By Patrick Martel
The call came a few days before Kabul was surrounded by the Taliban. Law and order had deteriorated in Afghanistan, and the U.S. embassy’s regional security office (RSO) was in the middle of a herculean task to close the embassy, destroy or transport classified and other sensitive information and materials out of the country, and relocate U.S. diplomats to the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA).
While RSO staff coordinated the relocation of U.S. diplomats to the airport, the Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) Diplomatic Courier Service (DCS) sprang into action—launching a coordinated and massive relocation of the embassy’s information and materials. The effort not only involved individual DSS couriers; it required coordination across the U.S. embassies and courier hubs in at least five countries, as well as DSS headquarters in the United States.
Diplomatic couriers ensure the secure delivery of classified and sensitive materials between American posts abroad and the Department of State—even during turbulent times. Once DSS senior leadership notified the DCS that the Department needed its expertise, the Frankfurt Regional Diplomatic Courier Division began requesting price quotes from every major cargo carrier across the globe. The overwhelming response was that no airline insurance company was going to allow aircraft to fly into Kabul. The only asset on hand was a chartered Boeing 737, which had been converted from a luxury passenger jet (carrying famous bands such as Aerosmith) into a cargo hauler. The aircraft was small, and the cargo space limited, but it was all the DSS DCS could muster.
As the regional operations officer responsible for the provisional mission, Patrick Martel led the Frankfurt couriers’ effort. He departed Aug. 15, assuming that he and his team would take a few quick flights to and from Kabul to help package and escort diplomatic pouches. Upon arriving at Embassy Amman to rest, refuel, and gather supplies, it became apparent the mission would last longer than a few days. The following day, before the first 737 flight into Kabul, Martel briefed the aircraft crew and inquired about their experience landing in Kabul under visual flight rules with no radar tower support. The aircraft crew assured him that they were comfortable and ready to accomplish the mission.
“I was on the first and second flights to Kabul—both of which were precarious. On the first flight, the pilots overshot the runway, barely missing the mountains,” said Martel. “Everyone aboard was shaky from the experience, but I was able to carry out my sensitive mission on the ground.” Martel brought in much-needed supplies to sustain diplomatic efforts and removed six pallets of diplomatic pouches per trip.
On the next flight, Martel and his team encountered another close call upon landing as the plane was caught in a vortex of downdrafts and cross winds, almost crashing. Fortunately, the pilot steadied the plane just seconds before touching down, and the team extracted additional sensitive and classified materials.
Diplomatic Courier Roy Davis flew on the third 737 flight to Kabul, which turned out to be just as hazardous as the previous two. While the landing and completion of the mission were both successful, upon departing Afghanistan, the aircraft got caught in the turbulence of a C-17 military transport aircraft about to depart. The plane lurched violently in the turbulence and almost became inverted before the pilots were able to right it.
The following day, both aircrews informed Martel that they would no longer fly into Afghanistan. While he and his team worked out a new flight option, RSO personnel and diplomatic couriers at Embassy Amman gathered much-needed supplies to transport to DSS special agents on the ground in Kabul.
Fortunately, by the end of the first week of operations, couriers at the Amman Diplomatic Courier Regional Expeditionary Hub had found a new crew and aircraft that could help finish the mission in Kabul.
Diplomatic couriers, experts at rapid supply chain processes, continued to operate seamlessly as the classified and other sensitive cargo moved between U.S. diplomatic posts. The regional operations officer posted in Doha processed classified diplomatic pouches arriving daily on military flights from Kabul. The acting courier hub chief in Manama facilitated flights between Bahrain and Qatar, with support from the U.S. Navy. Other diplomatic couriers and the Frankfurt vault manager were all in Amman, bringing in sustainment supplies to their colleagues on the ground in Kabul and transporting critical national security cargo.
As the second week of operations began, the diplomatic couriers knew they needed to complete their work in Kabul as quickly as possible. To expedite operations, one diplomatic courier moved from assisting with pouches in Doha and Manama to boarding a C-17 headed to Kabul. He packed the rest of the classified material into pouches on the ground in Kabul, staying overnight to ensure some of the most sensitive material made it out the next day.
On Aug. 29, with minimal American presence, Ronald Tobin and Roy Davis completed the final diplomatic courier mission in Afghanistan. Their final flight marked the end of a risky, three-week operation that ensured sensitive and classified cargo was kept out of the hands of our enemies. The diplomatic couriers performed with precision, navigating through one dangerous scenario to another.
Although a chapter of DSS history in Afghanistan has ended, the DCS carries on. From managing regular supply routes with cargo freighters to sprinter vans in the African desert, the diplomatic couriers continue to move sensitive and classified materials between more than 270 U.S. diplomatic posts around the globe. The Department, and the American public, can be sure that during the next coup d’état, pandemic, or suspension of post operations, the Department’s quiet professionals will swoop in to support.
Patrick Martel is a diplomatic courier in the Diplomatic Security Service.