Muddled Afghanistan Exodus Reaching Its Cruel and Rotten Climax

The parameters of the tumultuous Afghan exodus became both clearer and at the same time more muddled on Thursday. And viciously more dangerous.

Two bombs went off outside Kabul airport where thousands of people have been gathering to try to get inside. Reports said 60 people were killed. One report said 12 American soldiers died.

A local branch of the Islamic State, a transnational terror group, has been aiming to attack US forces or the crowds at the airport, US officials said. The officials had warned people to leave the area “immediately.” They didn’t.

Most American and Western citizens will get out on the evacuation flights, which are set to end August 31 at the orders of US President Joe Biden. Many Afghans, if they have proof they worked with the US and European countries, will also get away.

Armed men at a gathering to announce their support for Afghan security forces and the anti-Taliban fight on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, June 23, 2021.

Gatekeepers

The total numbers could reach 200,000. Some 95,000, mostly Afghans, along with several thousand foreigners, have been ferried from the country since August 14.

As the clock winds down to the August 31 deadline for US troops to leave Afghanistan, complications are mounting up. Allies asked Biden to extend the deadline to ease the evacuation of their citizens. He refused because of possible danger from the Taliban if the US stayed. American officials said the evacuation will continue.

This week, militia gunmen on Kabul streets began to enforce a new Taliban policy that prohibits Afghans without foreign passports from reaching the airport. Some who do have passports or visas were anyway being turned back. Afghans with various kinds of official foreign permits to leave ran into dangerous obstacles, if they could get through at all.

To compound the confusion, Washington’s refugee pecking order seemed that straight-forward wasn’t.

Biden has said American citizens get first priority. State Department official first reported that 4,500 American citizens were already airlifted away by Wednesday, leaving another 4,000 in country. But then, officials reduced that number to about 1,500—but had no figure on how many had so-called Green Cards that prove US residency and therefore permit the holders to go home.

The next category is “Afghans who worked alongside our forces and diplomats,” Biden declared Tuesday, in a brief speech he made in Washington. No number for that group was available.

Next is an undefined category labeled “vulnerable Afghans.”

Not favored are Afghans who lack US or other foreign passports, or possess scant proof they collaborated with Americans. Their status is surely murky in the eyes of authorities at Kabul airport. What non-government proof of collaboration is acceptable?

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban take control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and conceded the insurgents had won the 20-year war. (Photo by AFP)

Waiting room.

As for the chief Taliban spokesman’s threat to cut off Afghan access to the airport, Biden aides said it was up to the group to let qualified Afghans through.

With urgency building, private American citizens in the US, many of them military veterans who worked or fought in Afghanistan, have been working remotely to get former Afghan colleagues out one by one.

They communicate via the internet and ask contacts at the airport to get them on planes. Some have begun to order charter flights out of Kabul to places like Macedonia and Albania for their former Afghan comrades.

Though small, the phenomenon has been dubbed a “digital Dunkirk.” Scott Mann, a former US colonel who works with a group called Task Force Pineapple, operating out of Florida, told a television interviewer his contacts will keep working even after American forces leave.

These frantic efforts highlight the uncomfortable likelihood that no small number of Afghan collaborators with allied US and NATO aforces will be left behind.

August 31 will mark the end of this refugee crisis but the beginning of another. Thousands of people believed that changes and opportunities wrought by the West’s long nation-building project were permanent—employment and educational opportunities, women’s rights, entry to the wider world. Now they will want to leave.

Biden tacitly recognized that likelihood, but thought it enough to blame his predecessor, Donald Trump. He said the US will be “working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild a system that was purposefully destroyed by my predecessor.”

Coldly, one might shrug and say this is what happens to people who  bet on the fortitude of the US and its allies, as well as on successive Afghan governments that, by all accounts, were inept and corrupt.

Or what happens when people who work closely with the US assume that the world’s most powerful country will arrange a safe evacuation.

Or what occurs to those who support, or get caught up in, Western American military interventions and their promises.

Over the past two decades, not only in Afghanistan, but also the Middle East, plenty of disasters accumulated. There was the botched occupation of Iraq; the quick overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Ghaddafi and then abandonment of the country to civil war; the forsaking of Kurdish anti-terrorist allies in Syria by Trump and President Barack Obama’s reversal of his pledge to bomb the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.

Much has been made of the loss of US credibility abroad due to such repeated debacles. Less is made about the sense of betrayal they left behind. In Afghanistan, one only has to watch TV or peruse social media to perceive it. One former interpreter who worked with US troops (his face blurred to protect his identity) said he wished he “Never worked for the Americans.” Women claim they are already barred from work and as reports of abductions and rape emerge from the countryside, say they are afraid to leave their homes.

In any case, Biden insists on a bigger picture: whatever the headaches, the Afghan pull-out is the right and cheaper thing to do. By now, the Afghans should be able to protect themselves. Moreover, terrorism has “metastasized” and Afghanistan is but a bit player. The US can keep an eye on it “from over the horizon.”

Being a great power means never having to acknowledge fiascos. Biden says that nation-building was not so much a mistake but a lingering distortion of American policy. The original goal was only to overthrow the fundamentalist Taliban regime and destroy al-Qaeda terrorists, but somehow the mission “began to morph.”

“We decided to engage in nation building. In nation building,” he emphasized to a TV interview this week. “That never made any sense to me.”

But it actually make perfect sense to him, repeatedly. Biden is aware that nation-building was a policy early, he supported it from the beginning and repeated his backing for years.

President George W. Bush, who launched the project, predicted that, “A democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.” Biden backed him up.

In 2001 when Biden was a US senator, he described the purpose of  US intervention, saying, “Our hope is that we will see a relatively stable government in Afghanistan, one that…provides the foundation for future reconstruction of that country.”

He later intoned, “The alternative to nation-building is chaos, a chaos that churns out blood-thirsty warlords, drug traffickers and terrorists.”

In effect, what was once gospel in the US war on terror has been definitively left behind: that the best vaccine against terrorism is democratization and modernization.

In the name of that idea, thousands have been displaced across the Middle East and thousands more will now be forsaken is in Afghanistan. Biden and many other American leaders just don’t want to admit it.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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