With the August 31 withdrawal deadline on the horizon, thousands of Afghan collaborators remain trapped in the war-torn country, desperate to escape the Taliban. On Wednesday night, an informal group of former American Afghan war fighters collectively called “Task Force Pineapple” escorted as many as 500 Afghan allies and their families to the Kabul airport for emergency evacuation.
Collaborating with the U.S. military and embassy, the volunteer veterans brigade helped refugees navigate the treacherous journey through Taliban territory to the secure U.S. boarding zone at Hamid Karzai International Airport, members of the group told ABC News.
The covert mission, coined “Pineapple Express,” continued through the night and into Thursday, coinciding with the terrorist suicide bombings involving detonated explosive devices in Kabul that killed at least 13 U.S. service members and injured 15 others.
“Dozens of high-risk individuals, families with small children, orphans, and pregnant women, were secretly moved through the streets of Kabul throughout the night and up to just seconds before ISIS detonated a bomb into the huddled mass of Afghans seeking safety and freedom,” Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret commander who directed the quasi-independent operation explained.
The group first came together on August 15 to rescue a former Afghan commando at risk for having served alongside American Special Forces and the elite SEAL Team Six.
What started with one Afghan collaborator expanded to include many others. The mission was orchestrated by over 50 people conducting reconnaissance, collecting intelligence, and planning virtually in an encrypted chat room to sneak vulnerable Afghans past the terrorist group’s checkpoints and controlled terrain to the airport.
Many of these enemies of the Taliban and their families said that they were they were apprehended by militants during the operation, but did not have their affiliations exposed.
“This Herculean effort couldn’t have been done without the unofficial heroes inside the airfield who defied their orders to not help beyond the airport perimeter by wading into sewage canals and pulling in these targeted people who were flashing pineapples on their phones,” Mann said.
U.S. military forces, confined to inside the airport boundary, waited for the cues of the Pineapple Express ground team, called “conductors.” Refugees (“passengers”) arrived at rendezvous points where they stood by until a conductor wearing a green chem light flagged their attention. Passengers then confirmed their identities by displaying the secret code: A picture of yellow pineapples on a pink background. They were then shepherded to the U.S.-guarded part of the airport. Many of the Afghans were brought to Abbey Gate, where U.S. soldiers would intercept and bring them inside the protected area.
Jason Redman, a former Navy SEAL and Purple Heart recipient who helped guide Afghans he knew to safety, lamented to ABC “that our own government didn’t do this. We did what we should do, as Americans.” The operation occurred as the U.S. military continued to share intelligence with the Taliban, even providing a list of names of U.S. citizens, green card-holders, and Afghans who had spent the previous years fighting the Taliban alongside U.S. forces.
The many retired servicemen who organized and played a part in the high-stakes project said they were proud of what they had accomplished together, and of the courage their team showed during a very dark hour.
“I have been involved in some of the most incredible missions and operations that a special forces guy could be a part of, and I have never been a part of anything more incredible than this,” declared Army Major and retired Green Beret Jim Gant. “The bravery and courage and commitment of my brothers and sisters in the Pineapple community was greater than the U.S. commitment on the battlefield.”