On the dusty tarmac of an airport in Northern Afghanistan, six planes have been waiting for days.
Thousands of Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule have converged in the vicinity of the airstrip, located outside Mazar-i-Sharif, on the promise of a charter flight out of the country.
But since Sept. 3, the planes have been stranded. The final flight out of the sleepy airport left Sept. 2.
Into this taut and fluid situation stepped an unlikely personage: Glenn Beck, the far-right radio host who made a name for himself on the Obama conspiracy circuit.
As Afghanistan collapsed over the past months, Beck claimed to have raised more than $35 million to finance what he describes as a massive evacuation effort for Christians, American citizens, and vulnerable Afghans. Beck says he has done that via a Utah group he founded called Nazarene Fund, which has been working with another Beck-founded charity called Mercury One to organize charter flights.
Like many of Beck’s broadcasts on TheBlaze, the Afghan ones have been filled with a mix of exaggeration and invective, with most of the right-wing firebrand’s ire directed not at the Taliban but at “laughing” bureaucrats in the State Department and the Biden White House. With the six charter planes blocked from leaving Mazar by the Taliban, Beck has claimed that lollygagging diplomats and an uncaring Biden has left thousands of American citizens and vulnerable Afghans to the mercy of the new regime.
Beck’s bomb-throwing came as the State Department began to face mounting criticism from those involved in the charter flights, who saw Mazar as a means to quietly evacuate thousands of vulnerable Afghans and some American citizens in the days after the U.S. withdrawal. With global attention still focused on Kabul, people familiar with the evacuation effort said, Mazar offered a discreet escape route.
But as the Mazar window remained open in the first days of September, people involved said, the State Department struggled to develop consistent guidance on how private charters could secure approvals for the flights – a complicated process occurring in a near-warzone that involves vetting passenger manifests and getting destination countries to issue landing authorizations.
Meanwhile, Beck trained his megaphone on the delicate evacuation effort. At times, even Beck has admitted to being asked to tone down his “fat mouth,” as he called it, not always with success.
The TV and radio host installed a counter-chyron on his broadcasts, listing the number of days that people have been “left behind in Afghanistan.” In a Sept. 1 BlazeTV appearance, he also accused the State Department specifically and the Biden administration more broadly of hindering efforts to evacuate people, accusing them of “100 percent evil,” while also saying “we’re talking crimes against humanity – we are at that level with our government.”
“Some of them will die,” Beck said of the would-be Mazar passengers in an appearance on BlazeTV released Sept. 8. The danger is real, as thousands of people continue to try to flee.
I set out to investigate Beck’s claims last week, trying to determine what exactly was going on in Mazar-i-Sharif, how Beck was involved, and whether his claims held water.
What I found, after speaking with multiple officials at government agencies and private aid organizations about the delays at Mazar, was an overriding sense of confusion, with officials at one point mistaking flights for each other, needed government permissions hard to come by, and bickering between organizations that seems pointless with a Taliban that continues to refuse to allow anyone to depart.
People involved in the effort said that Beck’s bluster and injection of American domestic politics into the Afghanistan situation had damaged delicate diplomatic efforts to extricate people from Mazar.
“I said something on the air today, and literally four minutes later, I got an email, saying whatever you do, don’t say this,” Beck said on Sept. 1. “And that’s going to affect the operations.”
In another appearance the same day, Beck suggested that the military would react to the delays by “mak[ing] the Nazis look like rookies.”
“Because if this is allowed to stand, and these people are just allowed to continue on with no ramifications, you don’t not want to see what our military will turn into,” Beck said. “I am telling you now, we will become the darkest force ever, ever to walk the earth. With our technology, and our resources, with our fighting machines that soon can be run robotically, we will make the Nazis look like rookies…this must not continue!”
This satellite image taken by @Maxar of Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan helps to verify that there are 6 commercial airplanes on the tarmac on Sept. 3 which are reportedly not being allowed to depart. pic.twitter.com/HTvKJtysnh
— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) September 5, 2021
Neither Mercury nor Nazarene would comment for this story.
Noel Clay, a State Department spokeswoman, referred TPM to remarks from chief spokesman Ned Price, who said on Wednesday that “not a minute goes by that many of us are in touch with individuals who are outside of the U.S. Government who are helping to coordinate these efforts.”
Escape from Mazar
The situation in Mazar-i-Sharif is similar to but distinctly different from Kabul airport, where the evacuation was the focus of international media coverage.
The story of Mazar is of other efforts, in which non-governmental groups have attempted to organize private charters to move people out of the country.
The efforts – often as piecemeal and ramshackle as they are well-intentioned – require a series of U.S. and foreign government approvals to take off. Bound for Al-Oudeid airbase in Qatar from Mazar, the flights need the State Department to secure Qatari landing permission and vet the passenger manifests, as well as separate approvals from the Department of Defense to reach the airbase.
This process was partly governed by an Aug. 24 State Department memo titled “Afghanistan Relocation: Guidance For Posts When Private Organizations Request Assistance For Charter Landing Rights.” The memo authorizes State Department posts to secure landing permission for private charters from Afghanistan by sending diplomatic notes to the governments of third countries.
One State Department employee familiar with the efforts told TPM that things got more chaotic as the U.S. completed its withdrawal on Aug. 31. The State Department began to lose track of which charter flights were going where, and lost its already-limited capacity to vet passengers on the ground.
The six planes on the tarmac in Mazar are operated by the private Afghan airline Kam Air. Different non-profits claim to have chartered flights out, including Beck’s charity Mercury One, and an unrelated charity called Sayara International.
Sayara is a humanitarian and development organization that got its start in Afghanistan in 2004. It focuses on development issues, working with the State Department and USAID, in conflict areas around the world.
Mercury One and Nazarene were both founded by Beck, and he serves on both group’s boards.
Nazarene and Mercury advertise themselves as organizations devoted to rescuing persecuted Christians around the world, with missions in Iraq and Syria aimed at giving believers safe, new lives away from danger. The groups describe their mission as “to liberate the captive, to free the enslaved, and to rescue, rebuild and restore the lives of Christians and other persecuted religious and ethnic minorities wherever and whenever they are in need.”
The two charities appear to have set their sights on the same limited number of planes – a total of six, composed of four 737s and two A340s on the tarmac at Mazar.
After calling around in the newly formed Afghan evacuation community, I established contact with people involved in both efforts. Both sides agreed that delays in U.S. government processing pushed the charter’s departure date out to Sept. 2, at which point the Taliban began to impose additional requirements which effectively shut down departures from the airport.
In the days leading up to Sept. 2, however, confusion reigned over which plane was whose. Mercury One claimed to have booked a series of flights; TPM reviewed documentation which suggested that the State Department at that point had not finished issuing the necessary permissions to depart.
That lack of approval appears to have fed Beck’s ire, the perception that State was slow-walking his evacuation effort. He referenced this on a Sept. 1 TV broadcast that was edited, with a proviso at the beginning saying that “sensitive information” which could compromise the mission had been redacted.
“The things that I say are now impacting people’s lives,” Beck said on Sept. 1. “I’m sure that what I’ve said out of my passion will impact people more.”
That, in turn, appears to have led to some annoyance from Sayara, which received its landing permissions for a Sept. 3 flight from the State Department and Qatari government on Sept. 2.
Sayara tried to distance itself from Mercury One, issuing a statement claiming that “confusion arising from the multiple efforts and statements of other actors has hindered our departure.” A person familiar with the statement’s drafting confirmed to TPM that it was made to distance the group from Beck.
Statement, 7 Sep 2021: pic.twitter.com/8zZUPsDVyS
— Sayara International (@SayaraIntl) September 7, 2021
Documents and correspondence reviewed by TPM showed Mercury One trying to secure landing permissions from Pentagon and State Department employees.
Those efforts did not appear to succeed by Sept. 2, though officials from Sayara and Mercury One accused the other of trying to hitch a ride with their own, supposedly more successful effort.
As I mentioned, all six planes were operated by the same Afghan airline – Kam Air.
Suliman Omar, Kam Air’s commercial director, confirmed to TPM that his airline had last been able to fly a charter out of Mazar on Sept. 2.
“Those were the last flights, and after that the new government said, we will not let any aircraft depart with passengers holding nothing,” Omar said, referring to a Taliban edict requiring all leaving passengers to have working passports and visa approval before departure.
What two people involved in the evacuation effort described as “the real Taliban” took over the Mazar airport on Sept. 2, replacing what had apparently been a sleepier, more relaxed northern variant of the Islamist group. The apparent result was that charters that had received approvals to depart on Sept. 3 from the U.S. government were unable to leave.
Hazami Baldama, an activist who has worked with Sayara on the flights, told TPM on Sept. 9 that she had been working with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)’s office to get the flights out.
“We’re trying to get to the bottom of where the breakdown is here,” she said.
The freeze in flights set off a round of activity on Capitol Hill, with senators calling the State Department demanding to know what was going on. Blumenthal’s office issued a statement on Sept. 6 openly criticizing Blinken after he accused the groups of not having their paperwork in, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) cast his lot in with Beck.
Blinken may have been correct about Mercury One, however: as of Sept. 2, the group appears to have claimed both that all of the planes in Mazar were its own – stoking confusion among government officials trying to get approvals for flights – and that the State Department had unduly failed to issue it the diplomatic notes, landing permissions, passenger manifest approvals, and flight codes needed to take off.
WHY are the State Department and White House still INTENTIONALLY blocking rescue flights out of Afghanistan? pic.twitter.com/36WMhfVp18
— Glenn Beck (@glennbeck) September 8, 2021
Beck – aided by friends in Congress like House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) – has continued to claim that his people are being held “hostage,” though he said recently that his subordinates were telling him to shut his “fat mouth” over revealing operational details about the evacuation.
Baldama, the activist working with Sayara on the effort, told TPM last week that Beck’s rhetoric around the flights had been “damaging.”
“None of the members of our flights were held hostage,” she said. “The Taliban wants to be seen as this benevolent government, and we know who they are – but the point is that this western savior complex is really playing negatively.”
“The longer it’s dragged out, the more it jeopardizes the safety and security of our people, and their mental turmoil,” she added.