The US evacuation of Afghans who worked closely with them is a calamity that is still unfolding. Here’s what the US and its allies can do to prevent an even larger catastrophe.
The afternoon sun beat down on over 5,000 Afghans trapped inside Kabul’s airport. To get in, they had risked their lives in a desperate flight from the Taliban, forcing their way through chaotic crowds of people and vehicles.
My family was among them. The Taliban had beat my 65-year-old mother and my younger brother in their several failed attempts trying to reach the airport on foot. Finally, they were snuck into the airport.
Instead of sanctuary, they passed onto the next level of the Hunger Games. They suffered freezing cold nights without blankets and slept on the discarded cardboard boxes that once held water bottles.
During the day, the sun burned them for hours. My 73-year-old father, a well-respected community member who always dressed handsomely, almost froze to death on a stack of filth inside the airport. Three days later, on August 22, they were flown out.
I am an Afghan woman. I have worked in Afghanistan for 20 years with government and international partners. I was not in Kabul the day it fell because I had to defend my PhD proposal in the US. The rest of my family had gathered in Kabul for my brother's wedding. My family is active in Afghan society. My husband’s organisation, Artlords, transformed Kabul into a centre for graffiti art. My mother is a women’s rights activist. My sister manages a school for differently abled children, named after our youngest sister, Fatima Khalil, who was killed by the Taliban a year ago, herself a human rights activist. They were all at extreme risk from the Taliban.
The evacuation operation
It was August 27, 2021, three days before the deadline for US military withdrawal. I was involved in an informal operation to evacuate 51 Afghans, some of whom I had known for years, others I did not.
The group of Afghans I was responsible for had just survived 24 hours on minivans that wove in and out of thousands of Taliban fighters and tens of thousands of Afghans looking for a way into the airport and a flight out. I had mobilised every network I had, their networks and their networks to try to get them inside.
The Taliban pulled Afghans from vehicles and viciously beat or even shot those they thought were part of secret convoys trying to get into the airport. I was texting the team group chat to get updates on their status. Our drivers had been told to make a hard push into the airport gates and that they would open.
Was this situation of chaos, mayhem, terror and death really the only way?
One of my people wrote, “There are guns firing all around us, even at us! Is it safe to proceed?” The person directing the vehicles wrote, “They are firing to scare the crowds of people to open a way for your cars, drive into the fire.”
My mouth went dry with fear.
Another female member in the group quickly wrote, “Are we sure?” Nothing was sure. A final hard push and the gates slammed behind them. Our vehicles were in, but four others in our convoy were trapped outside the gate.
Once inside the airport, my group of 51 people sat with their children, literally baking in the sun during the day and freezing at night. They went without food or water for three days. The airport’s grounds were thick with garbage and human waste from tens of thousands of people that had passed through.
Thousands of people, including families with women, children and vulnerable individuals, were gathered outside the closed gates of the Kabul airport, risking their lives, being beaten and shot at by the Taliban, and tear gassed by US and Afghan Special Forces.
The crowds grew larger every day, making them an ever more attractive target for IS-K (Daesh-K). Suddenly, my phone lit up. A series of messages rapidly came in, "We have heard a huge explosion! There is another one! US soldiers are running to the gates!"
Two suicide bombers had detonated their bombs at the gates of the Kabul airport. Within moments, my people inside were writing to me in shock and horror as they saw the dead, dying and wounded being pulled into the airport by US troops.
Hurdles of bureaucratic redundancy
President Biden said they were ready for the evacuation and had planned for it. I find that impossible to believe.
Let's start with filing the appropriate paperwork to even begin the process to evacuate and resettle an Afghan and her or his family in the US. Those who meet the criteria for SIV, P1 or P2 (the special visa programs) need to have their paperwork in the US State Department database. Only if you are approved in that database can you even hope to enter the Kabul airport for evacuation.
As the Taliban moved quickly across the country, my colleagues and I began urgently filling out these forms. For each Afghan meeting the criteria for an SIV, PI and P2, and their family members, we had to fill out more than 20 types of the nearly identical form for each person in less than 8 days.
We were told that information on the “old forms” would not be accepted — what was actually happening was that the requirements and forms were being constantly changed. We sent copies of their passports to dozens of US task forces that do not work in coordination, but require similar information. Meanwhile, the teams at the State Department, Department of Defense, White House and many more appeared focused on transferring this collected information to other forms and then changing the format again and requesting again that we fill out new forms.
Literally, for the last three weeks, staff at the State Department, Department of Defense, White House, and many NGOs, senatorial and congressional offices have spent much of their time receiving forms, entering data, creating new forms that require resubmission and then entering the same data over and over and over again.
Shouldn't this enormous use of people's time and energy, and resources have been spent saving people’s lives?
The lack of coordination among so-called allies was not only baffling, but fatal.
It did not need to be this way. There are solutions and resources already on the ground for more productively engaging this humanitarian crisis and evacuating Afghans who worked closely with foreign governments and the former regime. What is needed is the political will to put people’s lives before nameless and redundant bureaucracy.
I have cried, filled out forms, received hundreds of calls and messages from Afghan women and men asking for help. The fear among the Afghans who reached out to me for help cannot be expressed in words.
Every single moment in this evacuation process could have been safer, more efficient and more effective.
Shortly after the bombings, the foreign diplomats emerged from airport bunkers where they had taken shelter and fled, often in nearly empty planes. How do I know? Because some of the Afghans in my group of 51 in the airport were cherry-picked and taken by other governments, who considered them “valuable,” as they evacuated.
Those who were taken away from our group cried and yelled for all the other Afghans on our team to be allowed to come. They were refused. They were put onto almost empty planes and flown to safety. The rest were left behind.
Each time President Biden gives a speech about the situation in Afghanistan and how he was committed to fulfilling the American promise made by President Trump, I cringe because it does not match how that “promise” was operationalised.
The (dis)organisation of withdrawal
The August 31 deadline for US withdrawal has passed. The last US military plane left and President Biden declared the war over.
Yet war and violence are not over for the tens of thousands left behind. Many Afghans worked with the US government and its allies, and they reasonably believe the Taliban will hunt and kill them for these associations. The Taliban are already conducting door-to-door searches for women and men associated with US and NATO forces. If they don’t find them, they use paint to mark the homes of those they plan to come back for and continue the hunt for the others.
Even now, the best and brightest among Afghans are trying to flee. They are the backbone of the Afghan civil service sector and professional workforce. The Taliban needs the men among them to run the country on a daily basis; they already told professional women, women civil servants and women university professors and students to go home and stay there.
Was this situation of chaos, mayhem, terror and death really the only way? Afghans who worked with allied forces and the Afghan government were repeatedly promised by the United Nations, US and other governments that they would not be abandoned. And yet inside my own team of 51 trapped inside the airport, were Afghan UN officers that the UN had abandoned entirely, along with nearly all of their national staff.
I saw the emails the UN sent them, telling them how valued they were and that they would help them. But instead, the UN quickly evacuated its international staff and never came back for their national staff. Shame on the UN.
In the chaos of the airport, Afghans were required to complete biometric screenings before they could get on a flight out, but this caused a severe bottleneck in the evacuation. On some days, no one even showed up to run the US biometrics station.
Other countries, like France, had their own biometric systems set up, and while thousands of people stood in lines for days for the US area, the French lines were almost empty. We tried to get our people over to the French-run biometric systems, but were told by French officials our people could not enter. The lack of coordination among so-called allies was not only baffling, but fatal.
The US evacuation of Afghans who worked closely with them is a calamity still unfolding. The international community's stated intention of saving the lives of Afghans who worked with them for the last 20 years does not match the operation on the ground.
The US government needs to be honest and stop trying to convince its people that they had control over the situation. They absolutely did not. To stop more train wrecks from piling up behind the one we are experiencing, the US has to work with Afghans to figure out how to bring people out safely.
Next, the US and its allies need to work with the Taliban for damage control. It is a false narrative that the US went to Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and — because he was killed (in Pakistan, no less) — the mission was accomplished. The US’s 20-year mission was always about preventing groups that could threaten the US from taking root and growing in Afghanistan.
That goal is very far from being achieved, and in fact, has reversed course in the last few weeks. Now that we are in the mess we are in, we need to figure out how the US, its allies and the UN can work with the Taliban to safely evacuate US citizens, green card holders, Afghans that have worked with them and other Afghans at high risk.
At the same time, we hear from US politicians that they cannot trust the Taliban. Perhaps not, but they just handed over a country of 35 million people to be ruled by them. The US struck a deal with the Taliban and essentially gave them the country. Why cannot the UN or US now ask for help from the Taliban to manage this crisis better? The US and other nations need to exert all the leverage they can with the Taliban.
Many Afghans are now left to their own devices to try dangerous ways to escape. One method could be for the UN, the US and their allies to ask the Taliban for temporary humanitarian use of Bagram Airbase. Bagram Airbase is located 42 miles (68 kilometres) from Kabul and is designed to handle large aircraft.
It has the facilities to house, shelter, feed and process large numbers of people. Evacuation aircraft working on behalf of the UN and other groups could bring out people and bring in humanitarian supplies and personnel.
With the agreement and promised cooperation of the Taliban, shuttle buses with UN escorts could move to Bagram. The Taliban have said they will allow people to travel, so these ideas should be discussed through diplomatic means.
I would write more but I have to stop to fill out yet more forms. I feel an immense sadness at what this process has devolved into and the thousands of people it is failing.
After weeks of near-constant work, I am only able to keep going through adrenaline and fear of what will happen to those Afghans who are at risk, and left behind. These Afghans are my family, my friends, people I respect, and people who I don't know, but wish to know.
The US government needs to stop telling the lie that they have everything under control. I want the people of the US, and the people of the world, to know the real horror of what has and is happening and that it does not need to be this way. This catastrophe was not inevitable.
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