America’s ‘Help’ in Kabul’s Crisis Is Another Epic Betrayal
The U.S. is following up on the mess it made in Kabul with an evacuation plan that is sure to leave countless Afghan partners behind. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Afghanistan, along with the hopes and dreams of a generation, is lost. Kabul has fallen. Ghani has fled the country. Tens of thousands of refugees have poured into Kabul in search of relative safety, often having to pay exorbitant fees to outpace the Taliban’s advance. Desperate refugees are clinging to the wheels of planes in flight, inevitably falling to their deaths. This is a chaos that our relative inaction helped foment. Now, all we can do is protect who we can.
After initially requesting that the Taliban spare its embassy, the United States announced that its embassy in Kabul would be mostly evacuated within 36 hours. A temporary “fallback embassy” has been established at Kabul International Airport where visas are continuing to be processed. President Biden has since made it clear that he intends to evacuate visa applicants and other partners. Last night a joint statement from the departments of State and Defense announced their intention to transfer thousands of Afghans, accelerate the visa process, and take “Afghans who have cleared security screening.”
But that simply won’t be enough.
The Special Immigration Visa has become a notoriously laborious process, taking up to 13 months to complete. Though the process has been expedited time and again, its existence has created a dangerous—even lethal—bottleneck and backlog. Serwat Perwaiz, an American international capacity developer who spent several years working on the ground in Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast that Afghans who worked with her are facing imminent life-threatening danger. I am not alone in suggesting we scrap the visa process. Phil Caruso, a board member of No One Left Behind, argued for the same thing.
Bureaucracy should not stand in the way of saving as many of our local partners as we can. Even if they don’t have IDs, we should at least find some secure holding facility to place them in. If we could do that for Guantanamo detainees at the start of the war, there is no logical or strategic reason we cannot now.
Kabul International Airport is an island of safety and security surrounded by a hostile fundamentalist insurgency that has begun killing people. We already know that tens of thousands of people who would be eligible for a visa will not be able to make it to Kabul safely. It makes no sense to send anyone who might have served alongside us, either in war or in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, into a situation that may spell certain death.
Much has been said about the Fall of Saigon. What I am fearful of is something worse. When South Vietnam fell, the richest and most able were able to secure their exit by air. Those without means took to the sea to become the boat people. Kabul is surrounded by land and hostile arms. There is death to the north, death to the south. Death to the east, death to the west. There are no boats. There are only planes.
This is a matter of national honor. If ethical arguments fail to persuade, then let me appeal to your pragmatism: Who will ever dare fight alongside the United States again if we fail to protect those who are within arms reach of us? It would be strategic malpractice to abandon these people, as any local partner with pattern recognition will move to ensure their own safety and accommodate future enemies the moment our military policy begins to fail.
The biggest concern I have heard raised about taking people out who are not verified is the potential for infiltration for terrorist actors. AQ, Taliban, and other enemy agents may be among those who we evacuate. But there are workarounds: anyone who is not verified does not have to be brought directly to the United States. They can be brought to a temporary housing facility and kept under secure guard. We can work to verify the unverified over the next few months and years, because we’ll have all the time in the world to do so once they are out of Kabul. Unarmed people often with nothing but some clothes and some papers are no existential threat to us when they are sitting in a holding facility far from our shores.
There will come a time in the not-too-distant future for a reckoning with our Afghan policy. Already the mills are beginning to turn. There are those that will say that we should not have left. There are those that will claim that we should have reversed course the moment people started leaking to the Wall Street Journal that Afghanistan could collapse within six months. It is bewildering that President Biden could confidently say at the beginning of July that “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof” of our embassy in Afghanistan, because the Taliban was nowhere near comparable to the North Vietnamese.
As we airlift thousands per day from Kabul, protected by the deployment of some 8,000 US troops, it is easy to succumb to despair, anger, and fear. The next few years will be filled with memoirs decrying a betrayal in Afghanistan. The list of people to blame is endless, both internally to Afghanistan and even to the halls of Congress and the White House. It covers an entire generation of people. For now, I ask that anyone reading this temporarily put aside that impulse. Our immediate concern must be to save as many people as possible.
Carl von Clausewitz is famous for many sayings, but the one most applicable here is that “everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.” At its heart, what I believe we should do is very simple. Doing it will be hard. The good news is that we have all the tools we need to succeed already prepared and ready for us on the ground.
All we need to do is do it. Let’s save as many as we can.