Aug 27, 2021 - Economy

"Just a mess": A CEO's effort to get an employee out of Afghanistan

Illustration of a helicopter flying next to a map of Afghanistan.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"It's just a mess. We got the money and the planes, but the manifested people can't get into the airport. The flights may never fly."

That's how the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup valued at over $3 billion described his efforts to extract an employee and others from Afghanistan.

  • The employee, an Afghan with a green card who once served as a translator for the U.S. military, did get out with his wife (who had been waiting more than two years for a visa). But other members of his family remain, including a brother who he tried to get through the airport gates, so we are keeping the name of the company and its employee anonymous.

Behind the scenes: An ad hoc group of tech investors and executives has been quietly pulling strings and writing checks, trying to help as many desperate people as possible. But successes are becoming harder to achieve.

  • "One of my executives used to work in the defense industry, and offered to make some outreach," the CEO, who is an immigrant, explains to Axios.
  • "Serious people wrote him back, saying that if we contribute money, then they could get him out. At first it sounded illicit, but I didn't care, this was someone's life at stake, pull that thread," the CEO adds.
  • "Soon we learned that it was an ex-military logistics group on a humanitarian mission, and they needed to close the funding gap for a plane that would hold between 150 and 200 refugees."
  • "We raised over $100,000 in just 12 hours from a lot of people who probably know, and who have been working on other evacuations. As a CEO it's a very interesting trust-building exercise, to wire $100,000 to someone you just met, but this is an immediate, life and death sort of situation."

But that plane hasn't yet arrived in Kabul. Nor have several of the other planes funded by the same donors, because their intended passengers remain stranded outside the airport gates.

  • The employee and his wife got out on a military transport, first to Doha and then to D.C. The other plane was viewed as a backup for them and a primary way to fetch the rest of his family.
  • "There are planes just sitting a few hours away [from Afghanistan] that could take out thousands of people, a lot of whom have been trying for years to get visas, but the whole process was slowed down by COVID and other factors ... I just got off the phone with someone trying to get a busload of 100 people into the airport, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. Even 48 hours ago there were some people getting through ... Now we're basically having no success."

The bottom line: The U.S. military remains scheduled to leave Afghanistan on Tuesday, which would make evacuations even harder.

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