We Have One Last Chance to Save Our Allies

If the United States acts now, it can still evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans whose lives are at risk for the aid they gave us.

Afghan people waiting on the tarmac at the Kabul airport.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty

“This is not Saigon,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN on Sunday—and he was right. By the time helicopters took off from Saigon rooftops in April 1975, the evacuation of endangered South Vietnamese had been going on for several weeks. The first stage was unofficial, and often illegal, as American diplomats, intelligence and military officers, veterans, and private citizens scrambled to get their Vietnamese associates onto CIA black flights without passenger manifests, or rickety naval vessels out to the South China Sea. The official evacuation began only in the last days, when American leaders finally faced that the situation was hopeless. By the time the last helicopter left the U.S. embassy, on April 30, 135,000 Vietnamese had been rescued. A few hours later, the first North Vietnamese division reached downtown Saigon.

Kabul is not Saigon because the evacuation is beginning with the Taliban already in control of the capital. Months of delay and denial by the Biden administration have led to a chaotic and dangerous situation: Several thousand U.S. troops have taken control of the airport and, according to a military officer on the scene, cleared the desperate crowd from the terminal as well as the runway so that flights out can resume. But outside the airport, Taliban fighters are preventing people from reaching the terminal. This evening in Kabul, the U.S. embassy informed American citizens who had registered for evacuation to make their way to the airport for flights out on a first-come-first-served basis. “PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT GUARANTEE YOUR SECURITY AS YOU MAKE THIS TRIP,” the email said.

But the tens of thousands of Afghans who face retaliation and death for working with Americans and trying to build a decent society are still waiting to learn their fate.

Since Sunday, Khan, the interpreter I’ve written about several times since March, has had to move with his family around Kabul from one rented room to another—either after being evicted as a security risk to the owner, or leaving on his own when the quarters became unsafe. Yesterday he, his wife, and their small son went to the airport, where they waited for nine hours in the heat, lacking food and water. Khan watched Taliban gunmen beat and shoot people in the crowd, and at one point a stampede knocked his wife—who is eight and a half months pregnant—to the ground, causing her sharp abdominal pain. Exhausted, they returned to their room with no idea how or whether they would be able to escape. When Khan tried to go back to the airport this morning, he found Taliban fighters in the perimeter streets preventing people from getting through.

With the help of the International Refugee Assistance Project, Khan had three tickets on a commercial flight that would have left this morning, but all such flights were canceled on Sunday. IRAP has also secured seats for him on a Kam Air flight scheduled to leave for Istanbul on Friday, but it’s unclear when commercial flights will resume. He has two other options. As of last Saturday he has a Special Immigrant Visa, granted to Afghans who worked with the U.S government and military; his name is on a State Department list of Afghans who qualify for seats on a government flight. But those evacuations have not yet begun, and it isn’t clear when they will. Afghan visa holders and applicants—there are at least 18,000—have been told to wait for an email directing them to come to the airport, but no emails have yet gone out.

Khan’s final option is a seat on a private plane. Charter flights are the Afghanistan version of those efforts by private U.S. citizens in Vietnam to fill the void left by official inaction. The Open Society Foundation, the advocacy group No One Left Behind, and Bard College have organized and found funding for at least four charter flights to and from Kabul, including one with seats for Khan and his family. The government of Kyrgyzstan has offered 500 humanitarian visas to Afghan students, who could be evacuated on charter flights. Leaders of American institutions are now negotiating with various governments to allow Afghans temporary residence. But charter planes have not yet received clearance from the U.S. government to fly into and out of Kabul.

Meanwhile, the category of endangered Afghans is much larger than is generally realized. In addition to Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their families, there are journalists, activists, teachers, students, drivers, and others with connections to the foreign power that gave them two decades of breathing space to build a new, more hopeful society. A former U.S. ambassador is getting anxious messages from workers in the embassy cafeteria. Army veterans are hearing from Afghan troops, including women, who face special retaliation. Taliban fighters are going from house to house, searching for “infidels” and “traitors” to be punished. Their official promise to show mercy and forgo reprisals is daily betrayed by brutal murders now happening all around the country.

For many Afghans, it’s already too late: those stranded outside Kabul, or in neighborhoods under strict control by the Taliban; those without a visa, money, or the connections to get their names on passenger manifests; those with the bad luck to end up at the back of the line. But it’s not too late for many thousands more. For the U.S. to wash its hands of Afghanistan once the last American citizen boards the last flight out would add an indelible stain to the shame of our departure. Now that the airport is secure, in the coming days the U.S. should turn it into a hive of air traffic, filling plane after plane with as many Afghans as possible, bound for America or other countries. For this to happen, the U.S. government needs to take urgent steps.

First, it must restore order outside the airport so that Afghans who have been offered seats can present their papers at a checkpoint, have them verified against an official list, and get through to the terminal. U.S. troops will likely have to take control of the main entry point to the airport, which means negotiating with the Taliban, who, for now, are trying to put a benign international face on their victory. If necessary, troops will have to face down the gunmen outside the airport. No doubt the risks of such a move would give Washington nightmares, but it’s otherwise hard to see how an evacuation can take place at all.

Second, allow private charter planes—which are being organized more efficiently and can reach a broader range of Afghans than U.S. government flights—to start flying into Kabul now. Third, resume commercial traffic as soon as the security of the airport is demonstrated by the safe departure of government flights. And fourth, allow Afghans who can show a legitimate need for rescue but who don’t have a valid U.S. visa to board flights for third countries or—this has been the battle cry of advocacy groups for the past five months—for Guam, where their applications can be processed in safety.

President Biden’s address on Afghanistan yesterday was unsettling. Politically, it was masterful. Biden made a compelling case for his decision to end the American war in Afghanistan while managing to ignore the unfolding tragedy for which he bears much of the responsibility. He put all the blame for the collapse of Afghanistan on the Afghans themselves—as if we Americans have nothing to do with 20 years of mistaken ideas, bad policies, broken promises, and official lies. He accused the Afghan military of cowardice, even though Afghan troops have sustained enormous casualties in the past few years. To justify delaying evacuations of vulnerable Afghans until now, he uttered an astonishing falsehood—that some of them didn’t want to be evacuated. He spared barely a thought for an entire generation of Afghans who are seeing their hopes of a better future crushed, or for those Americans, including veterans, who are heartsick at the dishonorable way the war is ending.

Watching the address, I sensed that the years of futile war have left Biden with a kind of animus against Afghanistan and Afghans—that he is the same man who, in 1975, said on the Senate floor, “The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese.” The same man who, according to the late Richard Holbrooke’s diary, in 2010 told Holbrooke that he wanted to withdraw every troop from Afghanistan regardless of the consequences for Afghans. “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for,” Biden insisted. When Holbrooke asked what a complete withdrawal would mean for Afghans who trusted us, Biden replied: “Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”

Politicians can get away with it, but countries cannot. What’s happening in Kabul right now will mark the U.S. in history. At this stage, even the most successful evacuation will still leave behind more vulnerable Afghans than can be thought of without feeling sick with shame. But tens of thousands of Afghans can still get out. It’s up to us.