WASHINGTON — The U.S. military negotiated a secret arrangement with the Taliban that resulted in Taliban members escorting groups of Americans to the gates of the Kabul airport as they sought to escape Afghanistan, according to two defense officials.
One of the officials also revealed that U.S. special operations forces set up a "secret gate" at the airport and established "call centers" to guide Americans through the evacuation process.
The officials said Americans were notified to gather at preset "muster points" close to the airport where the Taliban would gather the Americans, check their credentials and take them a short distance to a gate manned by American forces who were standing by to let them inside amid huge crowds of Afghans seeking to flee.
The U.S. troops were able to see the Americans approach with their Taliban escorts in most cases in an attempt to ensure their safety.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the arrangements, which have not been disclosed until now because the U.S. was concerned about Taliban reaction to any publicity as well as the threat of attacks from ISIS-K if its operatives had realized Americans were being escorted in groups, the officials said.
The Taliban escort missions happened "several times a day" according to one of the officials. One of the key muster points was a Ministry of Interior building just outside one of the airport's gates where nearby U.S. forces were readily able to observe the Americans approach. Americans were notified by various messages about where to gather.
"It worked, it worked beautifully," one official said of the arrangement. As of Monday when the U.S. completed its withdrawal, more than 122,000 people in total had been airlifted from Hamid Karzai International Airport since July and more than 6,000 American civilians evacuated. However, 13 American service members and more than 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide blast at the airport last week.
It is not clear if the Taliban who were checking credentials during these efforts turned away any of the Americans. There have been numerous reports that some Americans with passports and U.S. green card holders were turned away from Taliban checkpoints close to the airport.
In another separate secret arrangement not disclosed until the operation was over, troops from the elite Joint Special Operations Command and other special operations units were also on the ground helping Americans escape by contacting them through "call centers," one of the officials said. Special operations forces set up their own "secret gate" at the airport and were at times in direct communication with Americans telling them exactly where to walk to find the gate and be able to get inside the airport.
Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie first publicly revealed the involvement of special operations forces at a Monday press conference saying those forces helped evacuate more than 1,000 American citizens and more than 2,000 Afghans "via phone calls, vectors, and escorting."
Special operations forces "reached out to help bring in more than 1,064 American citizens and 2,017 SIVs or Afghans at risk, and 127 third-country nationals all via phone calls, vectors, and escorting," he said. But in public comments, McKenzie did not specify the involvement of JSOC which includes forces that carry out the most dangerous counterterrorism missions such as the Army's Delta Force and Navy SEALS.