Desperate crowds scrambling after planes on the verge of liftoff; sobbing mothers handing their babies over fences to soldiers; and finally, a gruesome terrorist attack that killed nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members. It’s no surprise that the public thinks President Joe Biden botched the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, even as polling shows Americans still largely approve of the decision to withdraw.
But from my own personal experience running an evacuation in a war zone, I can attest that it was never going to look good. Ultimately, there was little the U.S. government or military could have done in recent weeks to significantly change the outcome on the ground. These evacuations are always ugly. There is no graceful way to flee a country at war.
I saw this firsthand in December 2013 in Juba, South Sudan. As the U.S. Embassy’s sole consular officer, I led a small interagency team to run evacuation operations at the airport after civil war erupted and violence consumed the capital city and much of the countryside.
The scale was far smaller than what our government just undertook in Kabul. Take the numbers from Afghanistan and knock off two zeroes, and you can approximate the scale in South Sudan. While the U.S. government evacuated about 120,000 people from Kabul, we evacuated around 1,200 from Juba. Even at this smaller scale though, it was an urgent operation, and about a half dozen of us ran 19 evacuation flights in 19 days during South Sudan’s civil war.
The risk profile in Juba differed significantly from Kabul too, but many realities on the ground were similar, and the U.S. government could do little in either case to change them much. Here’s why.
The hardest part of fleeing a war zone is reaching the exit — in these cases, the airport. Because the U.S. government didn’t control Kabul, it had few options to help, all of which put U.S. personnel at greater risk. In South Sudan, we faced this issue too. We fielded hundreds of calls from Americans and others too afraid to cross the city alone amid the violence. We had limited success moving small numbers to the airport, but we didn’t have the resources to do it safely on a large scale.
The challenge was even greater for those outside Juba. I spent days on the phone with Americans sheltering up country, their compounds under fire with battles just outside. As they ran out of food and water, I felt helpless, but we simply weren’t safely able to get them out then.
We learned just how risky those efforts could be when military and State Department colleagues attempted an evacuation flight into the town of Bor. It was aborted when the aircraft came under fire, leaving U.S. service members seriously wounded. Deciding when and how much to put our people at risk is perhaps the hardest question we faced.
Once people reached the airport, someone must decide who gets in. In South Sudan, we didn’t contend with crowds at the gate. The airport had no secure perimeter at all, so the only issue was who we put on planes.
In Kabul, U.S. officials had two decision points and far bigger crowds to deal with. The military decided who could enter the airport, and once inside, consular officers decided who could leave.
But Americans and our Afghan allies — those whose lives were at risk for work on America’s behalf — weren’t the only ones trying to flee in this case. Scores of people were trying to stream in. And without having any law enforcement authority, the U.S. military couldn’t impose greater control outside the gates. That decision point over who to let enter wasn’t only difficult but deadly. Expanding the perimeter would have only pushed the same problem out further.
For every person who made it to and into the airport, hundreds or thousands didn’t, and U.S. officials were responsible for each decision made.
These life-and-death calls were made by real people, about real people, with imperfect information, based on vague and, at times, contradictory guidance from Washington. Who counts as a family member? How do you prove that they are? How do you prioritize among hundreds when no one’s documents are complete? After all, many don’t grab their passport or other documentation when fleeing for their lives.
Answers to these questions are subjective and answering them at volume is hard. In Juba, we couldn’t investigate doubts or verify documents because we were always racing against a clock, usually the airport’s closure at dark. In Kabul, they faced these limitations and more.
I remember these decisions well. I told myself we had limited resources and seats to offer and could only help so many on any given day. But every decision I made to turn someone away still stung.
It’s reasonable to ask why so many people were still left to evacuate after Kabul fell. If more Americans and allies had left sooner, we would have had fewer to get out in the end. The U.S. government had control over one of these categories but not the other.
The government warned American citizens for years not to travel to Afghanistan and repeatedly urged Americans to leave for the past five months. For those who chose to wait, the U.S. government’s hands were tied. And many chose to wait.
I saw this in South Sudan, too. I had urged Americans to leave at their first opportunity, but many didn’t. Americans don’t live in places like South Sudan or Afghanistan casually. They are there for a reason — family, business opportunities or conflict-related work. Most want to be on the last flight out possible and hope things won’t take a turn for the worse. They all had good reasons, but we never know when the last flight out will be; it won’t likely be safe, and it has only so many seats.
Where we could and should have done far better is getting our Afghan allies out sooner. Ramping up evacuations a few weeks earlier might have helped, at least modestly, though there were also reasonable fears the move would destabilize the Afghan government (at the time, we didn’t know how quickly it would fall anyway).
But we never should have been in this situation when Kabul fell. The real culprit is the dysfunctional Special Immigrant Visa program which should have been fixed years ago. The SIV program provides U.S. visas to Afghans whose work for the U.S. government puts them at risk, but its 14-step process is rife with unnecessary, difficult bureaucratic steps. It can take up to three-and-a-half years to complete, and many applicants are unjustly denied. The Trump administration intentionally clogged the SIV program, but it had been broken for years. If this system had worked as intended, many thousands of Afghan allies would already be living in the United States today.
In the final weeks though, most of the challenges on the ground were inevitable. Some things could have gone better, but they also could have gone much worse.
What I hope Americans understand is that our military and civilian officers on the ground were charged with thousands of life-and-death decisions in dangerous circumstances, doing the best they could with limited information and resources. They deserve immense gratitude, but they will live with the weight of these choices forever, and with what their decisions meant for the ones they didn’t choose.
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