Florida Man Spearheads A Massive Rescue Effort Out Of Afghanistan
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Biden says the effort to get Americans and Afghans out of Kabul over the past two weeks was the largest airlift in U.S. history. According to the White House, over 120,000 people were evacuated. Many thousands more were brought out by privately organized groups, including one led by Zach Van Meter, In his regular life, he's a private equity investor from Naples, Fla. But after a phone call from a work contact, he found himself spearheading a massive rescue effort out of Afghanistan. The Commercial Task Force, as it was called, was made up of a mix of business types, former military officers and people who just stepped up with whatever expertise they could offer. The group says they successfully evacuated at least 15,000 people, although that number hasn't been independently verified. I asked Zach Van Meter what happens now that the Taliban controls the airport and the U.S. is gone.
ZACH VAN METER: We've halted all flights because we don't have any ability to bring any flights in and out at the moment. We've now transferred most of our efforts, if not all of them, to resettlement efforts. So we did pull a lot of Afghans out of Kabul. Some of them have an easier method of entering another country, such as SIV visas or some of them were actually American citizens or green card holders. But a lot of them don't have any opportunity. So helping them find a route into a country is of paramount importance, as well as assisting them with, you know, food, water, shelter and kind of guiding some of the NGOs that want to help into where those locations are.
MARTIN: So that means you are no longer able to help any Afghan or even U.S. citizen who happens to be in Afghanistan leave the country. You're focused solely now on helping people who you've already helped get out but to find third countries to resettle in.
VAN METER: So all of us would love to help. Unfortunately, we're very confused about the current diplomatic situation. It's very difficult for us to do any business that would be considered contrary to the laws in the United States. Once that's worked out, we can either resume flights via commercial charters or we will have to look at other options.
MARTIN: A lot of this effort began because of a pre-existing relationship that you had through your work as a private equity investor with a former U.S. commando named Sean (ph), right? We're not identifying his last name. Can you tell me...
VAN METER: Yes.
MARTIN: ...What happened after he reached out to you?
VAN METER: I called him one day to ask him where a document was, and he says it's more important we have 3,500 orphans, you want to help save them? I was taken aback and I said, yeah, sure. Yes. What can I do? So he said, well, we got to find a place to take them out of Kabul. And I'm like, Afghanistan? Oh, my gosh. OK. You know, we reached out to some relationships I had in the United Arab Emirates. So then we just put everything together, and then people started coming in, volunteers. So you had a two-star retired general who came in, brought in some of his friends, a lot of these ex-SOFT community guys, special forces community guys, came in. And it's actually quite incredible the amount of efficiency we had and how quick we moved.
MARTIN: Can you walk us through how the actual evacuations happened, just all the logistics that were involved in getting people out?
VAN METER: So it was complicated. We - so the first thing we would do is we would get names, and these would come in all different formats, from people from Facebook, from someone calling. We would send these names in a format to the people on the ground, Sean and his team. And they would, you know, go out and find these people, and they would either coordinate with them and call them and say, meet me at this point at this time, hold up your phone, have a green picture on it. And then they would walk them into the gates. And then from there, they had to organize them, put them on a plane, manifest them, which means you had to know who exactly was on the plane, and then depart them on the plane. So it was chaotic.
MARTIN: What was the U.S. government doing about your effort? I mean, you had to be coordinating with the U.S. military on the ground.
VAN METER: So Sean was coordinating with the military on the ground. They did not have a setup to receive and process information at the rate that we were doing it.
MARTIN: The U.S. didn't.
VAN METER: I don't believe so. I mean, it was chaotic. I know the State Department was using its assets to help notify civilians and stuff. There was also confusion there. The Taliban would change the checkpoints and they would change the procedures. There was always threats. You know, the posture would change. And, you know, so one day we'd go through one gate, the next day we'd go through a gate in the morning and in the afternoon, it'd be closed and they'd have to run around. So there was a lot of this, you know, real-time on-the-fly, you know, management, which I don't think we were set up for. To be completely honest, I don't think any government's set up for this sort of stuff. This was an insane moment.
MARTIN: Where are the people you evacuated now? You said you're focusing now on resettlement. Where are they?
VAN METER: So there are around 3,900. We've been moving some to other places in Abu Dhabi. We've moved a couple planeloads to Albania. We're working on moving a good amount of them to other places, including to the U.S. as well. A lot are eligible for that. There also are a group of orphans in Abu Dhabi facilities who are working through the correct channels to find homes for those people as well.
MARTIN: So you did get to those kids?
VAN METER: We did get to some of them, yes, we did. We got to a lot of different groups of people, too. We're also, you know, cognizant of the fact that some of them won't qualify for refugee status. So we need to find homes for them as well. We're working with governments like Somaliland and Ukraine and Romania to find more permanent facilities for these people so that they can go through the refugee process and resettlement process as well, which could take one to two years. We don't want to take people out of their country, put them in a worse situation. And that's - you know, that's the last thing that needs to happen from our standpoint.
MARTIN: Zach Van Meter, thank you so much for your time.
VAN METER: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: After the conversation, Zach got word that three Afghan women his group was trying to help leave Afghanistan were stopped by the Taliban as they attempted to cross into Tajikistan. They were told to return to Kabul.
(SOUNDBITE OF CORRE'S "TRANSIENT (B)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.