American, British, German, and allied troops are crammed into the Hamid Kazhari International Airport of Kabul trying to keep the airport secure as thousands of afghans desperately surround the airport and try to escape the country, while American nationals trapped in Kabul try to do the risky travel towards the airport and through the dozens of Taliban checkpoints in the city. The chaotic Kabul evacuation now also has a looming challenge: an August 31st deadline.
The city fell to the Taliban on August 15th, while thousands of American nationals (and Afghan allies) were still in the city. Due to this, the Biden administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in order to allow the extraction of Western personnel, civilians, and Afghan allies from the city’s only exit point.
The evacuation has not been smooth by any measurement. Hundreds of Afghan civilians swarmed the airport’s tarmac during the first days of the operation, with some falling from the planes to their deaths, the Taliban have harassed Americans (despite Biden’s assurances to the contrary) who want to find their way out, and yesterday a firefight erupted near the airport with at least one Afghan soldier reported dead after the fight.
According to government officials, the United States evacuated 17,000 people last week (2,5000 of those are Americans), although government officials do not know for certain how many American citizens are stranded in Kabul and waiting for evacuation, there are some estimates that puts that number between 10,000-15,000 U.S. citizens.
Complicating issues, even more, is the fact that many American citizens and Afghan allies are now trapped in Taliban-dominated Kabul, and the security situation near the airport has gone so dire that the State Department advised its citizens in Kabul to not travel to the Hamid Kazhari Airport due to “potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport”. One of the potential security risks to the evacuation is the presence of the Islamic State near the airport.
American citizens in Afghanistan are now in an impossible situation: either they heed the State Department’s advice and stay in Taliban-dominated Kabul, risking being left behind by the fleeing Coalition military forces or they risk the travel to the airport in the hopes of being reduced by the U.S. military.
In the meantime, other allied nations like Britain and France have conducted daring rescue operations inside of Kabul with the objective of safely transporting their citizens and allies to the airport, an example the U.S. has finally started to emulate.
Can the Kabul evacuation continue after August 31st?
Besides the logistical and security challenges of conducting a mass evacuation in a city controlled by a hostile force and exclusively via an airport with a single runway, the American and allied forces are facing the impending August 31st deadline with dread.
The deal cut between the U.S. and the Taliban gives the Western allies until that date to leave the country, however, many have started to doubt if the complicated evacuation could be ever done in such a tight deadline. The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to ask Biden for an extension of the August 31st deadline, and the president himself has said the military is considering extending the deadline past that date.
However, the Taliban have said that their patience is growing thin, with Taliban “spokesman” Suhail Shaheen telling British TV channel Sky News that the August 31 deadline is a “red line” and that if the Western allies decide to extend their operation beyond that date, the Islamist extremist would consider that “they are extending the occupation” and that such decision would “deteriorate the relation” and it “would provoke a reaction”.
The current security situation around the Kabul airport is, as we have already seen, already perilous and fragile. It is hard to imagine that extending the deadline without Taliban acquiescence would end up in a better result, especially since the U.S. does not have close air support after the evacuation of the Bagram Airbase last month. However, it is also looking increasingly unlikely that American troops will be able to finish their evacuation before next week.
This leaves Biden and the rest of Western leaders with a complicated set of solutions: they could offer the Taliban concessions that would convince them on allowing an extension of the deadline, they could decide not to extend the deadline and hope it would be enough time to evacuate all of their citizens (possibly leaving people behind) or they could try to extend the evacuation beyond the deadline without Taliban agreement, risking their troops and citizens to potential Taliban reprisals, which would require a more forceful military response from the United States.
All options are less than ideal and they all have something in common: The United States and its allies depend on the willingness of the Taliban and other terrorist organizations to allow a Western retreat. After 20 years of fighting, the U.S. troops and civilians in Afghanistan are at the mercy of the Taliban.