There will be plenty of time later to look back on how and why the 20-year American intervention in Afghanistan failed so miserably, why the U.S. withdrawal was so badly mismanaged and how the U.S. government failed to predict that the Taliban would take over the country with almost no resistance. But right now, the No. 1 job of the U.S. government and the roughly 7,000 U.S. troops in or on their way to Kabul must be to rescue American citizens first and then all the Afghans who risked their lives based on America’s promise of safety.
The U.S. Embassy staff have all been safely transported to the Kabul airport, officials say. But as the U.S. military struggles to even secure the airport grounds, thousands of U.S. citizens who didn’t make it there yet are hiding and hoping someone saves them before roaming Taliban gangs find them. In Washington, several congressional offices are scrambling to help, but complaining that the Biden administration is dropping the ball.
“My office has heard from over 100 Americans who need help getting out of Afghanistan,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told me. “We can’t fly planes or open gates, but we can at least give people information. The Biden administration needs a plan to get our fellow Americans out.”
Several congressional staffers told me that American citizens in Kabul have been flooding their office’s phone lines, complaining that after being told on Sunday by the State Department to shelter in place and not to come to the embassy or the airport, they have not received any further information and are scared for their lives. Cotton’s office set up an email address for Americans in Kabul who want to be evacuated (firstname.lastname@example.org) to try to get them more help.
“We’ve been screaming at the State Department over this issue,” one senior GOP Senate staffer told me. “This is a s---show everyone saw coming, and they didn’t do a damn thing about it until about 24 hours ago, after days of pounding on them by the Hill.”
There’s no single tally of U.S. citizens in danger in Kabul. President Biden didn’t address the issue of how the U.S. government will assist Americans who aren’t already at the airport during his remarks to the nation Monday afternoon.
An administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record told me that there are an estimated 10,000 U.S. citizens in the country, with the vast majority in or near Kabul. Some are residents, journalists or aid workers who may not want to leave. Most are scrambling to escape. Some are dual nationals or children of Americans who may not have the proper passport or visas, but the State Department has not told them how to fix their paperwork.
The State Department and the Defense Department basically have two options: negotiate safe passage for American citizens with the Taliban, if possible, or send the U.S. military out into the city to bring Americans back to the airport before the Taliban gangs find them. Officials working on these cases inside the government told me they have no clear guidance from the White House and not enough support.
“We need more troops from the Pentagon, and we need more State Department resources to evacuate Americans,” the official said. “I feel like I’m working against my own government to get my own country’s people out.”
The State Department is also dealing with more than 80,000 visa applications for Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or find themselves at risk, the official said.
Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson pointed me to a website where U.S. citizens in Kabul can fill out a “Repatriation Assistance Request,” which puts them on a list of Americans in need of help. But several congressional staffers told me that Americans who have registered still have no idea what they should do or how the U.S. government will help them.
In a joint statement Sunday, the State Department and the Pentagon said the most urgent mission was to secure the Kabul airport. “Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan,” as well as thousands of Afghans who are in danger, the statement said.
But even the mission to secure the airport is going awry. On Monday, U.S. troops shot dead at least two armed men who were among the masses storming the airport, according to a U.S. military official. As of Monday afternoon, U.S. officials said the flights to and from the airport had stalled. Meanwhile, those Americans who aren’t at the airport haven’t received any updates.
“American citizens’ houses have been ransacked, and they are in hiding because the Taliban are terrorizing and tormenting neighborhoods. That’s happening all over Kabul,” said another senior GOP congressional staffer who has been fielding calls and emails from Americans in Kabul. “There are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks. [The administration] didn’t have a plan to handle this on a mass scale. . . . For the people in Kabul, they’ve basically said it’s up to them to get to the airport.”
Biden administration officials are very busy trying to spin the fall of Kabul away from a story about their own incompetence. They argue that the intelligence was wrong, that the Afghan government didn’t stand firm, that the Taliban would have won eventually. Some officials are even claiming that they planned for this contingency. But the frantic calls of U.S. citizens begging for information render all those explanations and excuses irrelevant for the moment.
The blame game can wait. Thousands of Americans could become hostages or worse. Every hour that goes by without action places them in greater danger. Rescuing them is the most important thing right now.