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Afghan American woman’s escape highlights secretive CIA role in Kabul rescues

Shaqaiq Birashk, seen above earlier this month in Denver, was taken to a CIA compound in Kabul before she was shuttled to the airport for evacuation after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. (Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post)

Five days after Afghanistan’s fall, Shaqaiq Birashk, holed up in her Kabul apartment, was contacted by a stranger offering to have her picked up and escorted to the airport for evacuation. The man claimed to work for the U.S. government, said Birashk, an American citizen who, until the Taliban’s takeover, worked on a USAID project.

After some trepidation and encouragement from a friend who had already gone through the process, she accepted. That night, dressed in a flowing abaya that concealed a backpack stuffed with clean clothes, Birashk, 37, nervously walked past the Taliban guards who had taken over security at her building and climbed into the back seat of a green Toyota Corolla, hopeful it would lead to her freedom. “We were driving against the traffic,” she recalled in an interview. “You would see male and female, young and old, all walks of life, just walking toward the airport.” Birashk did not know it at the time, but her rescue had been orchestrated in part by the CIA, which played a pivotal role — alongside elite U.S. troops and Afghan counterterrorism forces — in the dangerous extraction of Americans, Afghans and foreign nationals facing threats of reprisal from the Taliban due to their affiliation with the U.S. government. A spokeswoman for the agency, Tammy Thorp, declined to detail the operation, saying only that CIA personnel, in concert with other U.S. agencies, supported the broader evacuation effort “in various ways.”

After weeks fearing for her children's lives and a dangerous escape from Kabul, the moment Suneeta was praying for finally arrived. (Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

CIA-trained Afghan forces who helped Americans and others evacuate now await resettlement in the U.S.

Five current and former U.S. officials familiar with the missions said the CIA used a compound known as Eagle Base, located just a few miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport, to carry out rescues like the white-knuckle nighttime drive through Taliban-controlled territory to deliver Birashk from her high-rise Kabul apartment building. Like others in this story, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive aspects of the chaotic two-week effort to evacuate 124,000 people from Afghanistan.

The rescues traveling through Eagle Base involved multiple helicopter flights to Kabul’s airport. These missions, officials said, were separate from other aerial rescues conducted by the U.S. military to save Americans from having to brave increasingly treacherous roads outside the facility, where Taliban checkpoints had been established and an Islamic State suicide bombing on Aug. 26 killed more than 200 people, including 13 U.S. troops. The U.S. military carried out some flights from Eagle Base, three U.S. officials said. The CIA rescues relied in part on Afghan counterterrorism forces trained by the agency, one senior administration official said. After the central government’s collapse, the counterterrorism forces worked with U.S. troops to help pluck people from the crowd at the airport, as reported previously by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In some instances, they also picked up people at their apartments or on prearranged street corners while receiving “encouragement and guidance” from the U.S. government, the senior official said.

Birashk’s account, aspects of which she shared with the Financial Times, reveals new details about how the operations worked and the secrecy involved.

U.S. troops board a military cargo plane during evacuations at the Kabul airport last month. (U.S. Army/Reuters)

The extractions were conducted as the U.S. military hewed to narrow parameters on its own set of rescues. Elite members of Joint Special Operations Command, including Delta Force and helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, were at the Kabul airport. However, ground operations into the city were not permitted, frustrating those who wanted to do more to help, three officials said. On occasion, these troops ventured only short distances outside the airport to escort American citizens inside the base, those officials said. A defense official with knowledge of the operations said there was no “blanket policy” prohibiting elite U.S. troops from leaving the Kabul airport. But he said that when they did leave facility’s gates, they “usually went short distances.”

The U.S. military has acknowledged carrying out two unilateral helicopter missions outside the airport to rescue a combined 185 American citizens, and a mission partnered with German forces to rescue 21 German citizens. U.S. Special Operations helped 1,064 American citizens, 2,017 Afghans and 127 people from other countries reach the airport through “phone calls, vectors and escorting,” the defense official said.

Birashk, who said she was unaware for days that she was taken to a CIA base, was advising Afghan officials through an Afghan nongovernmental organization when the Taliban began to threaten Kabul. Family members and some of her friends had pressured her to flee, but she told them she wanted to go on her own terms rather than repeating the trauma of leaving as she did in 1989, when as a kindergartner she and her family fled a civil war. “I had returned to Afghanistan with respect, and I wanted to leave it with respect,” she said. On Saturday, Aug. 14, after the Taliban seized several major cities, Afghan officials encouraged Birashk to leave, she said. She booked a flight for Aug. 18, the first ticket she could find, and registered with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for possible evacuation, she said. It was too late. The following day, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a coterie of senior Afghan officials fled the country, leaving a power vacuum in Kabul that the Taliban quickly filled. The U.S. military scrambled to secure the airport for evacuations, but the Taliban established checkpoints across the city.

Birashk, already worried about violence at the airport, learned Aug. 17 that her flight had been canceled. As she assessed the safest way out of Kabul, she received the call from the U.S. government early in the evening Aug. 19. Birashk said she initially told the government official that she did not want to leave without several other Afghans she knew. “The gentlemen very kindly and actually professionally said something along the lines of, ‘Well, our priority is you. Whenever you are ready to leave on your own, let me know and give me a call,’” she recalled.

A friend called later that evening and told her she’d regret it if she didn’t escape while she could. Birashk left her apartment at about 11 p.m. She asked an Afghan neighbor to accompany her outside, to where the Taliban guards were, and they shared an emotional goodbye.

“She said, ‘Can you please take me with you?’ She was an Afghan nationaI. And I just broke down at that point,” Birashk said. “I was already shattered that I couldn’t even help the 11 people that I wanted to. And then here, you know, to the last second, she was in a way begging me to take her with me. Just the guilt overcame me.”

Americans refuse to leave Afghanistan without their families as evacuation flights resume Birashk said that when she got into the car, two other evacuees were inside. An Afghan man drove them through the Taliban checkpoints, speaking to Taliban fighters in the Pashto language many of them favor. As they drove, she sent her location through a messaging platform to her U.S. government contact, who corrected them by text message when they made wrong turns, she said. “I said, ‘When do I know that I have reached you?’ And he said, ‘You will meet my friends first,’” she said. When their vehicle stopped, Afghan forces directed her and the other evacuees to change cars. They were driven less than a mile to the CIA camp. The U.S. representative confiscated their phones after allowing them to notify their families they were safe, she said.

“We were told not to disclose our locations,” Birashk said. If people started showing up to the base looking to evacuate, the man warned, they wouldn’t be able to help anyone else. The evacuees stayed overnight at Eagle Base, and were moved to the airport the following afternoon in a group of about 90 to 100 people. They traveled aboard three helicopters, Birashk said.

She was turned over to the Hungarian military, which flew her by plane to Uzbekistan. She spent three days there at the airport, and was moved again to Budapest, Birashk said. She remained in touch with the same U.S. government representative and turned over names of other people who needed evacuation, she said.

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