As the Biden administration scrambled to conduct a massive evacuation effort from Afghanistan, American officials quietly instructed U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans, including Afghan commandos, to head to a secret CIA base outside Kabul to secure safe passage to the U.S. amid increased risks of a terrorist attack on the capital city’s main airport.
The clandestine operation, which took place over several weeks in August, resulted in the successful evacuation of hundreds of American citizens and vulnerable Afghans, including members of the elite Afghan special forces and their family members. At least 1,000 Afghan commandos and their family members were evacuated in the overall U.S. effort.
The details of the operation are based on documents provided to POLITICO and conversations with a senior administration official, a defense official and a congressional official, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
A U.S. official confirmed the CIA’s involvement in the evacuation, noting that the agency “worked closely with other agencies to facilitate in various ways access to the airport for American citizens and Afghans at risk.”
The New York Times first reported that the U.S used the base for evacuations. The full scope of the operation in the final days of the evacuation effort, however, has not been previously reported. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment on the operation.
At least some of the evacuees were taken by air from the secret compound, known as Eagle Base, to the airport in order to bypass the chaotic crowds and terror threat around the gates. Several helicopter flights operated by a U.S. company flew from an area around Eagle Base to the Kabul airport beginning on Aug. 15, when the Taliban took control of the city, according to flight data obtained by POLITICO.
Flight data suggests some of the evacuees were flown to Germany. During that same time period, aircraft owned by a U.S. government contractor flew from the Kabul airport to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The effort was coordinated with U.S. diplomats and staff who were relocated from the embassy to Hamid Karzai International Airport after the Taliban took control of Kabul. The diplomats had been communicating directly with American citizens who were trying to leave Afghanistan but feared for their safety — especially after the embassy publicly urged Americans not to travel to the airport last week amid threats of an attack from the ISIS-K terror group.
The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command was also helping reach out to hundreds of American citizens inside Kabul and around the country.
The House Intelligence Committee was briefed about the operation in August, two of the sources said, as lawmakers from both parties were seeking details from the Biden administration about efforts to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan. A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment.
Eagle Base, the sprawling CIA compound located less than three miles north of the airport, has a controversial history. Established early in the Afghanistan conflict at a former brick factory, the base was used by the CIA from 2002 to 2004 for “enhanced interrogation” of terror suspects. The CIA also used it to train Afghan counterterrorism units.
But during the rush to leave Kabul in recent weeks, the compound provided a crucial staging base for evacuees hoping to get out of Afghanistan — before it was demolished on Aug. 27 as part of the effort to ensure that no sensitive equipment or intelligence information would fall into the hands of the Taliban.
As the overall evacuation effort continued, the threat from ISIS-K terrorists to specific gates of the airport was growing. American officials began instructing U.S. citizens to head to different gates to gain entry into the airport for evacuation.
As the threat shifted, officials were “constantly mixing it up,” the defense official said — one day instructing people to head to one gate, and the next day telling them to meet at another location.
American officials were also directing citizens and at-risk Afghans, including commandos, to head to Eagle Base as a safer way station on their way to the airport.
During a call at 4 p.m. on Aug. 25 in Washington, or 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 26 in Kabul, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, estimated that roughly 1,000 out of 2,000 Afghan commandos slated for evacuation, along with a number of American citizens coming from Eagle Base, had been successfully routed to the airport.
These people got out just in time. Just hours later, at roughly 6 p.m. in Kabul on Aug. 26, an ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated an explosive device just outside the airport, killing 13 American service members and hundreds of Afghans.