Did a ‘Rogue’ Team of US Vets Rescue Afghans Behind Biden’s Back in Operation ‘Pineapple Express’?

The Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, prompting a wave of evacuation efforts.

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Image via U.S. Central Command Public Affairs/Wikimedia Commons

Claim

In late August 2021, a rogue team of U.S. veterans banded together to go behind President Joe Biden’s back and rescue Afghan allies in an operation dubbed “Pineapple Express.”

Rating

What's True

An all-volunteer team of American veterans of the Afghan war banded together to help evacuate hundreds of Afghan elite-forces members and their families to safety in late August 2021 as the Taliban took over. The operation was called “Pineapple Express.” However...

What's False

This operation did not occur "behind Biden’s back," and the description of the team as "rogue" is inaccurate. The volunteers worked in an unofficial capacity in tandem with the U.S. military and embassy, to help move groups of evacuees to safety.

Origin

In mid-August 2021, the Taliban took over most major cities in Afghanistan, including Kabul, resulting in a mass evacuation effort of Afghan citizens, including those who had worked in some capacity with the U.S. government and military. 

As uniformed members of the U.S. military held back at Kabul airport with strict instructions to not move beyond the perimeter to help people, an informal group of volunteers led by American veterans of the war coordinated an operation to evacuate their allies, consisting of Afghan elite-forces members and their families. The operation was dubbed “Pineapple Express” because pictures of pineapples were used by team members as rescue codes on cell phones. 

Right-wing conspiracy theory site Gateway Pundit claimed that the entire process took place “behind the Biden State Department’s back.” The article stated, “Furious over the terrible situation in they had already sacrificed so much to prevent when they served, the team of retired specialists, including Green Berets and Navy SEALS, risked their lives. They volunteered to travel to Kabul because they were afraid that Joe Biden was abandoning at-risk Afghan elite forces, leaving them to die at the hands of terrorists.” 

But members of the operation spoke to ABC News, and although they expressed frustration at the administration’s handling of the evacuation, they worked informally in coordination with the U.S. Embassy and military. The week-long effort was also observed by ABC News. 

Task Force Pineapple was an ad hoc group of retired special operators, aid workers, intelligence officials, and more with experience in Afghanistan. A staffer for Florida Republican Rep. Mike Waltz — also a retired Green Beret — coordinated with a U.S. Embassy officer, and uniformed military in the airport perimeters provided overwatch and awaited the movements of the volunteers on the ground. 

Col. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret commander, who led the effort, spoke to ABC News about the process during which more than 500 Afghan allies including assets, special operators, and their families, were smuggled into Kabul airport where they were evacuated. 

“We are collating, learning and adapting — and moving faster than the hamstrung U.S. bureaucracy,” he said.

The process was harrowing, according to ABC News, beginning with an effort around mid-August, after the Taliban takeover, to get one Afghan commando out who was being hunted by the Taliban. ABC News reported on his arrival at the airport and how he was aided by the U.S. military:

With Taliban fighters mixing into the crowd of thousands and firing their AK-47s above the masses, the former elite commando was finally pulled into the U.S. security perimeter, where he shouted the password “pineapple” to American troops at the checkpoint. (The password has since changed.)

Two days later, the group of his American friends and comrades also helped get his family inside the airport to join him with the aid of the same U.S. embassy officer.

The operation continued with more evacuees:

With the uniformed U.S. military unable to venture outside the airport’s perimeter to collect Americans and Afghans who’ve sought U.S. protection for their past joint service, they instead provided overwatch and awaited coordinated movements by an informal Pineapple Express ground team that included “conductors” led by former Green Beret Capt. Zac Lois, known as the underground railroad’s “engineer.”

The Afghan operators, assets, interpreters and their families were known as “passengers” and they were being guided remotely by “shepherds,” who are, in most cases their loyal former U.S. special operations forces and CIA comrades and commanders, according to chat room communications viewed by ABC News.

There was one engineer, a few conductors, as well as people who were performing intelligence-gathering duties. The intelligence was pooled in the encrypted chat group in real-time and included guiding people on maps to GPS pin drops at rally points for them to stage in the shadows and in hiding until summoned by a conductor wearing a green chem light, ABC News observed in the encrypted chat.

Once summoned, passengers would hold up their smartphones with a graphic of yellow pineapples on a pink field.

[…]

Many of the Afghans arrived near Abbey Gate and waded through a sewage-choked canal toward a U.S. soldier wearing red sunglasses to identify himself. They waved their phones with the pineapples and were scooped up and brought inside the wire to safety. Others were brought in by an Army Ranger wearing a modified American flag patch with the Ranger Regiment emblem, sources told ABC News.

“This Herculean effort couldn’t have been done without the unofficial heroes inside the airfield who defied their orders to not help beyond the airport perimeter, by wading into sewage canals and pulling in these targeted people who were flashing pineapples on their phones,” Mann added

Lois told Fox News: “We have developed kind of an underground railroad, we have shepherds that guide flocks… its special operations personnel coaching, teaching, guiding and advising in most cases our brothers that we served with. The U.S. government is sending us people as well that need help getting out, so we are in coordination and we are working with the U.S. government.”

We should note that none of the members of the task force travelled to Afghanistan themselves to complete the rescue mission, everything was coordinated through an encrypted messaging platform, according to their spokesperson who reached out to us. 

Another operation called “Task Force Dunkirk” also worked on getting Afghans out. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Russell Worth Parker, who was a spokesperson for the group, told ABC News their mission statement: “To just get one more Afghan out. And after we get him or her out, we want to get just one more. That’s the best that we can do right now, and we don’t want to get at cross purposes with any broader effort.”

Lois told Fox News the Pineapple Express aims to continue, even as the U.S. military departed on Aug. 31: “We are playing the long game. We plan on being here for a while so that is why any support people can really give to Task Force Pineapple it would be really beneficial moving ahead.” 

Given that members of the task force coordinated with the government, which included military and embassy officers, this could not have taken place without the knowledge of the Biden administration. We thus rate this claim as “Mixture.” 


Sources:

Conradson, Julian. “Operation ‘Pineapple Express’ – Rogue Team of Retired US Vets Rescue Afghan Allies During Secret Missions Conducted BEHIND BIDEN’S BACK.” The Gateway Pundit, 27 Aug. 2021, https://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2021/08/operation-pineapple-express-rogue-team-retired-us-vets-rescue-afghan-allies-secret-missions-conducted-behind-bidens-back/. Accessed 3 Sept. 2021.

“US Special Operations Forces Race to Save Former Afghan Comrades in Jeopardy.” ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/International/us-special-operations-forces-race-save-afghan-comrades/story?id=79583150. Accessed 3 Sept. 2021.

“US Special Operations Vets Carry out Daring Mission to Save Afghan Allies.” ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-special-operations-vets-carry-daring-mission-save/story?id=79670236. Accessed 3 Sept. 2021.

Norman, Greg. “Task Force Pineapple: New York Teacher, an Ex-Green Beret, among US Vets Assisting Afghanistan Evacuations.” Fox News, 30 Aug. 2021, https://www.foxnews.com/us/task-force-pineapple-new-york-teacher-an-ex-green-beret-among-us-vets-assisting-afghanistan-evacuations. Accessed 3 Sept. 2021.

Recent Updates
  1. Sept. 5, 2021: Added clarification that members of the task force did not travel themselves to Afghanistan, as per information provided by their spokesperson.
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