Almost everything you think you know about how the United States Department of State handled the evacuation from Afghanistan is wrong. And not just wrong, but so egregiously wrong you have to ask yourself why.
The narrative has been that State was caught flat-footed by the events following the fall of Kabul in mid-August, turning its back on Americans and our Afghan allies while damaging the United States’ standing in the world. None of this is true.
The State Department sent out the first of its 19 alerts urging American citizens to leave Afghanistan in April of this year. The Department’s Afghan coordination task force was stood up on July 20—17 days before the fall of Nimroz, the first provincial capital in Afghanistan to be claimed by the Taliban. The task force oversaw a massive mobilization throughout the department that came as part of a multifaceted effort across the U.S. government and among our allies.
The task force’s first objective was to make sure we got American citizens out and Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan nationals processed. As one senior State Department official noted to me, “We inherited a backlog of thousands of SIVs. There is a statutorily defined 14-step process for approving the visas. We dramatically accelerated the process. We did this even after a COVID outbreak had effectively closed the embassy. We did this in the face of a rapidly accelerating security problem.”
The backlog existed in part because former President Donald Trump and his aide Stephen Miller actively blocked the program for our Afghan (as well as our Iraqi) allies. The Biden State Department not only had to undo the damage that had been done, they had to do so in a country where the security situation was deteriorating rapidly (also in part due to Trump-era prisoner releases and a hastily negotiated deal between Trump and the Taliban that bypassed the official Afghan government altogether.)
The first SIV flight departed Kabul on July 29 with over 220 people on board. That was long before the serial collapse of Afghan provincial capitals that culminated in the encirclement and then fall of the Afghan capital on August 15. By the time that happened, nearly 2,000 SIV applicants and their families had been flown to the United States.
As the security situation began to deteriorate, the U.S. began an extraordinary high-level effort to coordinate with our allies and friendly governments worldwide. Chaired by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the process involved every-other-day and, at times, daily meetings among senior representatives of 28 countries. More than a dozen additional partner countries will join future meetings.
An initial and ongoing focus of the task force has been getting those who sought to exit Afghanistan out of the country. While their work has been far from the spotlight, it has been extraordinarily effective and was essential to the unprecedented airlifting of 124,000 people out of Afghanistan in just over two weeks.
“The worldwide effort has been just extraordinary,” said Sherman, “There was transparency. There was consultation. We were in this together. We produced remarkable results under very difficult conditions.”
Examples offered by senior State Department officials underscore how close that coordination was. A core focus, for example, was setting up transportation hubs worldwide. When it became clear that one such hub should be in Germany, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his German counterpart and President Biden called Chancellor Merkel. By August 18, Germany had agreed to be a transit hub. By August 19, working around the clock, lawyers had reached an agreement on the terms of the arrangement. By August 20, refugees were flowing into and through the facility.
Behind the scenes, as part of the arrangement, the U.S. worked to help get German nationals and those who worked with them out of Afghanistan. In a related story, Japan and Korea offered to be transit hubs. While they were too far away for that to be practical, the coordination had another consequence. At 7 a.m. on August 22, the State Department got an urgent call that a group of Japanese nationals were trying to get out of the country, making their way on foot to the airport. They were at risk. Immediately, coordinating with the Department of Defense, an air watch was set up to keep an eye on the group. Thanks to collaboration between the U.S., Japan, the U.K., and Gulf allies, a safe exit was orchestrated within hours.
Similar coordination has led to the agreement of countries worldwide, including our Canadian neighbors, to take thousands of those dislocated by the Taliban takeover. It has also, as needed, included by necessity, active coordination with the Taliban who often facilitated safe passage for those who sought to leave the country. The process continues to this day.
According to the State Department, from the earliest days of this operation, an extraordinary effort to identify Americans and others who needed to get out took place. Every American in Afghanistan was identified and directly contacted, often repeatedly. According to State Department estimates, over 55,000 calls were made and over 33,000 texts were sent as part of this effort. U.S. embassies in Mexico, India and other places far from the action set up call centers to enable this complex coordination. Through this process, almost all the Americans in Afghanistan who sought to leave have been able to do so.
Of the 100 to 200 Americans estimated to be remaining in country, their cases continue to get attention and President Biden has reiterated his commitment to get all of them out who want to go. “While it might seem hard for many Americans watching the scenes from Kabul on television to imagine, the decision to leave has been a hard one for many,” a senior State Department official said. “Many of the remaining Americans are dual citizens—both Afghan and American. Many have created their lives in Afghanistan and often have extensive families and ties to their communities. We have families who say they don’t want to go and then the next day they say, yes they do. We have families who say they are leaving and then they do not show up to depart. We are continuing to work intensively on this.”
The international coordination continues as well. Video conferences and phone calls involving the G7, the EU, NATO and allies in the region led by Blinken have focused on “how to stand up the civilian side of the airport and continue to help those who still wish to leave,” according to a senior State Department official.
Other meetings have focused on how to aid those who have helped us and our allies during the war, on humanitarian assistance, on the criteria nations will have for engagement with the Taliban. The United States has made it clear to the Taliban in no uncertain terms that we expect women and girls rights’ will be acknowledged and honored and that any political settlement will be inclusive of them.
The U.S. and the international community have and will utilize the full range of diplomatic and economic levers at their disposal. State Department officials detail that this includes the fact that the Taliban want international acceptance, that the vast majority of financial reserves of Afghanistan reside in New York City, at the New York Fed and in commercial banks like Citibank, and that the IMF is looking to the U.S. for standards and criteria to determine whether and how those funds will be dispersed.
Sherman is candid about the misperceptions that have surrounded State’s role in this process. “There was a rapid collapse. But we adapted. The process actually worked. It had to be constantly reinvented on the fly because you would figure out one way to handle things and then that had to be shut down because of security and then we had to figure out another way. But even the day after that horrific attack, within 24 hours we had another 12,500 people out. That is the real story here. The commitment and courage of all the people involved in my view was extraordinary.”