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Opinion Here’s where the Afghanistan evacuation is headed — and how we got here

Spanish citizens residing in Afghanistan and Afghans board a military plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 18. (Ministry of Defense of Spain/Handout via Reuters) (SPAIN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE/via REUTERS)
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If the last 24 hours showed us anything about Afghanistan, it is that America’s departure is a work in progress. What looked like bedlam Sunday and Monday looked more like an orderly evacuation on Wednesday — albeit one interrupted by Taliban roadblocks where, according to news reports, the Taliban has violated whatever promises of “safe passage” it might have given.

In sorting this out, it’s helpful to know what the Biden administration has done, is doing and can do in the future to facilitate the evacuation of the greatest number of people.

The administration came into office in January to no plan whatsoever for anyone’s evacuation from Afghanistan. In one of the most irresponsible acts of a thoroughly irresponsible presidency, Donald Trump set a withdrawal date ridiculously near at hand, drew down forces to a precipitously low level and left no blueprint for getting people out. The effort was further hobbled because the U.S. Embassy in Kabul shut down during covid-19 for more than six months and again earlier this year thanks to the coronavirus. Moreover, there was a backlog of 17,000 applications according to the State Department.

Between taking office (after an abbreviated transition) and last week, Biden’s administration was not idle. However, it was not able to create out of whole cloth the enormous operation, which in normal times can take two years, to grant visas to tens of thousands of people let alone to airlift them out if the Afghan government and military crumbled overnight.

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First, the embassy focused for months on the Americans in Afghanistan. According to documents provided by the State Department, it sent increasingly ominous warnings (even with offers to pay for airfare out of the country) beginning on April 17 and following on May 15, May 17, June 8, June 28, July 15, July 20, Aug. 7 and Aug. 12. Despite all that, as many as 15,000 Americans remain across the country. The U.S. military is not in a position to fetch these people, as both the State and Defense Department officials confirmed on Wednesday,so officials reached out to Taliban leaders in Doha and in Afghanistan to reach an agreement on “safe passage” to the Kabul airport. Whether the Taliban lives up to its side of the deal is one of the most pressing questions.

What about Afghan nationals? The administration had at its disposal the Priority 1 designation that covers refugees referred to the U.S. refugee program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a U.S. Embassy or a designated NGO. Such people must demonstrate that “they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”

Ireland's representative to the United Nations urged the Security Council on Aug. 19 to reject the Taliban's "assaults" on the rights of Afghan women and girls. (Video: Reuters)

The State Department also set up an expanded “Priority 2” category of eligibility that covers Afghans who were “employees of contractors, locally employed staff and interpreters and translators for the U.S. government or armed forces . . . as well as Afghans employed by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization.” That designation, however, was not announced until early August.

So, theoretically, either by making their way to borders (where they could apply via the United Nations) or by finding their way to the airport, a vast array of Afghans could claim refugee status. For example, an Afghan girl could show up at the airport and say she faces persecution because she wants to go to school and live without a burqa and petition for refugee status. The State Department continues to get referrals from employers, NGOs and other entities about vulnerable people. The State Department can reach out to these people, advise them on how to prepare to make a claim and instruct them on where to go. It cannot, however, go get them.

The operation had never been designed to physically remove all these people in a matter of weeks. It was designed, based on intelligence provided, to play out over months, with no need for a mass transport. Transporting them out and bringing them into the airport is the Herculean task before the administration.

The current challenge of opening a pathway for Americans to the airport — let alone for all the women and girls fleeing the Taliban, either to the airport or out of the country — is obviously daunting. Indeed, it is fair to say that the number of people the United States could, in even the best of circumstances, assist in leaving is a tiny fraction of those who may have legitimate claims and want to exit. It may not even be possible to get all Americans out by the Aug. 31 deadline, despite efforts to send in more personnel and reduce the red tape. That’s why President Biden in his interview with ABC News on Wednesday night said emphatically, “If there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.” Biden was less clear on whether troops would stay to remove Afghans who had assisted us.

This is attempting to squeeze an elephant through a keyhole. Outside experts suggest beefing up the force to facilitate the evacuation. “The Biden administration has sent a temporary surge of U.S. troops this week to get Americans out of harms’ way,” writes Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress. “It should redouble efforts to help Afghan partners receive protection and safe haven, including women human rights activists, judges and other professionals already targeted by the Taliban.” Is this possible now without reigniting full-scale hostilities with the Taliban? Unless we want to leave behind Americans or Afghan allies, we may have no choice.

Among the other questions that remain are:

  • Could the United States have extended the Aug. 31 deadline for evacuating Americans, third-party nationals and Afghans claiming refugee status? Did the Biden team ever threaten to beef up its military forces for the purpose of evacuating refugees if the Taliban would not extend the deadline? Could it still do this?
  • Given the logjam the administration knew would occur at the Kabul airport, why did U.S. forces pull out of Bagram air base?
  • Why did the United States not prepare to insert more military personnel and establish corridors for evacuation before agreeing even to the extended Aug. 31 deadline?
  • If a refugee system had been set up — say, by June — and the process of extracting people begun, would the same chaos we’re now seeing have unfolded with a tiny contingent of U.S. forces trapped in a sea of Taliban fighters?

If U.S. officials thought they had months to work these questions out, they were tragically, terribly mistaken. If the intelligence community could not anticipate the collapse of its own ally, then it is an intelligence failure of immense proportions.

Allocating blame among the intelligence community, the National Security Council, the White House and military commanders for this blunder should be the focus of congressional oversight (if not an outside commission) down the road. We should also be prepared to get an answer that those in favor of leaving Afghanistan will not like to hear: There is no way around such chaos and misery when you lose a war. The human suffering will always overwhelm the most well-intentioned bureaucracies. (That was essentially Biden’s answer in his ABC News interview.)

For now, the task remains: Get tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Americans and Afghans out of the country — and fast.

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