American and allied leaders will have to account for this sham withdrawal morally. If the pullout gets dragged out as it seems it will, there may be a political price to pay as well.
In the hours and days since reports first emerged that the Taliban began appearing at the gates of Kabul, horror and unadulterated chaos has been broadcast live on cable news and blasted out on social media. While reports and precise casual chains remain sketchy, it is clear that the situation at Kabul airport is bedlam and that Taliban ground forces are starting to identify activists, journalists, and other partners of the failed US-led military effort. It has yet to be decided what photos and footage of this hasty withdrawal will become as iconic as the Saigon embassy rooftop helivac. The searing cellphone videos of desperate crowds of Afghans running along a taxiing C-17, with tens of them scrambling onto the wheelbase of the massive plane, switching to footage shortly after takeoff showing three faint pixels representing bodies falling hundreds of feet to their death, then finally a video of the plane further in the air with two more black dots plummeting to the ground, will haunt the millions who have seen the clips floating around Twitter.
While the tempting parallel to reach for is the Fall of Saigon, once the dust is settled the “Chaos of Kabul” will almost certainly be viewed as a much worse disaster. The evacuation of Saigon began in earnest weeks before the city was threatened, with Operation Babylift and New Life managing to whisk away over 100,000 Vietnamese orphans and US-linked political refugees. Americans knew they had to leave more than a month before the end, and Pentagon officials planned well in advance for only a minimal number of Americans – the amount officials were comfortable they could evacuate by helicopter to awaiting Seventh Fleet ships in a matter of hours – to remain. In the last hours of the evacuation mission, Ambassador Graham Martin had to be personally ordered by the President to leave, under threat of arrest.
By contrast, the US ambassador to Afghanistan evacuated the embassy for Kabul airport late Sunday night ahead of other diplomatic staff, while the latest information from the Department of Defense on the state of the Kabul evacuation is that only 2000 US-linked Afghans have officially been repatriated and that unknown “thousands” of Americans remain stuck in the country. In recent days and hours, reports have come in of alarmed Americans arriving at Kabul airport only to face confused throngs and gunfire. The only remotely friendly place for the US military to evacuate people by helicopter from Kabul appears to be Pakistan, and there are no Navy vessels waiting to ferry anyone away à la 1975.
The only real option then is to get high-capacity transport aircraft landed and turned around to US airfields, the closest ones being in the Middle East. But the problem with that is that too many Afghans have made it on to the tarmac at Kabul airport. If they are distressed enough to ride a plane fuselage to certain death, clearing them from the sprawling airport complex with limited US troops on the ground will probably involve significant bloodletting. And until they are out of the way, common sense and reports say it will be too dangerous to continue evacuation flight landings and take-offs. Australia has already been stymied in its own absurdly delayed rescue mission by “the difficulty in securing landing spots at the airport and the rapidly changing security situation.”
Even in ideal circumstances, it seems that it would’ve taken several days to finish evacuating Americans and other NATO nationals, then several more weeks to pull out the Afghans that America had promised to protect. At this moment, it looks like America would be lucky to accomplish its singular, Benghazi-informed mission to save American lives at all costs. It seems that, due in part to a bungled visa program, the most of the remaining Afghan interpreters, civil society partners, journalists, and activists who America relied on for nearly 20 years to implement its grand nation-building plans now have to rely with their lives on vague and probably false Taliban pledges of “amnesty” for government officials and NATO mission collaborators.
While the images and news of the last 36 hours have been truly terrible, the worst is likely yet to come. And while many regular Americans and Australians are more worried about managing Delta tides and picking up the pieces of traumatised societies and feeble economies, much more of this will force people to pay attention and ask, how did we get here? The answer to that question, unfortunately for Joe Biden and Scott Morrison, does not end with the mistakes of their predecessors.
The immediate task for these leaders is to salvage what is left of this immediate rescue effort and get as many of their nationals and vulnerable Afghan civilians out as possible. But a longer term plan to extricate the tens of thousands of Afghans connected to the NATO-backed government and military mission will need to get put into place as well. This will involve negotiating with the Taliban – which the US Central Command has already broken with precedent to do to secure assurances that Kabul airport will not be assaulted – and having the political will to accept many new refugees. The minimum that we owe the people of Afghanistan who believed in our democracy-building project, even when most of us lost interest in it, is to rise above our bureaucratic, moral, and political failings while it’s not too late.
Daan Verhoeven is an independent researcher based in Canberra. He has interned with the US Department of State at the Mission to ASEAN, done research with Transparency International on Australian defence corruption risk, and has worked with the ANU College of Law to study the interaction of international legal norms and institutions with populist politics. Find him musing about South and Southeast Asian politics and diplomacy on Twitter: @daanverdant
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.