By Scott Robinson
When Embassy Berlin Political Officer Salman Khalil encountered an injured, traumatized man among the thousands of evacuees from Afghanistan at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Khalil knew he had to help. The man was unable to communicate in English, so Khalil, a native Pashto speaker, interpreted for him. Khalil later learned the man had been injured in the bomb attack at the airport in Kabul and was airlifted to safety by U.S. Marines.
Years from now, those who staffed the Ramstein operation and those who evacuated through Germany will remember stories such as Khalil’s. They will marvel at the temporary Afghan city and international airport that materialized on the tarmac at Ramstein, and at the unprecedented interagency cooperation to assist in the transit of 35,000 Afghan evacuees to the United States—part of a broader mission to bring Americans home and ensure the safety of the nation’s Afghans.
Once Washington and Berlin had reached agreement on the framework of the transit operation, attention turned to mounting what became known as “Operation Allies Refuge”. Called to action within hours, Mission Germany officers and staff converged on Ramstein to tackle the daunting task ahead.
“I left for Ramstein with one Berlin colleague and my dog in the back seat, assigned to build a civilian operation from scratch for a mission that was still being defined,” said Embassy Berlin’s Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Elizabeth Horst, who was selected to lead the interagency operation. “Our approach on arrival was to ask: ‘Where can we help? Where can Mission Germany and civilian partners add value?’”
That approach framed the formation of the Ramstein Interagency Team (RIAT), which at its peak accounted for more than 300 representatives from the Department of State, USAID, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Commerce, and others. Department of Defense colleagues had erected housing areas for the arrivals and organized food, water, and supplies at Ramstein, and then at the neighboring Army facility, Rhein Ordnance Barracks. But a host of other responsibilities—vetting, screening, manifesting, consular services for American citizens, and humanitarian aid for traumatized evacuees—fell to the diverse interagency team.
Mission Germany’s consular staff, many of whom had just loaded up their fly-away kits earlier in the day in order to travel to Ramstein, were on the ground to meet the first evacuees on Aug. 20. While the consular team’s priority was assisting American citizens and legal permanent residents in the group, they were also there to help meet all new arrivals’ basic needs. The men, women, and many children who landed at the air base showed the strain of their journey: some needed medical attention, others had been separated from their family members, and others were unaccompanied minors.
Even as evacuees were still arriving, the Ramstein Interagency Team built a pop-up terminal in Ramstein’s Hangar 5 to prepare for the outflow. Where normally a C-5 military transport aircraft sat for maintenance, dozens of TSA, CBP, State, Foreign Commercial Service, and other civilians worked with their Air Force counterparts to create a screening, manifesting, and boarding process that ensured the integrity and safety of every flight bound for the United States Working around the clock, the Hangar 5 team kept America safe while running an international transit hub.
Communication was at times a fundamental hurdle, and the special skills of Mission Germany’s team were essential. The U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt’s Locally Employed Staff member Faiaz Nuri was among those who put their language skills to good use, patiently explaining the next steps, or in many cases just listening to the concerns of evacuees and addressing their fears. When one group refused to get off their bus at the reception center, Nuri, a fluent Dari and Farsi speaker, was able to explain what was going to happen next and convinced them to exit the bus and continue their journey to the United States. Fluent in German as well as Pashto, Political Officer Khalil was able to help an American citizen locate her family members in the German city of Hannover, and to assist her in making arrangements to join them.
Mission Germany’s public diplomacy team worked with Air Force Public Affairs colleagues to conduct more than 100 on-the-record or on-background interviews with American, international, and local media outlets, and launched a social media campaign on Mission Germany’s platforms to tell the story of the operation. Tweets and other posts on the operation reached hundreds of thousands online and generated retweets by the Department.
The team’s early decision to embed a Department public affairs officer with military counterparts at the evacuation processing center in Ramstein Air Base was essential for close coordination and successful messaging.
Messaging and press efforts created tangible results for the evacuation mission. In one instance, giving local media information about the large number of young children and the births among the evacuees generated donations of necessary supplies from the local community.
“It was extremely important to be a part of this mission. This is why many of us joined the Foreign Service—to do good work and help people. It was tough, emotionally draining, and fulfilling,” said ConGen Frankfurt Public Affairs Officer Andy Halus.
Amidst the operation, the Ramstein team hosted a visit from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Joined by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Blinken briefed the media on the engagement, highlighting America’s deep appreciation for Germany’s support. In a meet and greet with Charge d’Affaires Clark Price and members of the interagency team, Blinken summed up his feelings about the team’s effort.
“What you’ve accomplished in such a short period of time under such extreme circumstances is truly, truly remarkable. It really is a tribute to the fact that people came together across agencies and also across countries, because we owe so much to our Germany friends and partners here. I’m immensely, immensely grateful and proud for what you’ve done,” he said.
As Operation Allies Refuge enters its third month and contends with challenges such as a temporary halt in flights to ensure the health and safety of the evacuees and staff, additional Mission Germany volunteers are making the journey to Ramstein to support the continuing effort.
Sharing his perspective since assuming leadership of the interagency operation in September, Mission Germany Senior Regional Security Officer Paul Houston said, “In the end, this operation is about everyone, regardless of agency or employment status, coming together to do the job that needs to be done. RIAT represents the best of the U.S. government and of America: a dedicated, constantly evolving team of diverse professionals, each offering their energy and skills to solve whatever problem the day throws at us.”
For volunteers, such as Salman Khalil, the sense of satisfaction was personal. “Serving as part of Operation Allies Refuge was humbling, heartbreaking, and left me feeling blessed and proud to be an American,” he said. “Professionally, it helped reinforce what an amazing and talented group of people we have supporting one of the most challenging operations in our country’s history. I am proud to have served alongside all of my colleagues at Ramstein.”
Scott Robinson is assistant information officer at Embassy Berlin.