The numbers coming out in the aftermath of the final evacuations this week, though, indicate most allies have been left behind after the full U.S. withdrawal. The State Department confirmed for the first time Wednesday that a majority of those who aided the U.S. war effort have not been evacuated. An official said he was “haunted” by this fact.
The Post’s Glenn Kessler reports on the latest figures we have: The Biden administration has said more than 120,000 people have been evacuated. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley said about half — 63,000 — are Afghans on staging bases in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. But as of a Pentagon briefing last week, only 7,000 of them were those who had qualified for special immigrant visa (SIVs), which one can get by aiding the U.S. military. Estimates of the pool of SIV applicants, including family members, suggest there were about 88,000 eligible.
Regardless of how much blame lay at the Biden administration’s feet for poor withdrawal planning — it has said evacuating more people sooner was difficult because of the panic it would create — there’s the matter of the message this has sent to would-be allies in the future: that the United States might not ultimately protect them. And that’s a message that has now been affirmed for the second time in less than two years, in ways that suggest a troubling precedent for U.S. foreign policy.
In late 2019, it was the United States’ Kurdish allies who had stood shoulder to shoulder with American forces and suddenly found themselves left behind. President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of a full withdrawal from northern Syria led to a nearly unprecedented and broad domestic rebuke, even from congressional Republicans who had stood by Trump through thick and thin. Many accused him of effectively leaving the Kurds to be slaughtered by Turkey — along with paving the way for a resurgence of the Islamic State.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Trump had cut a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan allowing him to wipe the Kurds out.
Nikki Haley, the Trump administration’s former U.N. ambassador, offered one of her biggest criticisms of Trump’s foreign policy since departing the administration.
“We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back,” she tweeted. “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”
Whatever one thinks of Haley’s on-again/off-again commentary on Trump, that’s an extremely valid point. When you ask foreign allies to assist you overseas — particularly near those who would do them harm in a vacuum created by a U.S. withdrawal — there is a premium on making sure it’s worth their while.
And that’s not just from a moral standpoint; it’s also from the position of making sure others who might make such a leap in hostile territory in the future will feel assured that the United States will stand by them and protect them even if things don’t go according to plan.
The Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck checked in with the Kurds in Syria recently, finding them worried about a repeat:
As U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan, precipitating the chaotic collapse of its government, another American ally watched warily and hoped that its fate will be different.The painful memories of an earlier American military drawdown are still fresh for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria.President Donald Trump blindsided his generals three years ago by announcing a withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops allied with the SDF in fighting the Islamic State. Though he was later persuaded not to remove the entire force, he did cut it by more than half the following year and, in doing so, cleared the way for the SDF’s adversary, Turkey, to invade part of the territory.
There are also still hundreds of Americans in Afghanistan who didn’t make it out by the Tuesday deadline, and the Biden administration has said it will use the diplomatic process to get them out. That diplomatic process stands a good chance of succeeding, given both the much smaller numbers involved and the stakes of the Taliban doing any harm to Americans.
While those Americans were understandably the priority for evacuations, though, that calculus cuts both ways. If the Taliban seeks to track down on U.S. allies who remain in the country, the impetus for a response won’t be the same, for understandable reasons.
But that would also come with a significant potential cost for U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy — for the second time in just two years.
This post has been updated to remove a reference to an NBC News story which cited 8,500 Afghans who were evacuated, rather than around 8,500 SIV qualifiers.