so his team placed water bottles and flashlights on the tarmac to help create some illumination. While they managed to partially fix the airport's radar, other equipment needed to organize flights was beyond repair. McClaskey dispatched an Army vehicle with powerful radios onto the runway to ensure military aircraft and charter flights were spaced apart.

Crews — and planes — were asked to handle the unprecedented. On one flight alone, 823 people were crammed into a transport plane that typically carries about a hundred troops and their equipment.

McClaskey consoled Afghan teenagers, close in age to his own children, who struggled to make sense of the upheaval and uncertainty as they embarked on their new lives. The mission was emotionally draining, he said, noting that mental health professionals were waiting to receive the airmen after the mission.

"Our folks saw a lot of things they were not prepared for," McClaskey said.

Army and Marine Corps infantrymen fanned out to clear the runway, restore order inside the airport facility and lock down security across its five main entrances as Afghans massed outside.

While the United States had an agreement with the Taliban to provide security outside the airport, Afghans afraid to filter through those checkpoints searched for an alternate way inside. They found it at Abbey Gate, on the southeast edge of the airfield. The gate straddles a cement sewage canal with fences on either side, a zone where the Taliban did not operate, according to one Marine who participated in the mission.

With crowds on one side of the canal and U.S. troops on the other, evacuees held up code words they obtained from American contacts working to help them escape, the Marine said. Afghans who received the go-ahead would jump into the canal and grab the hands of troops, who lifted them to safety and searched them by hand.

Others crossed on a footbridge lined with razor wire. It was there, in what would become some of the evacuation's most visceral scenes, where infant children were hoisted overhead for service members to take.

Marines at Abbey Gate saw children's bodies adrift in the shallow sewage canal, they said, probably after being trampled during periodic crowd surges. Initially, U.S. personnel were eager to be assigned to Abbey Gate — what they considered the white-hot center of the evacuation.

"We wanted to be there," the Marine said. "And then we realize that maybe I don't want to be here, watching these people wade through this s--- river and wave papers, and I have to tell them no."

Abbey Gate was within earshot of Taliban checkpoints enforcing order on the other side of the perimeter wall. The militants would fire warning shots — sporadic rounds of automatic fire with the occasional orange streak of a tracer round. Other gunfire sounded more deliberate.

"You'd know they were killing people when you'd hear a shot, then a pause, then a shot," the Marine said.

As the airlift ramped up, intelligence surfaced warning of an imminent attack on the airport by Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, an affiliate of the terrorist group. Troops on the ground understood Abbey Gate would be a prime target.

The Americans knew that unless they stood shoulder to shoulder and managed the crowd on the lip of the canal, they could be overrun; if the troops stood too far back, the crowd might stampede.

That approach came with risk. A fundamental lesson of combat training is to avoid bunching up, which can draw the eyes of an enemy looking for an opportunity to strike several troops at once.

The attack was carried out by a single ISIS-K operative wearing a suicide vest containing an estimated 20 to 25 pounds of explosives. U.S. officials said the bomber slipped into the crowd near where the Americans were conducting hand searches.

After the blast, personnel nearby flooded the area to secure the site and recover the dead and wounded. Marines picked through the carnage to recover equipment and bloody uniforms — and prevent militants from claiming a trophy. One American injured in the blast screamed that he wanted to be the last one carried to safety.

Along the wall above, infantrymen stood in a line, the barrels of their rifles raised.

The Marines braced for another attack. But the night passed without further violence, and complicated feelings set in. There was pride in bringing civilians to safety, but not taking retribution felt like a job left unfinished. It was the next day before some Marines wept.

Plans to end the operation stepped up. Troops were directed to destroy equipment that the United States planned to leave behind — a form of catharsis after the bombing. They took sledgehammers to electronics, smashed windows and stripped armored vehicles to keep the Taliban from using them.

Some troops spray painted obscene messages on the walls taunting the militants. Commanders ordered them to clean up the mess before they left.

"My boys had to go ... pick up every last piece of ... trash for who? The Taliban?" the Marine said. "It was a slap in the face to us."

First Lt. Jack Coppola, a spokesman assigned to Marines in the region, said the messages were painted over and trash was collected to ensure debris didn't impact flights.

In response to the bombing, the United States launched two drone strikes aimed at Islamic State operations, including one in eastern Afghanistan that officials said targeted a planner tied to the attack. Another in Kabul on Aug. 29 struck a car the Pentagon initially said was transporting explosives for a second attack on the airport. Weeks later, officials acknowledged that the driver was an aid worker for a U.S.-based nonprofit and that the strike killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

Beyond Kabul, a different challenge emerged. Thousands of Afghans taxed the capacity of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, then other locations as the U.S. military broadened the constellation of bases accepting Afghans into Europe and the United States. U.S. troops in Qatar struggled to keep up with trash and sanitation problems, and eventually asked evacuees to assist with the cleanup, defense officials said.

Brig. Gen. Josh Olson, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, said he and his staff initially planned for 5,000 evacuees. They ended up with a peak of 20,000, he said, leading them to rely on volunteers and German partners to keep people fed, clothed and comfortable.

Olson said about a dozen babies were born among the evacuees who came through bases in Germany. An additional 30 children were born at military installations in the United States, said Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

Back in Afghanistan, the war's final moments were witnessed through night-vision devices. Stray dogs roamed the runway, and Taliban militants could be seen waving farewell. Airmen braced for a last minute strike.

The anti-rocket system that safeguarded the airport throughout the operation was switched off as the last troops loaded onto their planes.

"The day of the flight, I enjoyed the sunset more than I normally do," said Lt. Col. Braden Coleman, director of operations for the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.

About 60 aircraft were involved in the final departure, including 20 to 25 strike aircraft that flew in a cone over Kabul as the last ground personnel left the airport.

Capt. Kirby Wedan, commander of the lead aircraft of the last five transport planes, said a wave of relief washed over the crews once they arrived in Kuwait.

But, she said, the sense of accomplishment came with a gnawing feeling that more could have been done.

"I know there are a lot of people still there that needed us. And I know that we left a lot of people behind," Wedan said. "It hurts to know we won't be able to go back and get them."

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