A coalition of retired and active duty veterans are working in a secret ‘underground railroad’ to rescue Afghan commandos and others stuck outside the NATO-held Hamid Karzai International Airport – and plan to continue their mission after President Joe Biden‘s military withdrawal.
‘Now we’re pivoting into, how do we move them out of the country unconventionally, without the airfield? That’s a little harder but we’re still gonna do it,’ Retired Army Lt. Colonel Scott Mann told DailyMail.com on Friday.
‘We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to stay on it until either the government comes in and responsibly takes it away from us and we feel confident that they’re going to do it, or we get them out.’
He didn’t elaborate further due to security concerns, but the heat is on after the Pentagon announced the last US military flight departed Kabul on Monday afternoon eastern time.
Operating largely outside of Afghanistan, a network of veterans and volunteers use an encrypted chat to aid people through ‘breaches in the perimeter’ to safety.
Mann and two fellow Green Berets are leading Task Force Pineapple, an operation he said rescued 700 to 750 people within days.
‘These were Afghan commandos, these were interpreters and their family, small children, several women that were nine months pregnant.
‘We moved them from sewage canals and through checkpoints where they were beaten profusely. And we just guided them as best we could.’
An all-volunteer group of American veterans of the Afghan war launched a daring mission on Wednesday night dubbed the ‘Pineapple Express’ to shepherd critically at-risk Afghan elite forces and their families to safety
Lt. Colonel Scott Mann estimates that thousands of people combined could have been saved by Task Force Pineapple and other similar groups
He said similar operations going on at the same time would have rescued several thousand people, with the help of other Afghans and westerners who are in non-Defense positions.
Mann and other veterans who joined the mission act as ‘shepherds’ working remotely from outside Afghanistan.
‘So the shepherd, provide the craft, they — we have the situational awareness with a lot of open source intelligence capabilities that we can look at, you know, we can we can see things and share things and, and then we became the eyes and ears of the different blocks that we were managing,’ he explained.
Those shepherds are largely retired veterans.
‘These are not active duty people. These are men who have spent most of their lives in combat, they have seen severe, severe combat, they left that world thinking they were done with it. And they volunteered to come back in. They haven’t slept, they shuttered their businesses, They called in sick,’ Mann said.
Their coalition of support includes ‘thousands’ of other special operators who believe ‘you don’t leave anybody behind,’ and coordination with ‘every discipline you could imagine that would be in Afghanistan.’
Those brought to the airport under Mann’s team would flash an image of a pineapple on their phones, a sign they’ve been vetted and rescued as part of the mission, as a sign for guards at the airport to allow them through.
A soldier stationed within the airport working with the Pineapple team who was ‘morally opposed to what was happening’ agreed to look out for people flashing the symbol.
Lt. Colonel Scott Mann is a retired Green Beret, and heads Task Force Pineapple with two fellow special forces soldiers
During his years-long military career, Mann did multiple tours in Afghanistan
‘So then our shepherds moved them in a couple at a time, and they were wading through this waist deep sewage with their children, and so many of them had been out there for days,’ Mann said.
He said the unnamed soldier and an assistant ‘jumped into the water with them and started helping them up the bank and pulling them up, pull them up to the other side.’
Roughly 500 people were rescued by Task Force Pineapple that day alone.
Their operation started with a ‘friendship with one Afghan commando’ who spent nearly two years in the special immigrant visa pipeline.
Mann said the soldier was forced to hide in his uncle’s home ‘like Anne Frank’ when the Taliban seized control.
He and two other Green Berets sprung into action to help their friend.
Using the encrypted app, ‘we started calling the people we knew and asking what’s gonna happen?’
He described having to move the commando from his apartment through a series of checkpoints up until ‘the big check point’ around the airfield, where they needed to find a way to ensure he would be recognized.
‘So we just started working it like we would a mission and you know, Green Berets are pretty good at doing that kind of work with the people we have relationships with,’ he said.
The soldier’s phone began running low on battery just four feet from the airport.
In what Mann called a ‘Hail Mary’ one of the Green Berets managed to contact a civilian – a former special operator working at the embassy – with some control inside the airport gates.
Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport
One of the final US military evacuations got 1,200 people – mostly Afghans – out of Kabul in 24 hours between August 29 and August 30
He told them to tell the Afghan soldier a code word, ‘pineapple.’
‘And he did, he started yelling ‘pineapple!,’ And sure enough, they pulled him in, and we just kind of like digitally looked at each other like – did that just happen?
And so that started what we became, you know, affectionately known as ‘Task Force Pineapple.’
They’re also aiding in the rescue of an Afghan women’s robotics team, media workers who they moved using ‘indigenous vehicles,’ and a New Zealand permanent visa holder who is four months pregnant.
‘She’s on her own right now separated from her husband, and we’re moving her to one of our indigenous networks right now to get her out of the country,’ the veteran said.
But according to Mann as many as 20,000 Afghan translators who are special immigrant visa applicants could still be stuck in Afghanistan.
The groups often included small children and even several women who were nine months pregnant.
‘We moved them from sewage canals and through checkpoints where they were beaten profusely,’ he said.
But crowding at airport gates have led to tragedy as desperate civilians try to escape Taliban rule.
Smoke billows from the airport area after a blast outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport late last week
Volunteers and medical staff bring an injured man for treatment after a powerful explosion, which killed at least 170 people, outside the airport in Kabul on August 26
Shepherds working with their Afghan counterparts could often hear their desperate cries in the crowd, and even gun shots ringing in the background.
Despite their best efforts, not everyone made it through.
‘I would love to tell you that it all worked out,’ Mann said heavily. ‘But we lost people. I mean, there were — there were children that were trampled. There were, you know, women that went into labor, there were people beaten to death.’
Some people were lost in the deadly explosion outside Kabul airport on Thursday, which killed at least 170 people including 13 US troops.
Mann said they had been moving their groups away from the area after warnings of an imminent threat.
‘But there were some that just put they didn’t say had been there for a very long time. You know, many of the people have been out there for two or three days without food and water. They have six-month-old babies, that you know what their wives are pregnant, they can’t, they can’t move. And so they just get tired, and they just sit down.’
Shepherds begged them to move on, but some refused.
As of Monday, 1,200 people were evacuated by US military and coalition flights, bringing the total number rescued by the government to 116,700 since August 14.
The US Marine Corps posted a photo to Twitter Sunday evening, of the flag flag-draped caskets of their fallen brethren killed in Thursday’s suicide bomb attack in Kabul
Two C-17s on the ground at Kabul airport on Monday. Flights took off every 20 minutes, one person on the ground said, but it’s unclear how many planes were there and how many more will leave today
A US C-187 jet that can carry up to 800 people leaves Kabul on Monday. It’s unclear how many were on board. There are between 250 and 300 Americans still trapped in Afghanistan seeking a flight out but there are now just over 30 hours until the Taliban’s deadline to leave
The last planes carrying US troops left on Monday afternoon just before 3:30 pm Eastern, carrying General Christopher Donahue and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson.
But Mann is confident that rescue efforts will continue, and they’ve gotten help from the international community.
‘We have worked with other militaries that are trying to get their citizens out too,’ he said.
On one occasion, a British soldier who had seen Mann on a BBC interview days earlier recognized Afghans who ‘had little kids and couldn’t get out’ frantically waving the image of a pineapple on their phones.
‘And the British soldiers saw the pineapples and started pulling them out, because they had seen it on BBC,’ he said.
Mann credited the bravery of Afghans allied with the US and US soldiers on the inside, as well as their wide network, for the mission’s success.
But he called on the Biden administration to step up and do more.
‘My message is to President Biden and to Congress – and I think NATO would agree – we need to extend the deadline and quit worrying about what the Taliban or ISIS tell us our deadline is.’
‘You’re losing the respect of the men and women that went to combat for this nation, particularly post-9/11. You’re losing their respect right now. And they are stepping up to do the job you didn’t do,’ Mann said.