“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan” incorrectly predicted President Biden a month ago, infamous words that foreshadowed the Kabul retreat, a humiliation comparable to the failed rescue attempt during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1980.
At the moment this article was written, thousands of American troops are holding the Kabul International Airport while thousands of Afghans and American citizens try to get there and escape the country, all under the ominous watch of the victorious Taliban army. Although the situation is quite confusing and there is little reliable information coming out from Kabul, there are a few things we do know with certainty.
Kabul International Airport is the only way in and out
The United States of America had, during the height of the Afghan Civil War, a total of 90,000 troops in the country. The U.S. and its NATO allies had crucial military infrastructure around the country, including the massive Bagram Airbase just north of Kabul which the American military decided to abandon in the middle of the night and without telling the new Afghan commander a month ago, Bagram is now in Taliban hands.
Kabul’s quick and abrupt fall left the U.S. and its allies scrambling for an exit, with the only plausible place to escape being the civilian airport in the capital. Expectedly, the situation quickly spiraled out of control as foreign diplomats, western citizens, and a growing crowd of Afghan civilians rushed to the airport to board a plane and leave the Taliban-controlled country.
Photographs quickly showed how the initial efforts by the Western militaries to secure the airport failed miserably, as hundreds of Afghan refugees swarmed both the terminal and the airstrip itself, making the departure of military planes an impossible hurdle to overcome. The terrible images of Afghans clinging to military transports and then, regretfully, of some of them falling to their deaths became a stunning illustration of the Kabul evacuation.
Although it appears that the U.S. has established some control over the airport, many have now asked the wisdom of abandoning Bagram Airfield and asked how differently could the evacuation have been if the Western military had a military outpost that was big enough for a massive evacuation and easier to secure than a civilian airport in the middle of a city of 6 million people.
Gray Connolly, a Barrister at law and a Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Australian Navy who served in Afghanistan, has heavily criticized America’s decision to abandon Bagram from a military perspective and predicted that civilians storming the airport would put the entire evacuation effort to a standstill.
Security of the opeartion entirely dependent on Taliban goodwill
The most astonishing fact of the Kabul retreat is that it is being done while the entire country has already fallen to Taliban hands, including the area surrounding the Kabul airport. Military spokesmen from the U.S. have admitted that the evacuation is going on after an agreement was reached with the victorious Taliban, with National Security advisor John Kirby saying that the Taliban have promised to give safe passage to those who want to leave the country via the Kabul airport.
The Taliban, who broke the promises made to Trump last year to try and find a political solution, have broken their promises and have prevented Afghans to reach the airport and leave the country, according to a State Department public official. Furthermore, the scenes near the airport have been of total mayhem, with CNN Chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward showing the chaotic situation outside the airport, with hundreds of Afghans trying (and failing) to get in the Airport while gunshots are heard across the area and with some Taliban fighters even threatening reporters with violence.
To make matters worst, there are at least 15,000 Americans stranded in Kabul with the airport being their only evacuation point out of the city, however, the State Department has made it quite clear that the U.S. “cannot ensure safe passage to the Hamid Karzai International Airport” in a security alert sent today to its citizens and that the planes would be filled in a “first-come, first-served” basis, an extremely troubling message since the entire capital is now filled with Taliban checkpoints which makes any trip to the airport a potential risk.
The American military footprint has now gone from 90,000 troops to 6,000 soldiers crammed in the Kabul airport, holding their airport from hundreds of afghan civilians and surrounded by Taliban fighters. Former US Ambassador to the UN and governor of South Carolina has heavily criticized the American approach to the evacuation, saying that depending on “diplomacy with the Taliban” is like “dealing with the devil”.
As the Western evacuation continues at Kabul’s airport, the entire withdrawal effort appears to rest on the Taliban thinking that allowing an orderly American withdrawal is in their best interest as to not provoke military retaliation from the retreating NATO forces.
However, what would happen if the Taliban make a different political calculation and decide that obstructing the evacuation is actually more beneficial to them? Let’s pray we do not have to find out.