OKLAHOMA CITY — In a little more than a week, Markwayne Mullin said he went from a little-known Oklahoma Congressman to an international figure after, he said, federal officials leaked information about his team’s attempts to rescue Americans from Afghanistan.
Mullin, of Westville, said Friday that details released about his trip between Aug. 24 and Sept. 2 have been largely false.
The Republican congressman acknowledged he was carrying large amounts of cash donated by non-profits that were funding the mission, but wouldn’t say how much he was carrying.
Mullin said he was working with a team of 13 ex-special forces soldiers to extract nine Americans and 10 additional “assets” for a different agency from Afghanistan in the final days before the U.S. withdrew from the country after 20 years of war.
Despite national media reports, Mullin said he never threatened the U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, and that the U.S. State Department has tapes to prove it.
And, he said, the “humanitarian” mission was never clandestine. The State Department, military leadership and Federal Aviation Administration all knew his team was traveling to Afghanistan and about their mission in advance. Politics, he said, got in the way when the State Department intervened as they were flying over Afghanistan.
The team, which was using a private charter, actually had obtained previous clearance from military leadership to land in Afghanistan, and at one point, the plane was within 3 minutes of touchdown - landing gear down - with its passengers looking at the airport, Mullin said.
“We were coming there to help, not to distract,” Mullin said, adding that the team was self-sufficient. Mullin said he was “the low man on the totem pole.”
They planned to extract the 19 people the first day, then had planned a second charter flight that was going to evacuate 184 Americans and Afghanis who had obtained visas. The plan was to be in Afghanistan about 36 hours.
He said each team member had specialties, and tasks, including communications, two combat medics, and people tasked with logistics and verifying documentation.
When asked what “skill set” he brought to the operation, Mullin said: “You’d have to ask them. I don’t know.”
He would not provide the names of others involved in the operation.
His Congressional biography, however, shows he serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the subcommittee on Defense Intelligence and Warfighter Support.
After being turned away from Afghanistan, Mullin said they flew to Georgia. He said he’s friends with the prime minister there, and the ambassador “was just wonderful to work with.”
They used the country as base to work out new logistics and set up other trips to different places around the region. Mullin said the team had to figure out how to move people, determine which checkpoints were friendly, what checkpoints needed to be removed, and when the checkpoints were manned. Some of the checkpoints charged what Mullin calls “taxes” of just a few dollars to a few thousand dollars.
“There was a lot of logistics that came into planning all that,” Mullin said. “So that caused us to have to move quite a bit.”
He would not say what other countries the team visited over the 10 days because operations are still ongoing even though he’s now back in the United States.
“We are still getting people out as we speak,” he said. “I’ve been communicating with them all this morning already, so I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize the mission that’s ongoing.” He also said four of the people who they were attempting to evacuate just got out.
But they’ve lost all contact with three others. They were believed to be at Abbey Gate when terrorists detonated a bomb, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 civilians.
“The last we heard, they were at the gate, and we’ve lost total contact from them, so I’m assuming they probably got caught up in it,” Mullin said. “And it should never have happened. We would have already had her out in the air with her 2-year-old son, and, I believe, her father. They were all American citizens.”
To critics, who said a congressional visit to the country was imprudent during the chaos and potentially made him a high-value target or hostage, Mullin said he understands the concerns, but he didn’t go in as a congressman.
“I went in as Markwayne Mullin - as a citizen - carrying a blue passport,” he said. “And if I felt like I was going to be a distraction, I wouldn’t have went. I felt like I was going to be an asset. That’s why we went, and how do you walk away from a problem? How do you walk away and ask somebody else to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself. I don’t operate that way.”
If he could do it over again, Mullin said he’d have gone into Afghanistan earlier, and would never have communicated with the State Department.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.