It was dawn in Afghanistan — early evening in Seattle — and veteran Brian Olsen was ready to check in again with two former interpreters hiding in a safe house he had led them to from his Ballard duplex.
Cellphone held close to his face, concentrating intently, Olsen talked first with “Steven,” a name he made up to protect the interpreter’s identity, given the extreme danger from the Taliban to anyone allied with Americans. “I have no immediate information for you,” Olsen said.
It was Wednesday, and Olsen had been waiting for days to hear about next steps from a contact he hoped could get the interpreters out of the country now that the U.S. military had left and stopped evacuations out of the Kabul airport. In the meantime, Olsen wanted to know whether the interpreters, one of whom, “David,” had his wife and children with him, were safe and had enough food and water.
“We are secure,” Steven said calmly. “We don’t have any sort of problems.” Had they heard any outside noises, shootings, vehicles? “No, no, no,” Steven said. The answers were reassuring, but Olsen also wanted to hear David’s voice. He was the one who had worked alongside Olsen, a Utah National Guard combat engineer in charge of 60 men, as they built buildings, repaired roads and trained Afghan troops.
“Hello,” David said, coming on the phone. Relief washed over Olsen’s face. He smiled.
“Hello, my brother, how are you?” Olsen said. They laughed at this moment together amid the chaos, and told each other everything was fine. “No problem, no problem,” David said. He would wait for further instructions. Olsen would call as soon as he heard anything. “I will have tea with you soon, brother,” Olsen said.
The 37-year-old veteran, now an Amazon product manager, is part of a web of unofficial, often clandestine networks that have stepped in to help the thousands of people desperate to leave Afghanistan and increasingly unable to rely on the American government.
The networks — largely composed of veterans, former U.S. officials and their contacts in Afghanistan — began sharing information as the Taliban took over and people flooded Hamid Karzai International Airport, trying to get past Taliban checkpoints and find gates that would let them in. Forgoing sleep to juggle the time zones, people in these networks crowdsourced tips and sent each other maps.
When the last official American evacuation flights ended early this week, having gotten more than 117,000 out, according to the U.S. government, the networks became a lifeline for those left behind.
“We have one hope — that’s Brian,” said David’s brother, “Mike,” who lives in the U.S.
Mike and his wife were visiting family in Afghanistan when the Taliban gained control. They spent days with David and his family roaming around the airport, following Olsen’s tips. Eventually, Mike said, they went to Eagle Base, a Central Intelligence Agency compound, where officials were helicoptering some people, including lawful permanent residents like Mike and his wife, to the airport.
Mike said he tried to persuade officials to take David and his family. “He also served the United States as an interpreter,” Mike said. “He is eligible.” When the officials said no, Mike told his brother to be patient, he would try to help when he was back in the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Seattle Democrat, said she attended a meeting this week with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “They assured us that the work is not done until all of these individuals are out,” she said. Her office, contacted by constituents with ties to Afghanistan, has submitted evacuation requests on behalf of 500 people, most of whom once worked for the U.S. government.
But the officials gave no details about how they would carry out evacuations with the airport closed, as of late last week, and surrounding countries closing their borders to Afghan refugees. “We need to have a very clear plan outlined,” Jayapal said. “I agree we don’t have that yet.”
That has left Chris Franco frustrated. Another veteran who served in Afghanistan, he’s a program manager for King County and an officer of the Seattle chapter of the Truman National Security Project, an organization working on evacuation and resettlement of Afghan refugees.
Like Olsen, Franco has spent the last couple weeks gathering and sharing information about potential ways out of Afghanistan. Working with the Truman National Security Project and another network of veterans he can’t name because of the secret nature of their work, he’s trying to help former interpreters including two who assisted his Army company.
“These guys were there with us through thick and thin. They were under great risk,” Franco said. “The very first person killed in our company was one of our interpreters.” Another was nearly killed in a suicide bombing.
Olsen echoes the sentiment. “We need to get this done,” he said. “This is our duty to the people who served with us.”
He said the past couple weeks have “felt like a surreal version of a military intelligence operation.” Surreal because he’s not on the ground, risking his life. And because the lives at risk are civilians — “civilians that you know and care about…that’s not something that was in my training.”
His mission to help David started after the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15. Olsen messaged his former interpreter to ask how he was.
They hadn’t been in touch in a while but Olsen had fond memories of David. They survived a rocket attack of a convoy together, and David went out with Olsen on road- and bridge-fixing operations conducted in the middle of the night, when it was was safer. David kept an eye out for villagers they should talk to, and liked to joke despite the tense atmosphere, Olsen said.
David had reached out to Olsen since then to ask for help in getting a special immigrant visa for people who worked for the U.S., and to relate how bad things were getting in his province. The Taliban was slaughtering interpreters, David wrote in a 2019 email. He had given up his home and sent his family to Kabul. “The situation is worsening day by day.”
At that time, an Afghan had to work two years for the U.S. to qualify for a special immigrant visa, and David had worked 13 months as an interpreter. Olsen didn’t think there was much he could do.
Olsen said something changed for him on Aug. 18, when David messaged him back with a photo of him and his family among the throngs of people outside the Kabul airport, holding up some some kind of U.S. paperwork, perhaps related to the special immigrant visa application he submitted after Congress this year lowered the work requirement to one year.
David also sent a video of the airport surroundings, where the crowds were so thick that his youngest son couldn’t breathe and twice lost consciousness, according to David’s brother, and where the Taliban had been beating people. On the video, you could see bloodied bodies and belongings strewn everywhere. “It just started to dawn on me how grotesque a scene it was,” Olsen said.
Doing the bare minimum at work one week, canceling a planned hiking trip the next, he reached out to members of Congress and anyone he could think of. Through a friend, he got connected with a small social media group trying to help Afghans. They traded tips heard from people on the ground about gates where people were getting through. Olsen, a onetime student of cartography, sent airport maps to David, one with a big blue arrow showing where to go.
When David and his family got to the gates, it was either too late, or officials weren’t letting through people who weren’t U.S. citizens or residents.
After the suicide-bombing at one of the gates on Thursday, Aug. 26, the tips started to dry up and by that Saturday, they all but disappeared. “It’s over,” Olsen thought, at least as far as the airport was concerned.
Then, through a trusted source, Olsen learned of another network coordinating a flight. He wasn’t sure who, exactly, was involved or where the plane would come from. He didn’t ask questions of his contact, but sensed a professionalism and purpose that gave him confidence. He had 15 minutes to get David’s name on a spreadsheet. He did.
Olsen called David and told him to go home with his family and wait. By this time, Steven had joined the group.
The next day, Olsen got word they had an hour to get to a meeting point, where they would be picked up and driven to a safe house. They would wait there for a flight — or possibly, an overland crossing, though Olsen doesn’t think that likely given the closed borders.
“It’s a very complicated plan,” he told Steven during the Wednesday night/Thursday morning call. At this point, Olsen didn’t think there was much he could do but give pep talks and safety advice: Stay inside; don’t draw attention to yourself; you’re doing all the right things.
As of Friday evening, they were all still waiting.