Coast Guard active duty and reserve members continue to play an integral role in the planning and operations associated with Operations Allies Welcome.
In August, President Biden designated the Department of Homeland Security as the lead federal agency for Operation Allies Welcome, to lead and coordinate the effort to support vulnerable Afghans including those who supported United States forces operating in Afghanistan over the last twenty years.
Following the collapse of the Afghan government in mid-August, the United States government led an enormous airlift evacuation effort which helped transport more than 120,000 vulnerable Afghans, American citizens, lawful permanent residents of the United States, and third country nationals out of Afghanistan.
The Coast Guard has been involved in this response since its inception due to our unique ability to work within and quickly mobilize a response framework. While other branches of the Department of Defense (DOD) have been providing critical logistics support for overseas lily pad locations and domestic safe haven locations, the Coast Guard has been integral in establishing and staffing the planning and operations sections that support Operation Allies Welcome at the National level and at each safe haven.
Capt. Kate Higgins-Bloom, Chief of Coast Guard Emergency Management and Disaster Response, was one of the initial Coast Guard members assigned to Operation Allies Welcome. She described the unique nature of Operation Allies Welcome, and pointed out that while the Coast Guard often staffs Unified Command Posts, this response presented a different set of challenges. “This is a truly novel challenge for us. The authorities and structure that we use for natural disasters or oil spills do not necessarily apply to this type of response. The resettlement of an entire community to a completely new country in a matter of months requires enormous effort and coordination,” said Higgins-Bloom. “Working with our partners we were able to adapt our knowledge of the Incident Command System to create a framework for Operation Allies Welcome that effectively coordinated efforts of dozens of government and non-governmental agencies into a common operating picture.”
In the initial days of the response, Coast Guard members played a critical role in standing up and staffing the Unified Command Group (UCG), which leads Operation Allies Welcome at the National level. The UCG had a staff of four people on August 28, 2021. By mid-September, the UCG had senior members from 14 agencies, and a staff of over 100, including planning and operations staffs with more than 30 Coast Guard members. By late October, over 200 Coast Guard members had been deployed to either the UCG or one of the bases acting as safe haven for Afghan nationals.
The impact the Coast Guard had and continues to have on the structure of the operation has been instrumental to its success. In addition to staffing the UCG, Coast Guard teams have been deployed to each of the original eight safe havens to support the interagency planning process. At every level, Coast Guard members act as force multipliers to engage with government partners and ensure those at the highest levels of government have a clear picture of the current operation and its associated challenges.
Chief Petty Officer Kyle Weitzell deployed as part of the planning team for the response at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. He described a complex operating picture that involved close coordination with multiple agencies to overcome challenges associated with operations, logistics, and public health measures. His efforts over the course of two weeks in support of Operation Allies Welcome focused on ensuring information was passed from Fort McCoy to the UCG to help aid in top-level decision making.
“The coordination involved in getting each agency on the same page so early in the process was a learning experience for everyone, however, we all felt that we were doing a lot of good helping the refugees,” said Weitzell, of his time at Fort McCoy. “Each day I would walk outside and see Afghan children laughing, playing soccer, and just being kids. It reminded me why the Coast Guard is involved in the response and gave me hope for the positive impact Operation Allies Welcome will have on the future of so many Afghans.”