In normal times, Jean Marie Thrower would be running Supplier Development Systems, her Birmingham, Ala.–based automotive consulting firm. But since the fall of Kabul, and the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, Thrower, who served in the U.S. Army’s 82 Airborne Division as a transportation officer with support of operations in Haiti and Bosnia, has put the rest of her life on hold, working with the Afghan Rescue Crew. The ARC describes itself as a private group of U.S. veterans and civilians volunteering to save as many vetted at-risk Americans and Afghan allies left behind in Afghanistan as possible.
ARC is one of several private groups attempting to get Americans, green-card holders, and Afghan allies out of the country.
The good news for ARC is that they have so far rescued “hundreds” and transported them to third countries safely. The bad news is that the organization says that it has a list of thousands of at-risk Afghan allies still in its system. Thrower disputes the U.S. State Department’s characterization of about 100 Americans being left on the ground; she said that as of a few days ago, the figure her group had was closer to 1,000 — although she noted that every group making a rescue effort has its own list, potentially leading to overlap with one another in certain cases. The 1,000 figure may include U.S. green-card holders, too, which the State Department is putting in a separate category.
Thrower describes herself as immensely frustrated and angered by the U.S. government’s actions, or lack thereof, so far — but said that ARC remains open to working with any U.S. government efforts to get desperate Americans and Afghans out. She said that she doesn’t care who gets the credit, as long as those at risk figure out a way to escape Afghanistan.
ARC is attempting to simultaneously evacuate several different groups. Some Afghans are not necessarily high-value targets, but are members of religious groups, including Christians, who expect to be oppressed and abused with the Taliban back in power. Then there are interpreters and other Afghans who worked with U.S. and coalition forces, who don’t know if they’re on the Taliban’s target list but suspect that they will be targeted by retribution. And then there are what Thrower calls “super high-value targets,” who know for certain that they’re on the Taliban’s list for violent retribution. “In many cases, they’ve been called or texted by the Taliban with threats. They’re moving from place to place. Many of them are members of the Afghan government.” Thrower said she knew of 30 Afghan diplomats who were trying to get out of the country.
Even retired members of the Afghan army are marked for death by the Taliban. “We’ve got people who retired, ten, 15 years ago. They killed the Taliban, and the Taliban don’t forget,” Thrower says. “We have one guy who was just working on cars. He said, ‘I haven’t done this, I haven’t been in the resistance for 15 years, but they have my name and they’re calling me.’”
Thrower said that her organization has moved a certain number of endangered Afghans to safe houses, and is essentially telling them to stay in place until further notice. “But they’re running out of food and water. They’re afraid to leave the house for the past ten, twelve days. But the cost — the cost is, for some of our groups, $10,000 to $15,000 a week. We have people in our organization paying, and I’m sending them money through Western Union. If I don’t give them money, they won’t be able to stay in this hotel for another week.”
Thrower fumes about the U.S. State Department’s refusal to extricate people quickly for fear that some terrorists may be hiding among them. She says her organization has 2,500 to 3,000 people that are completely vetted, including former U.S. military interpreters, officials in the Afghan government, and diplomats.
“Let’s just get somebody out!” says Thrower, bursting with exasperation.All Our Opinion in Your Inbox
Thrower reports that her organization has “people who are going missing and getting killed every day.” Her group hears accounts from Afghans who made it out, as well as the horrifying accounts they’re told by those who were left behind.
She describes the case of an American child whose Afghan uncle was recently killed by the Taliban. “We have had people shot, beheaded. They’re taking the kids. If you’re on the run, and they find your family, they’ll hurt your family and put the word out in the neighborhood that ‘we’ve got your brother or son or daughter.’ They cut off the heads of two boys that were nine and ten.”
While the description of beheaded children could not be independently verified, other reports of beheadings unfortunately have been. A recently unearthed video showed six Taliban men beheading an Afghan soldier. Christians in Afghanistan report receiving phone calls from the Taliban, pledging to behead them. A British member of Parliament said that Afghan refugees had told him of the Taliban forcing family members to watch the beheadings of their relatives. A human-rights activist in Kabul who was beaten and hospitalized said he was told by his Taliban captors, “You are acting against Islam so we are allowed to kill kafirs like you,” and two journalists said they were threatened with beheading after being beaten for covering a women’s protest.
Thrower laments that the Taliban is finding and executing Christians in Afghanistan with stunning speed. “We started out with 300 three weeks ago, and we’re down to 55. They’ve been killed. . . . We had two young girls that were with this Christian family, the Christians had found them after their parents had been killed. They were hiding together, and then went to the market to try to get some food. The Taliban found them, raped them, and beat them. We did manage to get them to a hospital.”
This is the same Taliban that National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne described as “cooperative,” “flexible,” and “businesslike and professional” on September 9.
Thrower describes an insidious series of traps laid by the Taliban. When the Taliban find the phone number of a hiding Afghan, they will contact him through email or phone, posing as American officials who say that his visa has been processed. They then tell him that they should meet at a particular location so that he can pick up his visa and leave the country. When the targeted Afghan arrives, the Taliban close in and capture him, and usually torture the prisoner to extract more information about other hiding Afghans. The Taliban is methodically working its way through networks of hiding Afghans. Thrower described the use of code words and other security measures designed to help the hiding Afghans elude the Taliban hunters. She described the technological forms of the communications in some detail but asked that those details be withheld for security purposes.
At this point, all of Afghanistan’s borders are closed — leaving the Afghans as “sitting ducks, waiting for someone to knock on their door, waiting for people to come and decide if they want to hurt them or not.” Thrower adds that a lot of the problem could be alleviated by the U.S. issuing transit visas to Afghans that would allow them to enter countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, where they could be transported to an airport, and then airlifted out of the region on charter flights — placing minimal strain on the governments of those neighboring countries.
Right now, flying the endangered out of Afghanistan is almost impossible, because the U.S. State Department must review and approve all passenger manifests. But Thrower says several refugee camps in other countries say they still have more room for Afghans. She says some Afghans who are trying to get out have relatives in Europe or other parts of the globe, and don’t even want to come to the U.S. All they need is a flight or path out of the country.
Thrower describes herself as “hard core” — a woman who has owned and run her own business since 2006 and has faced all kinds of challenges both in and out of uniform. But she said that the rescue effort has taken an emotional toll unlike anything she’s experienced before. “All of our teams were going 24 hours, with no sleep. . . . Now I’m just pissed off. Furious. But I can’t be emotional right now.”
Thrower laments that she doesn’t know what the Biden administration is thinking, and speculates that the disorganized, chaotic departure was driven in part by leaders who did not understand how much America’s veterans cared about their former Afghan interpreters and other colleagues.
“They underestimated the power of being in a country for 20 years, being over there, and when you’re deployed to another country, your family didn’t come with you,” Thrower describes. “Your new family is your Afghan brothers and sisters. They are your family. I think the administration they didn’t calculate the power of the relationships that we’ve that all of us, civilians, veterans, formed with that country. It’s almost like they’re amputating a part of our body off.”