Now that the U.S. military's presence in Afghanistan is gone, many veterans of America’s longest war are fueled by frustration with how the 20-year conflict ended -- now teaming up in a coordinated effort to secretly rescue thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies left behind and desperate to flee the Taliban.
Retired Navy SEAL lieutenant Jason Redman told NBC 7 that watching the last U.S. military plane fly out of Kabul Tuesday devastated him because he said the departure went against the biggest lesson he learned during his 21-year career in the Navy.
“Our motto is ‘Leave no man behind,’ so it's not about the left it's not about the right, it's about what's right. We're Americans, it's what we do -- we take care of people that took care of us,” he said. “I don't want to get into the politics, but at the end of the day, there are people still left behind.”
And the former SEAL officer that led teams in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan said the right thing to do is to get people out.
“These Afghan allies worked right alongside all of us, willingly sacrificing their safety and the safety of their families,” he said. “They were wounded with us and a lot of them were killed. They're as American as you and I.”
That’s why he joined Task Force Pineapple -- an all-volunteer team of retired intelligence operatives and highly trained veterans navigating a now-Taliban run Afghanistan to shepherd hundreds of at-risk Afghan elite forces and their families, both in Kabul and other parts of the country, to safety.
But instead of dodging Taliban checkpoints armed with weapons and tactical gear, they’re using an encrypted app to communicate with Afghan allies from inside the U.S.
“If I could have been in Afghanistan to be on the ground to help these people I would, but I would stand out. They're able to blend in and they're able to help us to help themselves,” he said. “Who knows Afghanistan best is the individuals that live there, so we relied on people we knew and trusted.”
Operatives have tracked and guided over 1,000 U.S. citizens and Afghan allies to safety since the fall of Kabul in what's been dubbed "The Pineapple Express" -- and running this herculean, modern underground railroad is anything but easy.
“We’re relying on a network of individuals and near real time intelligence using a lot of different assets,” he said. “It was incredibly, incredibly difficult to get these families into the Karzai airport -- incredibly dangerous, chaotic situations.”
Lt. Redman said small groups of Afghans move after nightfall, guided by the intelligence provided by Task Force Pineapple in the U.S. -- navigating through sewage canals, secret passageways and holes in Hamid Karzai International Airport’s fences to reach U.S. troops, some of whom were aware of The Pineapple Express.
“We were relying on contacts that we knew inside the airport to make that transfer and one of those things was a password to recognize that this is indeed the individual,” he said. “And the password that was given was ‘Pineapple.’”
But the airport that was once a beacon of hope for Afghan allies is now a Taliban stronghold and with virtually no U.S. troops in the country anymore, Task Force Pineapple’s mission has become much harder.
Lt. Redman said that’s partly why the Pineapple Express is now paused -- focusing on helping allies hide instead of fleeing because they lack the resources to remove them safely anymore. He said without the federal government’s help, he doesn’t know when rescues will resume.
“Right now, we’re focused on keeping our people safe -- giving them shelter, food, clothing, medical necessities until we’re able to get these individuals out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Regardless of how experienced Task Force Pineapple is, we are not a government -- we're talking about crossing borders and moving into sovereign territory and the receipt of refugees and then that transition of refugees to other locations. These are high level government decisions and they're not decisions that we can make on our own. We need their help. Let’s get these American heroes out.”
He said the team’s leadership is working on building connections with the U.S. Departments of State and Defense (DOD) in hopes of creating a partnership between the federal government and these groups of veterans eager to help in any way they can.
Lt. Redman said he’s in this for the long haul despite the challenges that lie ahead in getting what he estimates to be between 80 to 100,000 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders and their families to safety.
“It could take months, and the question is…is the Taliban going to cooperate with that or is it going to have to be done clandestine. If it's done clandestine, it could take years,” he said.
Lt. Redman said Afghan refugees that helped U.S. troops have endless potential in America because many have a certain language and tactical skills that could help the military monitor the crisis in Afghanistan from the U.S. – something he said “could benefit the entire country.”
He said he’s been overwhelmed by an outpouring of support from fellow veterans of the war in Afghanistan and that this mission has helped give him a sense of closure on the war that almost cost him his life after he was shot six times in Iraq in 2007.
“I struggle with the fact that we made a deal with the Taliban,” he said. “This group that I fought against, that I lost friends to, that was directly responsible for killing men we were trying to create a new, better government for, is right back in power. I struggle to wrap my head around that,” he said. “But I also look at this -- the Northern Alliance of Afghan fighters has won back the Panjshir, and that tells me that what we did there absolutely made a difference. We planted seeds of freedom…so I'm hopeful.”