Jonesborough, Tenn. (WJHL) — On the evening of August 16, the Harrell Group got the first call from a government organization to help get people out of Afghanistan by President Biden’s August 31 deadline.
“One of the hardest parts was the coordination on the ground, getting approvals to get aircraft in there. Then, once you get the aircraft in there, are your people on the ground, in the airport ready to board it?” said Mike Lewis, co-owner and chief operating officer. “Because you only have a small window to get the people on the bird and get them out. That was why we had the plan of sending people over there, put them on the ground to help facilitate that part of it.”
Once their team arrived in Kabul, the mission began to change.
“We got contacted by another organization, a private organization that needed to get out some of their people – Christian missionaries that were sort of stranded in the Kabul area…didn’t know what to do. At the time, the order was to more or less stay safe and locked down,” said Lewis.
But, the task didn’t come without challenges.
“The government organization we were dealing with wanted us to get out 200-250 Afghanis. We directed Afghanis to move to one of the gates, lo’ and behold, they get to one of the gates after going through all the checkpoints and everything, the NATO Turkish guards turned them back,” Lewis said.
The suicide bomber that killed 13 U.S. servicemen and a number of Afghan citizens forced the team to switch plans.
“It takes a couple of days to get people over there. They shut down the airport, so we couldn’t get people in,” recalled Lewis. “The suicide bomber went off, then that sort of foiled that operation, we had to pull everybody back. It completely halted it, once that went off, everything got locked down, so we couldn’t get our guys on the ground at that point.”
The situation moved rapidly the entire time.
“We had things going on constantly, especially for the first couple of days when everybody realized that the situation there was getting really dire,” said Harrell Group Project Manager Troy Anderson. “At that point, things were moving very fluidly, we were constantly getting contacted by other individuals that needed to get people out of the country.”
The Harrell Group also assisted in finding host countries for those leaving.
“They had to be on a list for that government or basically you just have to sit there on a plane until they figure out what they want to do with you,” said Lewis.
Anderson, who worked in Kabul from 2006-2012 with a private military contractor to protect the ambassador and chargé d’affaires, says evacuations grew more difficult leading up to the deadline.
“It really wasn’t too much of a concern if we were able to get our assets into place but as the days passed, it created more of a blockage for us to get aircraft in there especially when you weren’t able to get people into the airport area,” said Anderson. “Taliban was stopping a lot of folks from getting in and then came the concern of whether we could actually get the aircraft to fly in without being harmed.”
Anderson’s time in Kabul gave him a network of people to reach out to on the ground and an upper hand when it came to coordinating efforts.
“In that time period, I’ve been able to work with different interpreters and various government agencies of the Afghanistan government,” said Anderson. “This allowed me a different point of view I suppose of those folks and how they think and how they operate.”
He said people in Afghanistan have a “diminished” worldview.
“The average Afghan citizen really does not have a large-world view of what’s going on. In fact, when we first got there, most of the Afghan citizens had no idea why Americans were in Afghanistan,” he said. “Part of that is because of their tribal mentality and the way they operate. In fact, the way the government operates over there, most of your Afghan citizens look at the government of a tribe before they even recognize the government of Afghanistan.”
His position also gave him more insight into how the Taliban works.
“They have a particular mindset that’s pretty steadfast, they have not really changed any of their concepts of operation since the beginning of us going to Afghanistan up until now,” he explained. “It’s really difficult for the people that were involved in those negotiations. Those folks really don’t understand anything other than force. You need some kind of a strong position in order to get them to negotiate otherwise, they view anything other than that as a weakness and they don’t really comply at that point.”
Although American troops are out, there are others still seeking refuge.
“This is probably going to go on for 4-5 months…if not longer,” said Lewis. “There are that many citizens, and there’s that many [Special Immigrant Visa] Afghanis that need out or people that even want to come out for asylum.”
Now, the team is re-strategizing to continue their operations.
“We may be taking a look at other areas further north, perhaps even out of the country if we have to, just different options that might be available,” said Anderson. “It’s just a matter of looking at what options are there and what governments will allow us to utilize those options and trying to coordinate those efforts with them.”
Now, concern grows for those who haven’t made it out.
“People that are left behind, whether it’s Americans, females are going to really have a tough time. You figure, when we got there, essentially liberating the country of a lot of their secular ideas, and getting women back to school and into the job force,” said Anderson. “They have lived like this for 20 years and now it’s going to be stripped away from them. They’re going to be back under Sharia law which is no friend to the female population.”
General Gary Harrell, who is the chief executive officer of the Harrell Group, commanded the Afghanistan battlespace until 2002. He was unavailable for an interview Tuesday but he has been in contact with key leaders and politicians throughout the group’s operations.
Although leaders at the Harrell Group were limited in what they could show and even say about their operations to get people out of Afghanistan, they were privately contracted and were not called on to bring troops out of the country.