By Michael Pointer
Embassy Doha played a pivotal role in the largest noncombatant evacuation process in history—Operation Allies Refuge (OAR). Over a four-week period, some 58,000 evacuees passed through Qatar, were housed on U.S. bases, and boarded flights coordinated by the American military, Department of State, and the Qatari government.
As the Taliban swept through Kabul and security conditions at Hamid Karzai International Airport deteriorated, plans for the U.S. government evacuation changed quickly. Al Udeid Air Force Base (AUAB) in Qatar became the evacuation point for tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, locally employed staff, and at-risk Afghans.
In the early days of the evacuation, Embassy Doha’s small staff bore the brunt of processing thousands of evacuees who landed at AUAB from Kabul, working 24-hour shifts to support the largest airlift in American history. Embassy staff teamed with AUAB personnel to transform AUAB into both a haven teeming with refugees and an international airport in order to care for and move thousands of travelers to other lily pads for onward processing to the United States. Embassy staff and their military colleagues distributed food, medicine, and bed space to the Afghans.
Amid the crowded hangars and warehouses, which usually hold U.S. military combat equipment, embassy staff and base personnel courageously worked together to make the best of a difficult situation for those evacuated and the interagency volunteers caring for them. As operations normalized with the arrival of temporary duty (TDY) support from around the world, many Embassy Doha staff noted how they had not seen their families or worked on their regularly assigned portfolios in weeks.
OAR-Qatar deepened the cooperation between Embassy Doha, the Qatari government, and the service members at the two U.S. military installations in Qatar. During the evacuation, most evacuees arrived on military flights at AUAB, operated by the U.S. Air Force, and many were subsequently housed temporarily at lodging facilities at Camp As Sayliyah (CAS), operated by the U.S. Army. Each day, embassy staff, TDYers, Department of Defense (DoD) personnel, and the Qatari interagency engaged in minute-by-minute coordination to ensure the success of OAR in Qatar. The ongoing partnership between Department of State, DoD, and interagency personnel bridged cultural and operational differences, and generated hundreds of new relationships. Facilitated by the work of the TDY OAR team at the air base and evacuated personnel from Embassy Kabul, Embassy Doha, AUAB, CAS, and their Qatari government partners became a single functioning entity that modeled interagency and bilateral commitment and cooperation.
Embassy Doha relationships with Qatari partners proved crucial throughout the evacuation. The front office and various embassy staff leveraged their strong relationships with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Defense, Qatari aid agencies, non governmental and intergovernmental organizations, and private sector contacts to share appropriate information and engage in decision-making to improve evacuation processing and conditions for evacuees. With hundreds of third-country nationals also passing through Qatar, staff across the embassy drew on their relationships with other foreign missions to facilitate these evacuees’ return to their home countries.
Throughout the operation, the dedication of the Embassy Doha and OAR teams shined. While the major logistical operations were of paramount importance and interest in Washington, Embassy Doha officials and volunteers organized groups of teens to help pick up trash to keep temporary lodging spaces clean, and the community liaison officer coordinated a donation drive among the embassy community to procure food and clothing for evacuees as well as diapers and baby formula for the many infants and newborn babies in the evacuee community. These are simply a sampling of the many ways Embassy Doha, hundreds of interagency OAR TDY staff, the U.S. military, and the Qatari government and people went above and beyond to support OAR-Qatar. It was the Mission team’s finest hour.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted when he addressed the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Doha, “You have helped more people in the past few weeks than most of us [ever will] in a lifetime. You have literally saved lives. You’ve changed the trajectory of many, many more, and you’ve done it with incredible humanity and incredible professionalism.”
Michael Pointer is a public diplomacy officer at Embassy Doha.
Mission Doha volunteer recounts collaborative success
By Justin Davis
For two weeks in September, Justin Davis, the chief of staff for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, helped to lead a team of dedicated diplomats, military service members, and other interagency partners in Doha, Qatar, in response to Operation Allies Rescue (OAR). Mission OAR successfully airlifted more than 124,000 Afghans from Kabul, nearly 60,000 of which came to Qatar for processing before onward travel to the United States.
“It was the hardest job of my life. Our efforts were inspiring; we did this in 100-plus degree heat in the middle of the desert, and with little more than duct tape [sic], Whatsapp, white boards, and plenty of caffeine after working 14-hour days every day for more than two weeks,” said Davis.
This heroic effort, which Davis and his colleagues dubbed “a miracle in the desert” was made possible by the collaborative efforts of volunteers from numerous agencies working as one cohesive U.S. government team. Over the course of the mission, more than 700 civilians and military service members stood up a 24-hour operations center in short order, and assembled teams that would mimic the footprint of a small embassy. These volunteers provided food and water; screened and cleared eligible Afghans; delivered medical care (and the occasional newborn); escorted passengers onto planes; reunited separated families; comforted the frightened; tracked incoming and outgoing travelers; provided interpretation services; entertained children; reported on OAR efforts; coordinated with Qatari counterparts; welcomed both the secretary of state and secretary of defense; and negotiated safe passage for the most vulnerable. These skills saved lives, empowered the disenfranchised, promoted prosperity and security, reunited families, and prevented disaster.
“I was inspired by the actions of my colleagues. Each of us brought our respective knowledge, skills, and attitudes to bear in our efforts,” said Davis. “I am a firm believer, more so after this experience, the Department of State sits in a unique place in our establishment; it interfaces with an unrelenting, busy, innovative, uncertain, and vibrant world.”
Davis said that as he has been able to reflect on the mission he helped lead in Doha, he recognizes the grit, urgency, and the deep patriotism that his fellow volunteers demonstrated during the most challenging of circumstances.
“We were the face of the United States to our partners in their time of greatest need, and it was the collaborative dedication that made the mission a success,” said Davis. “When Emma Lazarus wrote, ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ she must have known there would always be committed Americans willing to roll up their sleeves and put passion to purpose to receive them.”
Justin Davis is chief of staff for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He served temporarily as deputy task force lead and senior advisor for Operation Allies Rescue in Doha.