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By Lyle Muller May 27, 2022

Private rescue total in campaign ad overshoots on number of Americans

If Your Time is short

  • A recent ad for Iowa congressional candidate and Task Force Argo co-founder Zach Nunn says Nunn saved more than 2,000 Americans in private rescue missions.
     
  • That number is high if you count the people Task Force Argo flew out of the country but Nunn, an Iowa state senator, says Task Force Argo remains in vital contact with almost 2,000 Americans in Afghanistan and works with groups bringing people out of that country.
     
  • About 180 groups of American citizens and military volunteers are working to get Afghans who helped the United States get out of Afghanistan.

The chaotic last days of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 still are 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 U.S. 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 refugees 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 nationwide 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 its 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 U.S. citizens and are having difficulty getting permission to leave, Nunn and others said.

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 are 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 11 U.S. citizens, eight green card 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 U.S. citizens, 12 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. military and the State Department evacuated and relocated 120,000 people, including 10,000 U.S. 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 assisting 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 still are 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 U.S. 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 disputes that number, saying fewer than 200 Americans still were there and choosing to stay.

U.S. 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 U.S. 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 immigrants permanent legal residency and a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

"I think it’s clear that these guys care about Afghans," 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 U.S. government to bring Americans and endangered people out of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan since U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Our Sources

Associated Press, "EXPLAINER: What Happened to the Afghanistan Evacuation?" By Ben Fox, Nov. 26, 2021

Zach Nunn’s Iowa Legislature web page 

Zach Nunn for Congress video ad

Jesse Jensen for Congress web page

PolitiFact Iowa phone interviews with Zach Nunn, May 17, 2022, and May 25, 2022

PolitiFact Iowa phone interview with Shawn Van Diver, May 23, 2022

PolitiFact Iowa phone interview with Joe Saboe, May 25, 2022

Email exchanges with U.S. Department of State press office, May 19, 20 and 25, 2022

Task Force Argo website

Task Force Argo news releases, "Task Force Argo partners with Task Force Sunflower to rescue 409 from Afghanistan," Oct. 10, 2021; "Task Force Argo evacuates 147 Americans, Green Card Holders, SIVs, and their families from Afghanistan," Oct. 8, 2021; "Task Force Argo successfully evacuates 550 from Afghanistan," Sept. 24, 2021

KMA radio, "Meet the Candidates: Zach Nunn," by Ryan Metheny, May 18, 2022

Congressional Research Service report, "Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief," Feb. 17, 2022

U.S. Department of State travel advisory web page and special immigrant visas web page

U.S. Department of Defense, Afghanistan Evacuation web page

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Operation Allies Welcome web page

#AfghanEvac web page

News release, "Project Dynamo and Human First Coalition Bring Americans Home From Afghanistan," Sept. 28, 2021

Save Our Allies web pagestories page and "about us" page

Voice of America, "Senator Zack Nunn of Iowa discuss Afghan allies evacuation," Sept. 30, 2021

Mike Edwards, Project Exodus Relief founder, interview with The Federalist, Nov. 23, 2021

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, "A Brief Assessment of the Biden Administration’s Strategic Failures during the Afghanistan Evacuation," February 2022

CNN News, "Blinken says all US citizens in Afghanistan who currently want to leave have an ‘opportunity to do so’," By Nicole GaouetteJennifer Hansler and Alex Marquardt, Nov. 12, 2021

Philadelphia Enquirer, "Afghans who helped U.S. face Taliban revenge if we don’t save them now," by Trudy Rubin, Oct. 21, 2021

New York Times, "A Digital Dunkirk: Veterans Online Scramble to Get People Out of Afghanistan," by Dave Phillips, Aug. 28, 2021, Updated Oct. 19, 2021

NBC News, "Veterans leading Afghan evacuations demand help from Biden and Congress," by Phil McCausland, Dec. 1, 2021

Fox News, "How hundreds of Afghans were saved from the Taliban by veterans in a digital Dunkirk: The Last 96," by Matt Leach, Sept. 14, 2021

Politico, "White House approves partnership with vets evacuating U.S. citizens, Afghan allies," By Lara Seligman, Erin Banco and Alexander Ward, Sept. 9, 2021

Washington Post, "I’m flying missions to save Afghan allies. Why isn’t the government helping?" by Nick Palmisciano, Feb. 8, 2022

World Atlas, "What was the Battle of Dunkirk?

Team America Relief web page

Modern War Institute, "Digital Dunkirk: What the Afghan Evacuation Should Teach Us About the Future of Volunteer Support to the US Military," by Laura Kennan, Sept. 22, 2021

Washington Post, "Numbers behind Afghanistan evacuation come into focus," by Glenn Kessler, May 25, 2022

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Private rescue total in campaign ad overshoots on number of Americans

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