Why Aren’t We Evacuating Americans From Sudan?
Protecting American civilians abroad used to be a sacrosanct government mission. Now it’s falling to private citizens.
On Saturday, Special Operations Forces successfully evacuated fewer than 100 U.S.-embassy personnel from Sudan. Then, in a startling break with American precedent, the State Department announced that it would not request further evacuations of trapped U.S. citizens from a country descending into violent conflict. There are currently 16,000 Americans reported in Sudan, and the U.S. embassy is in touch with at least several hundred who are actively trying to get out.
The United States has, for decades, considered its commitment to its citizens abroad to be sacrosanct. For this reason, until very recently, the evacuation of noncombatants from conflict zones—known as a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation—was a relatively common and quintessentially American mission. When conditions deteriorate in a country, the U.S. ambassador can call for a NEO, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit or the Immediate Response Force of the 82nd Airborne will mobilize to get American citizens—not just American diplomats—evacuated to safety. During a NEO, the ambassador becomes the president’s direct representative on-site, in charge of coordinating who departs, how they depart, and when.
No such effort is being proposed in Sudan. In a call with the press over the weekend, State Department Undersecretary for Management John Bass said that “we don’t foresee coordinating a U.S. Government evacuation for our fellow citizens in Sudan at this time or in the coming days.” He also noted that the State Department has had a travel advisory in place for more than a decade cautioning Americans not to travel to Sudan.
Sudan is not the first country with a travel advisory to need an evacuation. But the insinuation that a travel advisory makes American citizens trapped there somehow to blame for their predicament and unworthy of help certainly seems new.
A NEO is most likely to be needed in a situation where security deteriorates rapidly and without warning, as has been the case in Sudan. The outbreak of hostilities between the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Force took both the U.S. and allied governments by surprise. American citizens living abroad can hardly be expected to have predicted a crisis that intelligence agencies failed to see coming. For the U.S. government to allow its citizens to languish in a war-ravaged country on the grounds that they failed to predict the unpredictable is contrary to our values and at odds with the type of moral leadership the U.S. has long aspired to project outside its borders.
Since the early 1980s, the U.S. has executed approximately one NEO every two years. I took part in one of these missions in 2006, when I was serving as an infantry officer in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Israel invaded Lebanon, and the platoon I led participated in a NEO that evacuated American—and many non-American—civilians from Lebanon on hundreds of flights that took place over nearly a month. Our NEO involved a fleet of military aircraft and dozens of military and nonmilitary ships that shuttled evacuees from Lebanon to Cyprus and onward. No expense was spared. The situation on the ground was fluid and dangerous, requiring our commanders to negotiate with warring factions to ensure the safe passage of trapped American citizens, many of whom were spread across the country. It took time and intricate coordination for them to arrive where we could pick them up by air or sea.
Today’s conflict in Sudan falls under a shadow that did not overhang decision making in Lebanon, however: the evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021. There, the security situation deteriorated much more rapidly than most people predicted it would, introducing many unexpected variables. The NEO devolved into chaos, culminating with a suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport that killed 13 American service members and 170 Afghans.
The Biden administration understandably wishes to avoid a repetition of those events. But in doing so, it is sending the message that the U.S. government is no longer willing to go to the same lengths it once was to recover American citizens.
In the absence of effective government-led evacuations, private citizens will likely step into the breach. I was one of the many veterans of the war in Afghanistan who got involved with crowdsourced, ad hoc efforts to get our allies out of Kabul in 2021. Among those being evacuated were U.S. citizens, many of whom couldn’t even get past the crowds and Taliban checkpoints that choked off the airport. Our efforts were necessarily inadequate and ran the risk of shielding the government from political liability if anything went awry.
Still, it should perhaps have come as no surprise last Friday when I received a WhatsApp message, through a friend of a friend, from an American woman in Khartoum looking for help. The embassy could do little for her. She’d gone to Sudan as an aid worker and was trapped in her apartment, along with her young child. She was alternately worried and sanguine about her chances of being rescued.
“There is daily hope and then disappointment with possible evacuation news,” she wrote. “But with the gunfire and explosions all around, we are all realistic that nobody is coming anytime soon.”