‘This Is Not Saigon. This Is Worse Than Saigon.’

Why was the administration so slow to evacuate U.S. allies in Afghanistan trying to flee the Taliban?

Afghan people running along the runway and clinging to a U.S. Air Force plane.
Afghans cling to a U.S. Air Force plane, trying to get out of Kabul. (Associated Press)

Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET on August 19, 2021.

The Afghans were not ready to leave.

That was how President Joe Biden, in his address to the nation on Monday, tried to explain why his administration had not acted sooner, and faster, to evacuate America’s allies from Afghanistan ahead of the Taliban’s rapid march to Kabul. Many of the local partners who aided the U.S. military during its 20-year war—interpreters, activists, civil servants, and others—were “still hopeful for their country,” Biden said. He made no mention of another possible reason for the U.S. delay—a darker explanation whispered by Democratic members of Congress, aid workers, and even some administration officials in recent days: Was it politics? Did the fear of criticism from Republicans cause the president to reject an influx of refugees who are now at grave risk?

All Krish O’Mara Vignarajah knows is that Biden’s explanation rang false. Vignarajah, who runs a Baltimore-based resettlement agency called the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told me she’s been inundated since the spring with pleas from America’s Afghan allies to help them escape. “We have been screaming from the rooftops that we need to get these allies out,” Vignarajah said. “The undeniable truth is that we had both the means and the time to save those in danger, and yet we’ve neglected to act in any meaningful way.”

Eskinder Negash, the former director of refugee resettlement in the Obama administration who is now the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told me that Biden’s statement was “inconsistent” with what his group was hearing and seeing. “They’re pleading. They want to get out as soon as possible,” Negash said. The delayed evacuation has led to scenes of chaos and desperation at the airport in Kabul, reminiscent of the last-minute rush to leave Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, in 1975. “This is not Saigon,” Vignarajah told me. “This is worse than Saigon.”

Military helicopter leaving Afghanistan.
The evacuation of Saigon, 1975

The image of the final military helicopter taking off from the U.S. embassy is now infamous, but before and after South Vietnam fell, the U.S. managed to help 135,000 Vietnamese civilians flee to safety. By comparison, the Biden administration says it has relocated just 2,000 Afghan allies to the United States. As many as 80,000 Afghans are still in the pipeline of the Special Immigrant Visa program, Vignarajah told me, because the law allows qualified applicants to bring immediate family members with them. How many of them will be able to get out is unclear.

As of Monday afternoon, the U.S. military had taken over the Kabul airport, and Pentagon officials say they can evacuate as many as 9,000 people a day from Afghanistan. But although thousands have flooded into the airport, thousands more are now torn between making a risky journey to Kabul and hiding from the Taliban in their home, Vignarajah said. Last month, a longtime Afghan interpreter who worked for the U.S. was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint on his way to Kabul, dragged from his car, and beheaded on the spot, CNN reported. My colleague George Packer has reported on another would-be Afghan refugee who was murdered in retaliation for his work for the U.S. “The heartbreaking truth is that the Taliban knows who some of them are, and they will have to fend for themselves if the U.S. does not get them out,” Vignarajah said. In a statement, a White House official emphasized the backlog of more than 17,000 applications inherited from the Trump administration and said that it had conducted a “massive and complex interagency cross-governmental effort” to accelerate the processing of visas.

Calls for the U.S. to evacuate its Afghan allies began immediately after Biden announced plans for a swift military withdrawal back in April. Congress acted last month to help speed the notoriously slow application process and make more Afghans eligible for resettlement. Yet aid agencies and lawmakers alike were dumbfounded that the administration did not act with more urgency. A Democratic congressional aide working on resettlement, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me the White House never indicated that many Afghans were not ready to leave. The most charitable explanation I heard came from Negash, who said the administration “was genuinely surprised” at how fast Afghanistan fell. “It was not just an excuse,” he said. “I don’t think the administration expected this kind of takeover.”

Privately, however, multiple people who have spoken with government officials over the past several months told me they suspected politics played a role in the halting pace of evacuations. That shouldn’t be surprising. Biden’s predecessor rose to power by vilifying immigrants, and immigration remains a flash point of every modern presidency. From the moment Biden took office, Republicans criticized him for allowing asylum seekers who crossed the southern border from Mexico to remain in the U.S. while they awaited the adjudication of their cases. Though he ran on reversing the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants and refugees, Biden has hesitated to reverse some of his predecessor’s policies, most notably when he delayed for several months in raising the cap on refugee admissions that Trump had lowered. Already, prominent right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, as well as former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, have warned against accepting thousands of refugees from Afghanistan. On Monday night, Carlson, who hosts the most widely watched cable-news program in the country, told his viewers, “First we invade, and then we’re invaded.”

Afghan citizens at Kabul airport.
Crowds wait in Saigon in 1975 (left) and Kabul in 2021.

Yet despite the howls from Trump loyalists, officials who work to resettle refugees say Afghan allies enjoy much broader bipartisan support than other endangered communities have in recent years, including migrants who have fled Central America and Syria’s civil war, specifically because they aided the U.S. war effort and because the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is partly the cause of their plight. In many cases, they’ve also already been vetted by the military or U.S. intelligence agencies because of their work. Even Trump initially called for helping Afghans left behind, before backing away once his supporters turned against them. “It’s a moral imperative. It’s a national-security imperative,” Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, a Democrat and an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me. “And we have to send the message to the world that the American handshake matters.”

In the House, senior Republicans have joined Crow’s push to speed resettlements from Afghanistan. Several Republican governors, including the conservative Brian Kemp of Georgia, have offered to take in refugees. “We’re getting just an incredible amount of support, to be honest with you,” Negash told me. “I have never seen this before.” Offers to help have come pouring in. Negash said that as we were speaking on the phone, he received an email from Hyatt Hotels’ global director asking if the company could assist with refugees.

The biggest question mark in the refugee debate might be Biden himself. The president has, over his long career, repeatedly scoffed at the debt the U.S. supposedly owes to foreigners who risk their lives to help Americans in wartime, and at the notion that the U.S. should expend much effort to rescue them. I asked Crow, who has pushed the administration harder than any other Democrat, whether he believed Biden was truly behind the effort to save the Afghan allies.

“I’m not a mind reader,” he told me. “I don’t purport to know what the president of the United States or anybody else for that matter is thinking at any given moment.”

He quickly added a note that served as a vote of confidence in the president—and an extra bit of pressure to do right by the men and women trying to flee the Taliban. “I know President Biden to be a man of compassion, a man of heart, a man of integrity,” Crow said.