The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America is leaving thousands of people behind in Afghanistan. This is a moral disaster.

U.S. soldiers board a U.S. Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 30. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
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Enormous as it is, the number of people evacuated by air from Kabul since the end of July — about 122,000 — is not large enough. Thankfully, many thousands of American citizens, third-country nationals and Afghans who worked directly for U.S. and allied military forces or embassies made it out. But many thousands of people did not, including former U.S. interpreters and their families, and Afghans classified by President Biden and his administration as “vulnerable” — such as staff for U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations and women’s rights activists. As security worsened in the wake of a horrific terrorist attack at the airport last Thursday, and as U.S. troops prepared for their own departure on Monday, time and space ran out for these people. This is a moral disaster, one attributable not to the actions of military and diplomatic personnel in Kabul — who have been courageous and professional, in the face of deadly dangers — but to mistakes, strategic and tactical, by Mr. Biden and his administration.

Those left behind appear to include many local journalists who worked for U.S.-supported media such as the Afghan service of RFE/RL. Painfully emblematic, too, is the experience of the American University of Afghanistan, all but a few of whose roughly 4,000 students, faculty, alumni and employees remain in Kabul. AUAF was the signature U.S.-funded civilian institution in Kabul. The school symbolized not just the U.S.-Afghan relationship, but modernity itself. Therefore, it came under repeated and deadly attack from the Taliban, yet brave and determined women and men continued to teach and study there — until Kabul fell and the Taliban raised its flag over the campus. A last-ditch attempt to bus several hundred members of the university community to the airport ended in frustration Sunday, when it became clear that civilian rescue flights were ending. Now, university officials tell us, these — mostly young — Afghans are back in Kabul, feeling abandoned and afraid.

The Biden administration says they will not be forgotten. Plans already are being developed, officials say, for continued efforts to extract people. Nearly 100 nations, including the United States, issued a statement promising that their “citizens, nationals and residents, employees, Afghans who have worked with us and those who are at risk” will be able “to travel freely” outside Afghanistan, and that they “have received assurances from the Taliban” that this will be allowed.

Any “assurances” by the Taliban clash with statements their spokesmen made during the crisis that the United States was wrongly inducing Afghans to leave — not to mention the group’s record of murdering perceived enemies. Moreover, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that still have embassies in Kabul — Russia and China — conspicuously did not sign the U.S.-backed international statement. Their support would be needed to carry out one promising idea: French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a U.N.-designated “safe zone” in Kabul from which to organize evacuations after Tuesday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the United States still has “significant leverage” over the Taliban. If so, the Biden administration must use it, relentlessly, until every Afghan with a legitimate claim to refuge has found it.