When the U.S. ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan this week, the Biden administration underscored the success of the evacuation effort from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
"No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history," said President Joe Biden from the White House on Tuesday, the day the U.S. completed its Afghan military withdrawal.
The administration has said the massive airlift evacuated most of the remaining Americans in the country, as well as thousands of Afghan interpreters, activists, journalists and other groups that have been targeted by the Taliban.
But thousands of others are left behind. Frustrated U.S. diplomats, military officials and civilian personnel involved in the effort tell VOA it was a haphazard process that left out many people who qualified for evacuation.
'Americans first' policy
American citizens and U.S. permanent legal residents were prioritized for evacuation, but an American source on the ground who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity said the process of determining who was eligible to board a flight was totally disorganized.
"Basically, if you showed up to the gate with a blue passport (U.S. citizen) or green card (legal permanent U.S. resident), we made an effort to pull you in," the source said. "Other than that, you just waited until we were pulling people and hoped you got pulled."
Haseeb Kamal, a former interpreter with dual citizenship, repeatedly tried to push through the crowd around the airport, waiving his U.S. passport until he was grabbed by a Marine manning the gate.
He told VOA his entire family drove him to the airport to say goodbye and were caught in the crush of people surrounding the gate. Kamal, his father and one of his sisters were separated from the rest of the family and ended up being pushed through.
"When I got my sister and my dad inside the gate, they shut the gate because people were rushing through to get in," Kamal said. His mother, two brothers, two sisters and new bride were left behind.
He pleaded with the Marines to allow his father and sister to join him on a flight despite them only having Afghan documents and none of the typical U.S. paperwork required for entry.
"Don't you dare kick them out (of the airport)," Kamal said to the Marines, who finally allowed them to stay.
Kamal and his sister, Bibi Sara, are now living with family in the U.S. state of Virginia, while their father is still being processed in Fort Lee, a military base in the same state.
Rules about which individuals could evacuate were "ever-changing," said a diplomatic source on the ground who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity. That meant family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, as well as Special Immigrant Visa applicants, may have been allowed into the airport one day, but not the next.
"What constituted as proper documentation changed nightly," he said.
The diplomat said that on at least one day during the early phase of evacuation, local staff of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul were given instructions via email to go to the East Gate. Their extended families were processed despite lacking documentation such as Afghan passports, national IDs, or SIV applications, and whether they had "credible fear" of retaliation by the Taliban. As long as they said they were local embassy staff or their families, individuals were able to get in, he said.
It was easy to confirm who is an embassy staff member, the diplomat said, but family connections were more difficult to determine.
"These guys who have come in with large extended families, members with weak documentation … how do you vet that?" the officer said, adding that sometimes groups were waived through nevertheless.
"We had to make a quick moral calculus – send them back out to the Taliban check point and potentially in danger or move them forward."
Those who were not U.S. citizens, permanent residents or holders of valid visas were sent to third countries referred to as "lily-pads" to be vetted.
On other days, stricter guidelines meant extended families including parents and siblings of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were not allowed entry. At points where people were screened, some officers followed the rule while others were more relaxed, he said.
On Monday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby defended the work of the troops.
"Without speaking to these reports, the Marines and the soldiers that for the last couple of weeks have been helping consular officers man the gates and process them did heroic work," Kirby told VOA. "And they had to make decisions in real time about trying to help people get out."
"A lot of lives were saved, and a lot of lives are now in a better place," Kirby said.
Many lives were saved, in some instances possibly because the rules were so flexible at times. Haseeb Kamal, the former interpreter, said he met a family with only two U.S. citizens who brought 30 people in with them.
"I had no information that I could bring all of my family," Kamal said. "What shocked me was how they knew."
After Kabul's fall, around the clock mission
A State Department spokesperson defended the Kabul airlift, telling VOA that "the Biden administration has demonstrated, in the face of significant challenges, its sacrosanct commitment to the thousands of brave Afghans who have stood-by-side with the United States over the course of the past two decades."
After Kabul fell to the Taliban, the State Department flew diplomats from around the world to the Afghan capital. Diplomats and American troops worked around the clock to evacuate as many Americans and vulnerable Afghans as they could.
An American civilian source on the ground who witnessed the evacuation said their efforts were "remarkable." "Their empathy and humanity was admirable," he said.
However aid groups which were involved say despite the massive effort by diplomats and soldiers, the airlift was plagued by problems.
"There appears to be at best very problematic and at worst no rhyme or reason for who's getting into the gates," said Mark Jacobson, who helped organize evacuees. Jacobson served in 2006 in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer and from 2009-2011 as the deputy NATO representative and deputy political adviser at the International Security Assistance Force.
"For those of us who are helping to get Afghans out, it does certainly appear as though the SOP (standard operating procedure) doesn't just change day to day but hour to hour," Jacobson said.
Jacobson said the inconsistencies were partly due to the multiple departments involved.
"When we get to our State people, they say it's DOD. When we get to the DOD people they say it's State," Jacobson said referring to departments of State and Defense.
VOA asked the White House whether inconsistent policies and a lack of coordination between the State Department and the Pentagon resulted in vulnerable Afghans left behind while those who were not at-risk individuals were evacuated.
"I have no confirmation of what you've just outlined," said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. "What I will tell you is that 117,000, approximately -- many of them Afghans who -- people who are not American citizens -- were evacuated. That's more people than ever in any airlift in U.S. history."
The administration has not provided a full breakdown of evacuee nationalities and their immigration status. On Wednesday the White House said that 77 percent of the evacuees that have arrived in the U.S. since August 17 were Afghans including "SIV and other visa holders, SIV applicants, P-1 and P-2 referrals, and others."
State Department spokesman Ned Price said a total of 31,107 people arrived in the U.S. from Afghanistan between August 17 and August 31.
Warren Binford, a law professor at the University of Colorado, was part of a remote, entirely digital network of volunteers who, she estimates, assisted 1,400 Afghans in getting out.
"The State Department had been put in charge of an evacuation from a warzone," she said, contending that as a result the military did not have the full command of the operation. They learned to "pivot and adapt on a constant ongoing basis", she said.
Another individual, who asked not to be named because he wanted to protect the Afghans he is still trying to evacuate, described the evacuation process as "chaos."
A convoy of 130 people he organized was turned away after waiting for 18 hours. The plane took off without them, their seats empty.
Another source, a former U.S. government official assisting evacuation who also asked not to be named, confirmed that the majority of Afghans in their group who were direct family members of American citizens (e.g. children, spouses) were turned away, even when their names were on flight manifests.
The Marines blocking them said their orders from the State Department were to only allow American citizens and legal permanent residents. The former official said that should not have been the rule for charter flights for authorized individuals who are identified as at-risk, such as humanitarian organization employees, SIVs, women leaders, and their families.
"Why isn't the manifest being shared at the gate?" the former official lamented, also confirming that many of the privately arranged flights left with no one on board.
The private group sources said the likelihood of evacuation depended in part on luck and on contacts inside the airport and in Washington, and who can get them past Taliban check points, past the Marines at the airport gates, into the terminal, on the tarmac and eventually on planes heading to safety.
"It's like The Hunger Games," the former government official source said.
One such group of hundreds of Afghans were rescued by the "Pineapple Express" – a secret mission run by U.S. military veterans who defied orders to stay within the security perimeter and scooped up their Afghan allies outside of the airport in a daring operation first reported by ABC News.
"What is making us so incredibly sad is the seriously at-risk Afghans who don't have the privilege of those connections, that are being left behind," the former government official source said.
'Haunted' by choices
A senior State Department official involved in the evacuation on the ground said they had the legal obligation to prioritize Americans. The operation involved "some really painful trade-offs" and officers are "haunted by the choices we had to make, and by the people we were not able to help depart," the official said.
Administration officials have repeatedly said that U.S. commitment to evacuate the potentially thousands or more vulnerable Afghans, as well as the remaining 200 or so individuals who self-identify as Americans and want to leave, is "enduring."
"We will have means and mechanisms of having diplomats on the ground being able to continue to process out those applicants and facilitate passage of other people who want to leave Afghanistan," Jen Psaki said Monday.
One interpreter, who submitted his SIV application in 2014 and whose former U.S. Army colleagues enlisted three U.S. Senators to try to get him evacuated, is now in limbo after he and his wife and seven children failed to gain access to the airport.
Jamshid, who did not give his real name for fear of retribution, told VOA that he traveled from outside of Kabul and spent 11 days trying to get inside the airport before giving up.
"For now we are doing well," he said. "But me and my family are worrying about our safety… because I have worked four years with U.S. army as interpreter."
On Sunday, the United States and 97 other countries announced the Taliban has assured them that foreign nationals and Afghans with visas from those countries will be allowed out of the country after the August 31 deadline. The Taliban released a statement saying all airports will be open to allow those who wish to leave Afghanistan.
The day after the U.S. withdrawal, Jamshid received an email from the U.S. State Department assuring him that the U.S. will continue efforts to help them. The email instructed SIV applicants who want to transfer their case to an embassy or consulate outside of Afghanistan to submit their inquiry online.
The success of that effort will depend in part on the willingness of the Taliban to help their former battlefield enemies.
"It's not easy to go to a third country," Jamshid said.
VOA's Nike Ching, Carolyn Presutti, Anita Powell, Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.