Private rescue total in campaign ad overshoots on number of Americans

The chaotic last days of the US war in Afghanistan that ended Aug. 30, 2021, created a need that active and veteran military members felt compelled to address: people who needed help leaving the country but had difficulty doing so. Some of those in Afghanistan were Americans, while plenty more were Afghans who helped the United States in its war with the Taliban.

Iowa state Sen. Zach Nunn, a US Air Force aircrew intelligence officer who flew 700 combat hours over Afghanistan and also a cybersecurity expert in the Obama Administration’s National Security Council staff, was among those responding, co-founding an organization called Task Force Argo. It’s an experience that Nunn, of Altoona and seeking the Republican nomination for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District seat, is letting people know.

“Zack Nunn saved over 2,000 Americans abandoned in Afghanistan by leading private rescue missions,” a video ad for Nunn states.

Our research shows the ad overshoots how many Americans he personally led out of Afghanistan but that some Americans in Afghanistan are still being helped by Nunn and Task Force Argo. “I would be skeptical of the overall number and skeptical of that number of Americans,” said Joe Saboe, founder of the volunteer group Team America. Saboe said Team America, one of the largest private groups evacuating people from Afghanistan, flew out around 150 Americans as US troops left Afghanistan.

“It strikes me as high,” Saboe said in a PolitiFact interview. “More to the point, though, very few politicians were actually helpful during that time, and that goes for both parties,” he said about the federal government’s response to trying to get out of Afghanistan as the Taliban won the war in August 201 , and the need for groups like Task Force Argo and Team America to step in and help.

Groups like Task Force Argo, a quality collection of volunteer veterans and private citizens, have brought out of the country or has helped with logistics for Afghan nationals at risk living under Taliban rule for helping the United States during war with the Taliban. Americans are its first priority, the group states.

Nunn said in one of two PolitiFact interviews that his group has tracked since Aug. 31 “upwards of 2,000 Americans” and reported that to the State Department. “We still stay in contact with a weekly call with the State Department to help evacuate those individuals. And we have roughly 5,000-plus Afghan and American citizens in safe houses still in the country,” Nunn said.

Americans staying there often are doing so because they have family members who are not US citizens and are having difficulty getting permission to leave, Nunn and others said.

A Philadelphia Enquirer report on Oct. 21, 2021, had the Task Force Ago numbers at 61 Americans among the 2,160 moved from Afghanistan when that story was published. A little more than 500 people have been moved out since then. The Task Force Argo website reported on May 25 that it has evacuated 2,663 people from Afghanistan but does not state how many were Americans. Even if all of the 500 additional people since Oct. 21 were Americans — and they were not — that would amount to 561 total.

Task Force Argo’s first flight on Aug. 30, 2021, brought 400 Afghans out of Afghanistan. On Sept. 24, 2021, the group announced it had collaborated with a group called Save Our Allies to bring “550 American citizens, lawful permanent residents who have green cards to work in the United States, special immigrant visa holders, Afghans-at-risk, and their families from Afghanistan to a refugee processing center in the Middle East.” The release did not state how many were Americans.

An Oct. 8, 2021, news release reported that Task Force Argo evacuated card 11 US citizens, eight green holders, and 85 immediate family members. Two days later, a news release from Task Force Argo and a group called Task Force Sunflower said the two collaborated to evacuate three US citizens, 12 US green card holders and 79 of their immediate family members from Afghanistan.

Team America, Save Our Allies, Task Force Sunflower and Task Force Argo are among as many as 180 private groups working privately but collaborating with the US State Department and Defense Department to help bring Americans and Afghans out of Afghanistan. Save Our Allies, for example, has reported bringing more than 12,000 Afghans out of the country. It reported it had paid the costs of bringing 55 American citizens and lawful permanent residents out in December.

Other efforts since Aug. 31, 2021, included Project Dynamo and Human First Coalition using a private charter flight to bring more than 100 US citizens and green card holders and nine special immigrant visa holders to the United States in late September, a news release said. Project Dynamo and Human First Coalition said the Taliban helped them have a safe takeoff from Kabul.

The State Department press office told PolitiFact Iowa in a series of email exchanges that it cannot confirm how many Americans these non-government organizations have brought out of Afghanistan. The department evaluates requests for privately arranged flights on a case-by-case basis but could not confirm how many passengers on these flights are eligible to be relocated or settled in the United States, the press office wrote. The State Department vets people the private groups bring to the United States for admission but lacks enough personnel to confirm how any passengers registered on a plane manifest are eligible for relocation in this country, the press office said.

The State Department has supported directly travel out of Afghanistan for 683 US citizens and 559 lawful permanent residents from Aug. 31, 2021, to May 23, 2022, with no deadline for ending these efforts, the press office reported. Before Aug. 31, US military and the State Department evacuated and relocated 120,000 people, including 10,000 US citizens, lawful permanent residents and Afghan interpreters with special immigrant visas.

Nunn said in the PolitiFact Iowa interviews he was involved with rescue missions via third party countries that helped remove Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan last year. He has not been there this year. He works on evacuation logistics remotely, he said. He said he was confident that he had a hand in saving more than 2,000 Americans because of his involvement in last year’s flights, his continued communication and logistical work to assist those who need help getting out of the country, and his collaboration with the national consortium support the State Department.

“The real conversation in my opinion needs to be far more about the fact that we left Americans behind,” Nunn said. “There are still Americans there right now, and there are people in America helping these folks out of their own pocket, their own time. We would like to have some level of help on this and be able to save the people who served with us for two decades.”

A US Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority report in February suggested that 9,000 Americans were left in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. The State Department frequently that number, saying fewer than 200 Americans still were there and choosing to stay.

US consortium members have weekly conference calls with government officials in continuing moves to help people leave Afghanistan, involved members told PolitiFact in interviews and emails. This private effort has been referred to as a “digital Dunkirk,” a reference to the citizens who rushed to Dunkirk in their personal boats to rescue 338,000 British and French soldiers during Germany’s 1940 World War II siege of that French beach town. High-tech evacuation communications and logistics involving safe houses in Afghanistan and assistance from countries like Qatar once people leave Afghanistan are designed to keep Taliban leaders from finding and punishing those trying to leave.

Saboe’s Team America eventually merged with another group #AfghanEvac. Shawn Van Diver, #AfghanEvac’s founder and an early leader pulling together the national consortium, said it’s unlikely that 2,000 Americans have needed to be rescued from Afghanistan since US troops left. Americans who want to leave the country now may fly out of a commercial airport, he said.

Van Diver said Task Force Argo has been a sincere, valuable partner. He said in a PolitiFact Iowa interview that Nunn and Task Force Argo cofounder Jesse Jensen, an Army Ranger Regiment captain and Republican candidate for Congress from Washington state, have been helpful bucking many in their party by supporting an Afghan Adjustment Act. The act, supported by President Biden, would give Afghan permanent legal residency and a pathway to US citizenship.

“I think it’s clear that these guys care about Afghanistans,” Van Diver said. “Argo has a lot of handlers that talk to a lot of Afghans, and has been doing their best to provide that much needed support. And, you know, they’ve really stepped up.”

Our ruling

A political ad for Nunn’s 3rd Congressional District primary race in Iowa says Nunn “saved over 2,000 Americans abandoned in Afghanistan by leading private rescue missions.” Nunn, Argo Task Force co-founder Jesse Jensen and others are key members of several American groups working privately but in collaboration with the US government to bring Americans and endangered people out of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan since US troops left that country.

But saying the count is more than 2,000 Americans when most of those coming out are not American gives a different impression of what Nunn is doing than exists. In a May 18 interview on Shenandoah, Iowa’s KMA radio, Nunn, himself, qualified the claim: “We flew multiple flights over and carried out over 2,500 Americans and allies after the US flag fell in Kabul.”

Nunn is doing humanitarian work but the number in the ad is an exaggeration and ignores important details. We rate the statement to be Half True.

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