Massive veterans group uses intel, satellite images to direct Afghan interpreters around Taliban checkpoints

Matt Zeller says 'digital Dunkirk' comprised of 'hundreds of thousands' of people helping Afghan interpreters flee country

A network of "hundreds of thousands" of people, including analysts using satellite imagery to locate Taliban checkpoints surrounding the Kabul airport, are coordinating to evacuate Afghan interpreters from the country, an Afghanistan war veteran and member of the coalition told Fox News.

These interpreters, now targeted by the Taliban, were essential U.S. allies during the Afghanistan war and played roles much larger than simply acting as translators, according to Matt Zeller. The Biden administration has faced fierce criticism that the U.S. hasn’t made their evacuation more of a priority.

"These people that we’re talking about … they were our eyes and ears on the battlefield," Zeller told Fox News. He said they’d hear Taliban communications ordering fighters to shoot the interpreters first.

"From the Taliban’s perspective, they won," Zeller, a former CIA analyst, continued. The Afghan interpreters "are the people who have been helping us to kill them over the last 20 years."

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"They want revenge, they want retribution," he said. "There’s no place for these people in Afghanistan."

There’s estimated to be at least 20,000 Afghan interpreters and family members trapped in Afghanistan.

Zeller described a "digital Dunkirk" campaign working to evacuate the Afghan interpreters. He said "hundreds of thousands" of people joined the movement after just a few weeks, but that it could grow into the millions by the time it’s over.

"If you served in the Afghan war and you still care about these people, chances are you’re probably part of the digital Dunkirk," Zeller told Fox News.

He said it started as an "army of veterans" getting pinged by Afghans, but that the network has grown to include organizations for human rights, faith and political advocacy.

"It’s incredible," Zeller said. "It’s not just veterans. Literally it’s pastors, it’s my mom, it’s my relatives, people who have never served in Afghanistan … widows, widowers, children of people who served."

"We’ve had intel analysts who have come and started doing satellite imagery analysis and actually putting together products for people where they’re mapping out Taliban checkpoints in real time using social media data" to provide safe routes to the airport, Zeller told Fox News.

The Taliban have said it would forgive any Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war. But the extremist group has established checkpoints blocking the path to the airport in Kabul, and numerous reports have indicated that they’re either recording or killing anyone they find that allied against them.

Afghans with direct or familial connections to the U.S. troops "will be disappeared" by the Taliban, the brother of one interpreter previously told Fox News.

"If you have an English document on you in that checkpoint, they take that document," Zeller told Fox News. "And they make note that you’re now on their list."

Immediately after Zeller joined Fox News on a Zoom call, he asked to delay the interview and began tapping on his phone. He apologized and said he was helping someone "get away from the Taliban."

"I’m spending most of my nighttime texting with Afghans, telling them ‘no, this is the gate you now got to try and get to. Oh, well here’s where this Taliban checkpoint is, you gotta take this street to literally get around them,'" Zeller said.

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But Afghans’ struggles continue even after they make it past the Taliban and into the airport.

"If you get people who get there, they need to be prepared to wait up to nine, 10 hours, in horrifically hot, humid conditions, with no water, no food no bathroom," Zeller told Fox News. "Just the worst possible conditions you can think of."

"Because on top of that, the Taliban are shooting indiscriminately into the crowd and over everybody’s head," he continued. "It’s just complete and total chaos."

Zeller described one instance where he successfully got a U.S. citizen through a gate at the Kabul airport after talking with a Marine over speaker phone.

"The rest of her family was there behind her," Zeller told Fox News. "They’re not U.S. citizens yet, and they weren’t allowed in."

"She had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave her family behind," he continued. "That is being played out over and over and over again."

"I’ve got friends who have told me that they’ve had literally U.S. citizens standing in the crowd waving their blue passports screaming ‘I’m a U.S. citizen,’ and the Marines can’t come get them," Zeller said.

Zeller said the U.S. has a responsibility to evacuate the Afghan interpreters.

If they aren’t evacuated now, then "they’re gonna be dead, and we’ll regret for the rest of our lives having failed them," Zeller told Fox News.

He explained just how essential they were to the U.S. troops.

"We would roll into a village and [our interpreter] would tap me on the shoulder and say ‘something’s wrong here,’" Zeller said. "’Normally when we come here, that guy comes out with tea, and those kids are over there playing with a soccer ball, and there’s no one around. This is a bad thing. We usually get attacked when it’s like this.’"

"And five minutes later, we’re getting shot at," Zeller continued.

"That type of insight saves lives," he said. "That cultural context cannot ever be replaced other than by standing next to someone who came from there."

Zeller said he promised to someday repay his interpreter for saving the Marine’s life. He was able to help get the interpreter out of Afghanistan.

"I’m thankful I got to fulfill it for him, but there are now thousands of others, who Americans made just as equal and just as important of a promise, who are being betrayed and left behind," Zeller told Fox News.

He said the U.S. faces a moral injury if it fails to evacuate the Afghan interpreters.

"I already know of at least one veteran suicide over this," Zeller told Fox News.

"I would love for someone to call up and say ‘Major Zeller, you need to put your uniform on, you’re being sent to Afghanistan to help out with us,’" Zeller said. "I don’t know of a single veteran that I’ve spoken with who feels any differently."

He said he can’t imagine what it must be like for the U.S. troops at the Kabul airport "who have to stand 50 meters away from the Taliban and watch them be thugs and not be able to do a damn thing about it."

Gunfire could be heard throughout voice memos a female journalist attempting to leave Afghanistan sent Fox News. Based on her location, the U.S. troops at the Kabul airport could likely hear the shots.

Zeller said the campaign to evacuate the interpreters "is a whole of America effort … minus the one guy, the only guy, who can give the order to actually truly save these people," referring to President Biden.

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"I was appalled that the secretary of defense said he didn’t have the ability to guarantee the safe movement of Americans to the airport in Kabul," Zeller told Fox News. "He absolutely does."

"He has the United States military," he continued. "What he doesn’t have is the orders to move those people."

"At the end of a war, there are two questions that loom large," Zeller said. "Was it worth it, and how do you end it?"

"History gets to decide the former, we get to decide the latter," he told Fox News. "Right now, we’ve chosen to end it with profound shame."

Prior to publication, Fox News determined this story would not bring additional danger to Afghan interpreters, as the Taliban was already aware of their efforts to escape.

If you would like to help Afghan interpreters, please visit https://nooneleft.org/.