August 31st, 2021
Half-full airlifts took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday against a backdrop of rising smoke. Explosions outside Abbey Gate killed dozens: Afghans, U.S. citizens, civilians, and military personnel are among the dead and injured.
Half a country was standing at the gates with targets on their backs. My fear is that the recklessness and incompetence of the U.S.-led evacuation is exposing the airport in Kabul to massacre.
A field grade officer in the U.S. Armed Forces reached out with news validating these nightmares.
“I don’t [think] anyone outside the airport truly realizes what a shit show it is. There are still many US Citizens, green card holders, and their families stuck outside the gates and 1000s of brave, deserving, and threatened Afghans.”
The desperation in their request surprised me: please, pressure the Biden Administration to stay past the August 31st deadline. They continued, “I’ve been running an Underground Railroad to get Afghans through the gate by having a contact I have there use his soldiers to fight through the crowds and extract them.”
“Pregnant women, American citizens, a nurse who was trampled and her family, a one-year old baby… these are the people I’ve helped cross. It feels like it’s Schindler’s List.”
When my source paused for a breath on the phone, I asked the probability of safely evacuating everyone on the Special Immigrant Visa list before September. They responded, “no chance.”
What the Biden Administration neglects to advertise is that the artificial deadline is forcing military personnel to scramble in order to save their contacts and their families’ lives. Sources on the ground say there is no sense of order and no way of centrally tracking who has been evacuated and who is stuck. It is a free-for-all.
In the aftermath of the Thursday explosions, the Railroad Operator reached back out: “some officer on the ground is making immigration decisions. State, DoD [the Department of Defense], and the President think we are still getting SIVs [Special Immigrant Visas] out. But the soldiers are being told only American citizens (AMCITS), meaning aircraft are leaving with empty seats, including charter flights paid by charities can’t be filled. The mismatched messaging by the administration is giving all of these deserving Afghans misplaced hope and endangering them.”
Did the Afghans who died outside the gates of the Kabul Airport die from false promises? Instead of an orderly process operated out of an Air Base like Bagram, asylum seekers at the gates were sitting ducks. There was no communication, so everyone assembled at the airport.
“I don’t think there is a functioning system to account for who is still left and give them instructions. People are operating off their cell phones and it’s very informal,” texted the Underground operator before sharing the Whatsapp number for their friend, Fawad.
Fawad, an Afghan Air Force pilot and interpreter for the United States Armed Forces, was the first person to confirm that he escaped the Kabul airport and landed in the U.A.E. on Wednesday. If only AMCITS were evacuated, Fawad would not qualify.
He wrote clearly, “there is a moral obligation for the United States to uphold the wishes of the soldiers who served beside these brave Afghans and give these men the opportunity to begin new lives in America for their dedicated support during Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Over 300,000 Afghan civilians worked alongside the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan over the last two decades, but until the recent landing of 2,000 already-processed asylum seekers, the U.S. has only settled only a handful of Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas since allotting them in 2014. Now, everyone associated with the United States is at risk of violent death at the hands of the Taliban. This process needed to happen years ago.
Reuters estimates that 114,000 people have been airlifted out of the Kabul airport since August 14th; of those, the United States has evacuated 5,400 U.S. citizens. An overwhelming majority of refugees are being received by other countries.
I'd say do the math, but the New York Times already did. 250,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. are stuck in a country overrun by people who consider them traitors.
So why the rushed timing?
It is absurd to suggest optics outweigh strategy in a decision like “when to withdraw from a twenty-year war,” but… is it?
At a Tuesday press conference, President Biden reinforced that the United States is on track to complete evacuations before “the 31st of August,” and that, “the sooner we can finish the better.” The President concluded that, “each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
Each day also brings us closer to 9/11. Twenty years since September 11th, 2001.
Abra Kadabra, no more boots on the ground.
We could have negotiated a sustained ceasefire; we could have started evacuations months ago; we could have stayed until every asylum seeker was evacuated. After Vietnam, after Kosovo, in Operation New Life and Operation Provide Refuge, the U.S. military was able to evacuate tens of thousands of people in a month.
While President Biden suggests American troops at the Kabul airport are in danger of being targeted by the Taliban (actually, it was the Islamic State, but...), that risk is amplified for Afghans. We also know that on Monday, CIA Director William Burns met with the Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul. Despite appearances, the Taliban are rational actors who want the U.S. to recognize their regime, which means we have leverage.
Diplomatic lines are open. If anyone pulls the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” line, look in the mirror. We trained them.
The decision to hold this arbitrary deadline is sacrificing thousands of lives on the altar of political expediency. It will haunt the service members who feel the weight of those left behind. Our exodus –– in my opinion –– marks the death knell of the "great American century."
Accountability for our destruction of Afghanistan begins with offering Afghans refuge.
When I asked Fawad what he would say to President Biden given the chance, he answered, "I really don’t know what to say but, “it doesn’t matter who hurt you, or broke you down, what matters is who made you smile again."'