By Jonathan Movroydis
In this interview, Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow H.R. McMaster is joined by his chief of staff, Chelsea Berkey, and two Stanford University students, Lisa Einstein and Sylvie Ashford, to discuss their work to help mitigate the catastrophe in Afghanistan and provide meaningful relief to refugees evacuating that country.
In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August, McMaster and Berkey organized a group of fourteen students who comprised the beginnings of the Hoover Afghanistan Relief Team (HART). As McMaster and his colleagues recount in this interview, HART was created out of a sense of duty to Afghans who fought heroically alongside US and coalition forces during the twenty-year war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. The Hoover team maintains that because many of these Afghans collaborated with the West and supported building a democratic society, they were likely to be persecuted, brutalized, or murdered if they hadn’t left the country. Those who haven’t yet evacuated, and others who will be left behind, could experience enormous suffering.
The team members explain how they have supported and filled gaps in the US government’s on-the-ground operations to evacuate refugees. General McMaster describes how the HART initiative is consistent with the overall mission, history, and tradition of the Hoover Institution. Herbert Hoover himself was a leader of humanitarian efforts beginning in World War I and during the periods of World War II and the Korean War.
McMaster underscores how these refugees will strengthen the fabric of American society because of their devotion to democratic values and strong commitment in Afghanistan to expand political and religious freedom, advance women’s rights, and build a judicial system grounded in the due process of law.
The team members also talk about their planned partnership with the Hoover Library & Archives to document the experience of Afghan refugees through an oral history program. They believe that these oral histories will increase public knowledge about the recent past and influence the creation of better policy-making by amplifying the voices of people affected by US policy actions.
This interview was conducted on Friday, September 17, 2021.
Tell us about the origins of the Hoover Afghanistan Relief Team (HART).
H.R. McMaster: In August, when the Taliban started to take over large swaths of territory in Afghanistan, and ultimately toppled Kabul by the middle of the month, we recognized that many Afghans who worked with US forces and coalition partners, and who wanted to build a better future for their country after the hell of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, were going to be persecuted, brutalized, or murdered. We wanted to find a way to help expedite their evacuation from this chaotic environment, but we did not want to be a distraction to US military and State Department efforts.
We looked for needs that were going unfulfilled and found that there was a gap in coordinating the evacuation of people. We availed ourselves of the tremendous talent that is here at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, in particular my chief of staff, Chelsea Berkey, and our student research assistants, whom she organized into our relief team. This team created a database and solicited information from Afghans who were under duress, unburdened them from their immigration paperwork, and advocated for them to US government officials so that they could board outgoing flights from Kabul Airport.
We also coordinated with other organizations that were involved in securing charter flights for evacuees as well as with officials in other countries so that undocumented Afghans could transition there as they awaited processing for onward movement to the United States or other countries. It has been a massive coordination effort, and we couldn't have done it without Chelsea and the extremely dedicated students here at Stanford.
Chelsea, will you talk about organizing this team of Stanford students?
Chelsea Berkey: H.R. McMaster asked me and Laurie Garcia on our team to manage requests coming in from Afghans who were trying to evacuate the country. Some of these people hadn't filed visa applications with the State Department, while others had their visas or were in the process of obtaining them. Many Afghans with proper paperwork were stranded outside the Kabul Airport without a clear path to enter the airport or be manifested for an evacuation flight. Around this time, I received an email from Lisa [Einstein], a graduate student on our team, offering to support us in any way she could. I enlisted her as my deputy and we spent the next few days managing and coordinating requests 24/7. As we started to receive an overwhelming number of requests, General McMaster said, “Let’s enlist a group of our smart and capable Stanford student researchers to assist while they are still on summer break.” I put out a call to our team, and fourteen of them immediately responded and were eager to help. We then divided up the labor. One small team collated data in spreadsheets, while another set up a system to speedily write and send out letters of recommendation for visa application and evacuation efforts. Another team specialized in applying for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). They gathered resources on the immigration process for Afghans who needed them and identified resources to share in Dari and Pashto, when appropriate.
When we started these efforts, we needed someone to make sure that all the data we gathered was well organized, standardized, and ready to pass along to important leaders in the military and civilian sides of the US government. It was in this area that one of our students, Sylvie Ashford, answered the call and performed brilliantly.
Sylvie Ashford: The whole team felt really grateful to have an opportunity to contribute in any small way to the Afghan relief effort. I was tasked with helping organize evacuees’ biographical data into a central spreadsheet, a small role in the scheme of things. I have to give credit to Lisa Einstein for helping me standardize this process and for being Chelsea’s partner in making this initiative possible.
General McMaster, in your book Battlegrounds, and in the programming here at Hoover, you have discussed the idea of retrenchment, that is, the belief that our leaders should pull back from costly foreign interventions and primarily address concerns on the home front. There are some who believe that US leaders should not assume unnecessary risks to the nation’s security, including the resettlement of refugees from foreign countries within US borders. How would you respond to such sentiments?
McMaster: Refugees and other immigrants have been the strength of our country since its founding. For example, Vietnamese refugees who arrived on our shores in the wake of the communist assault on South Vietnam in 1975 are deeply patriotic to America and faithful to its principles.
Our country will be invigorated with Afghans who were advocates for freedom in their own country. These are people who had dedicated their lives to building a better future for their children and their grandchildren, and for equality of opportunity for women. Prior to the takeover by the Taliban, Afghanistan had achieved an extraordinary degree of political and religious freedom thanks to the efforts of those who are now fleeing after what I would describe as our self-defeat in Afghanistan. The manner in which we withdrew from the war empowered the Taliban and delivered devastating psychological blows to the Afghan military and government. Sadly, our policies and actions helped precipitate the humanitarian crisis. It is time to acknowledge that sad reality and do all we can to mitigate it.
What is the scale of the crisis in Afghanistan and how do you plan to contribute to continuing relief efforts?
Berkey: Our government said that it helped evacuate approximately 130,000 people, which is amazing. However, their data doesn't specify the amount of US citizens and refugees who petitioned for asylum and who are still in country. I've heard estimates that there are over a hundred thousand people who need to be evacuated. There are tens of thousands of refugees awaiting processing in third countries right now. There are also nearly fifty thousand refugees on US military bases stateside who are going to be resettled in different parts of America. Further complicating this effort are virus outbreaks on US bases and in our partner countries’ bases.
As you could see from the chaotic scenes on television, there were many Afghans trying to elbow their way on to military aircraft. Many families were separated during the evacuation and in their transition for processing in third countries and at military bases. These people need assistance completing their paperwork so that the US government can swiftly identify and process them and help them resettle and reunite with their families. Some of them will need medical assistance. We have also heard stories of babies being born on our military bases.
Lisa Einstein: The process of procuring SIVs and relief for refugees has been historically very slow. Some might say the process is broken. Currently, the system has been put under unimaginable pressure. It's clear that it is not designed for a human catastrophe of this scale. What I really hope is that this experience pushes long-needed reforms in refugee resettlement policy. However, it’s important to note that within these broken systems, there are people—foreign service officers, civil servants, military service members, and other individuals—throughout the US government who have been working all-day and literally all-night shifts at airports, the Pentagon, and the State Department, as well as in US embassies and on military bases. Amid all of this chaos, these public servants have really stepped up.
How is HART connecting with individual Afghan refugees who are seeking relief?
Berkey: That’s a great question that gets to the center of how we are trying to direct the future of HART. Refugees first connected with us by email and then through WhatsApp. We have been connected with approximately one thousand people and we continue to share resources with and advocate for them. Due to the volume of cases and our limited number of staff, we realized early on that we would primarily act in support of existing government efforts. We will continue to support government efforts by sharing the latest government resources with refugees and working with other organizations to consolidate our databases of those who need assistance.
McMaster: We couldn't manage each and every case and we didn’t have the knowledge or capacity to run on-the-ground operations such as navigating refugees around Taliban checkpoints and to their assigned gates at the Kabul Airport. At the very beginning, we did some coordination for individuals trying to evacuate the country. For example, we helped a former high-ranking government official and a head of an Afghan think tank move from the civilian side to the military side of the airport. In such cases, we were actually sending descriptions of the evacuees’ vehicles and their geolocation to US officials to secure a safe arrival. In other cases, we helped refugees with visas who were manifested on flights to identify the airport gates through which they were meant to pass.
We didn’t want to distract the US military and deluge them with individual messages. The work that our team did in organizing data about refugees was meant to fill gaps for the military and the State Department. Our aim was to provide a value-added service to those who were conducting evacuation operations.
Can you describe a moment when you knew you were making a difference?
Einstein: A State Department official I spoke with commented on how well organized and useful the data we shared was and confirmed that our efforts helped some folks get into the airport during the height of the chaos. It was very meaningful to me to hear this, because there was always a question in the back of my mind of whether we were duplicating existing efforts.
As Americans, how can we help integrate Afghan refugees into our society?
Berkey: There are different nongovernmental organizations that partner with resettlement centers across the country. These organizations connect refugees with Afghan-American communities as well as religious institutions and charities.
One of the large Afghan-American communities is actually in Northern California, and we expect a significant number of refugees to arrive here in the near future. We have connected with many groups who are already working with the Afghan refugee population. Across the country, we will need volunteers to work in their local communities to provide food and shelter and assist in the day-to-day process of integrating Afghans into American society.
McMaster: I would like to name a few organizations that have been especially integral to evacuation and resettlement efforts. These include Spirit of America and No One Left Behind, which have been broadly involved in providing relief. Another has been Team Rubicon, which mobilizes veterans to help people in need, whether it’s a natural disaster or a refugee crisis like this. Locally, Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay is also doing tremendous work to support the integration of Afghans into our community.
How do HART’s efforts square with the Hoover Institution’s overall mission?
McMaster: The Hoover Institution was founded in the wake of World War I, which at that time had been the most destructive war in modern history. Herbert Hoover had dedicated the institution’s mission to the study of war and how we can prevent future conflict and solidify a long and enduring peace. In fact, the think tank was founded originally as the Hoover Institution for the Study of War, Revolution, and Peace.
Herbert Hoover himself had been the leader of humanitarian relief efforts in the wake of World War I and later in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War. Thus, HART’s mission is very much in keeping with the history of the institution and the legacy of the person whose name it bears.
I think also that we are contributing to America's security and prosperity by helping these extremely talented Afghans, who share our values and our principles. They will strengthen the fabric of our society. Also, what you're seeing now is the best of America: the outpouring of support for those who are in need. I think these efforts will ultimately bolster our reputation around the world and help compensate for the damage done to our reputation due to the manner in which we withdrew from Afghanistan.
Can you tell us about the oral history program you have planned with the Hoover Institution Library & Archives?
McMaster: Part of the Hoover Institution’s mission is to capture the historical record and make available primary materials so that they can be studied by students and scholars. The Hoover Institution Library & Archives (L&A) has one of the most extensive records in the world that covers major political, social, and economic events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In partnership with the outstanding professionals at L&A, we plan to document the experiences of the refugees through an oral history program. I believe it is important for Afghans to not just recount the horrors of fleeing the Taliban this year, but also their experience across recent decades.
I think the oral history program will also help Afghans regain their voice about the future of the country. Every time I hear our government officials saying, "We need to engage the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan," I just wonder when we're going to stop trying to empower a jihadist terrorist organization instead of engaging the 90 percent-plus of Afghans who didn't support Taliban rule of the country.
For America, understanding the failure in Afghanistan is important to developing policies and strategies to build a better future for our nation and the world.
Ashford: There are quite a number of students at Stanford who don't understand what's happening in Afghanistan and don't have much of a historical understanding about the region. The Hoover Institution has an opportunity to play an integral role on campus by contributing to public knowledge and increasing Americans' awareness of current events in Afghanistan and the larger Middle East.
Einstein: One of the concepts that General McMaster discusses at length in his book Battlegrounds is “strategic empathy.” It’s an idea coined by Zachary Shore, a historian and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Shore describes the importance of stepping out of our own heads and understanding the ideologies, emotions, and aspirations that drive others. By recording the experience of Afghans and really listening to their stories, we can better learn from our mistakes and miscalculations. This lesson resonates with me as a former Peace Corps volunteer. I served for two years in Guinea, West Africa, and formed many deep friendships. It’s remarkable to observe how misunderstood my friends can be by policy makers and media outlets. This experience demonstrated for me the importance of informing “grasstops” policy with grassroots listening. This oral history program can help us learn about the experience of Afghans in Afghanistan by talking to people who can provide invaluable eyewitness accounts.
A recent conversation I had with an Afghan green card holder demonstrates how valuable it is to hear firsthand experiences from those attempting to flee Kabul during the evacuation. On August 20, he sent me this email (which has been slightly adapted to protect his anonymity):
“This morning I went to Abby gate with family I tried very very hard to reach 50 feet away from Marines. The gate was closed there were approximately 15000 people a lot of them were dehydrated…children might be dead they were laying down in the ground even I lost my control and I was about to go to the dehydration shock too even though I drink a lot of water but nothing was working my family had the same situation. Then I tried so much difficult to go out of crowd and I lost my handbag people were stepping on the luggage from other side there were firing shots the worse thing is cell phone is not working near the gates. Over all was like doomsday thanks god I make it back home. It’s not about complaining this was the real situation. I really really hope that they find a good way to repatriate people.”
This green card holder later received a call saying he and his wife should show up at their assigned gate at the airport to potentially depart on a flight leaving the country. At the gate, he was unable to obtain further guidance from the official, who had his phone turned off. To make matters worse, the Taliban standing guard said they wouldn't permit green card holders to cross the gate. They also pushed this man and sprayed tear gas on him.
Thirty minutes later, he received another call from Washington, DC, encouraging him to return to the gate. When he arrived, the gate entry was swarming with Taliban fighters. They said, “Not a single person can go through. This is an order from the authorities."
The green card holder texted me, "I have been called by many people directing me to several different gates. I went gate to gate. All my neighbors noticed me. If Americans can't help me evacuate, why are they calling me and putting me in danger? I saw a lot of other people who successfully boarded buses bound for other countries. I don't know what is wrong with the US government. I'm so disappointed, to be honest."
This is not a unique story; thousands of others shared similar experiences. We had to pull ourselves out of our spreadsheets and process what was actually happening to the people whom those numbers represented. We hope that the oral history project will help policy makers put themselves in the shoes of the people whose lives their processes impacted and inform future approaches to reduce human suffering.
Do you have any concluding thoughts?
McMaster: As somebody who served in our army for thirty-four years, I'm so proud of Chelsea, Lisa, Sylvie, and our students. I think one of the problems that we have in our society today is that many people don't believe that they have the agency to overcome challenges and solve problems. But we do have authorship over our future. We can make a positive difference in people’s lives. And that's what this team did. They didn’t stand idly by and just watch this catastrophe happen. They did everything that was in their power to provide relief to the Afghan people.
Ashford: Many young people believe that those who are older and more experienced are the only ones capable of solving big problems. But sometimes when no one else steps up to do the job, duty calls and young people have to give it their all and hope that what they can contribute will be meaningful. Working with this team was certainly an eye-opening realization that not everything is being handled by decision makers at the top. However, HART’s efforts aren’t a substitute for policy change. The most important work should still be managed at the government level.
Berkey: I am very proud to work at the Hoover Institution. It has been fulfilling to know that in some small way we helped advance President Hoover’s legacy by providing relief to people in need. It has also been rewarding to coordinate with officers in the armed forces, civilian officials, and Afghan American citizens who are taking time out of their daily lives and regular professional duties to help evacuate Afghan refugees and get them to safety.
Einstein: I want to emphasize that many Afghans who have been trying to leave Afghanistan fought bravely alongside US troops against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They are committed allies to the United States and unwavering in their friendship. They are journalists trying to hold power to account and girls longing to continue their educations. They face harsh restriction or abuse under Taliban rule and are willing to endure dangerous and unpredictable journeys toward better lives. These Afghans are the courageous heroes of this story, not HART.
For media requesting information about this article, contact: Jeffrey Marschner, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on evacuation and relief efforts in Afghanistan, please consult the following resources:
US Department of State: https://www.state.gov/afghanistan-inquiries
Refugee & Processing Affiliates by State: https://www.wrapsnet.org/documents/R&P%20Affiliate%20Directory%20(Updated%20May%202021).pdf
Spirit of America: https://spiritofamerica.org
No One Left Behind: https://nooneleft.org