Operation Pineapple Express: The Incredible Story of a Group of Americans Who Undertook One Last Mission and Honored a Promise in Afghanistan
- By Scott Mann
- Simon & Schuster
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by Larry Matthews
- August 26, 2022
A disjointed look at last summer’s chaos in Kabul.
Operation Pineapple Express by Lt. Col. Scott Mann (ret.) is at times exasperating. Frankly, I hated it as much as I loved it. Mann is a retired Army Special Forces officer, an experienced combat veteran with extensive time immersed in the darkest aspects of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Like millions of others, he was appalled by the final days of the nation’s futile, two-decade attempt to do what no one has ever done: conquer Afghanistan and turn it into a stable, functioning country. Last August, it all collapsed in a nightmare of screaming mobs, explosions, gunfire, and horror at the airport in Kabul as Western powers grabbed what they could and got out.
Left to fend for themselves were thousands of Afghans who’d helped America and other coalition countries in their battle with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, many of them Afghan Special Forces fighters trained by Americans at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
Special Forces (aka the Green Berets) is not like the regular Army. Their missions, equipment, and tactics are outside conventional military thinking, and they see themselves as a unique breed, a brotherhood. When it appeared that their Afghan counterparts were to be left to the rage of the Taliban, whose leaders were bent on killing every Afghan who’d aided the U.S., the brotherhood went to work getting them out. That’s what Operation Pineapple Express is about.
So, what’s not to like? The format, for one. What is this? A diary? A military “after action” report? There’s no real narrative to follow. Over 50 characters inhabit the book; at times, it’s page after page of names and circumstances mixed in with recalled conversations, all revolving around a compelling effort by committed Americans to rescue Afghan comrades from the hell that was Kabul and its airport in August 2021. Planes flew people out while shrieking throngs at the gate demanded safety as the Taliban fired on them. At one point, a suicide bomber slaughtered scores of civilians and military personnel alike.
The Green Berets, several retired, used their skill at working outside the military establishment to call in some chits and get their people — men, women, and children — out. This is the heart of the book and it’s wonderful. These Americans, who fought alongside their Afghan friends, pulled every string they could and saved lives that the U.S. government had written off.
Mann relates the disgust they felt for their own government. As one Special Forces soldier put it, “The cavalry is not coming.” These guys — who knew how to make at least some of the levers of war work in their favor — were the cavalry, and the details of what was dubbed Operation Pineapple Express make the book worth reading. Here’s one such detail, a furtive message sent to an Afghan who was eventually rescued:
“OK, when you get there, look for a green light across the sewage canal. A captain is coming to find you. He will be calling your name. Captain Folta is his name. Stay quiet and don’t call out ‘til you get close to his green light.”
The canal was next to the airport. The canal was also as disgusting as it sounds. Mann continues:
“She peered into the darkness. She could make out soldiers along the wall, and on the footbridge over the trench. One of them had a green light hanging from his neck. She looked again at the contents of the canal. ‘It’s going to be very bad,’ Hasina said.”
This woman and her family could not use the footbridge, so they walked through the sewage to soldiers who got them inside the airport. Like so many others, they would’ve been tortured and likely killed by the Taliban had current and former American servicemembers not used back channels and sometimes-shady tactics to save them.
“All their successes had been due to human connections, force of will, and good luck,” Mann writes.
Operation Pineapple Express is not an easy read. There are so many names, it can be confusing to sort them out. But it offers an important lesson: There are some men and women in the American military establishment who know what they’re doing, even if those above them do not.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command at the time, said of the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, “There is a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure.” Without Scott Mann’s Special Forces, there would have been a lot more.
Larry Matthews is the author of Take a Rifle from a Dead Man.