Chaos and Confusion in Kabul

Either Joe Biden, his advisors, and our military are woefully ill-informed, or they are purposefully lying to the public about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Either way, Americans of all political views should be aghast.

First, the fact that the administration has told U.S. citizens to leave the Kabul airport and “shelter in place”—effectively, “go somewhere else”—or move to neighboring provinces or other locations without safe escort is simply inexcusable. I am among the scores of private citizens and ad-hoc organizations trying to help rescue our colleagues in Afghanistan. We have known for days not only that rapidly deteriorating security has been a continuous problem outside the airport but also that the Taliban has been targeting people who are waiting outside with beatings and burning of documents. They are also conducting door-to-door searches in neighborhoods looking for American supporters and perceived opponents. 

On Saturday, shooting erupted outside at least one airport gate, and new Pentagon information indicates ISIS, which Joe Biden assured us was no longer there, may be actively targeting the airport perimeter. Despite the White House’s recent assertions to the contrary, the Taliban have demonstrated no interest in letting Americans leave safely. Leaving our fellow citizens in this predicament is unacceptable.

Second, the information provided by the Pentagon on Saturday is not accurate. Whether our military leadership is ill-informed or paralyzed by incompetence is unclear. But what is perfectly clear is that our armed servicemen and women on the ground have their hands tied with constantly changing and imprecise guidance. 

Contrary to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby’s assertions, it is well known that only one gate into the Kabul airport is accessible to potential passengers. That has been the situation for days. The gate has been closed since at least Saturday, unless opened briefly by our military personnel who remain safely ensconced inside. Again, contrary to Kirby, the airport is secure on the inside only. If airport access were secure and the evacuation was proceeding as it should, we wouldn’t have the State Department telling American citizens to leave the airport to hide and hope for the best. 

As nearly everyone else seems to know, the situation outside the gate is pure chaos—a “kill zone” as one analyst put it. The United States has refused to play any role whatsoever in ensuring the safety of Americans and others waiting to enter. Why weren’t lanes established and secured for Americans to gain access? Why is the mob not organized into secure tracks distinguishing people with visas, priority immigrants, and others?  

The Pentagon and the State Department have made no effort to organize cleared passengers or people with reserved seats so they can enter efficiently. As many videos demonstrate, the gate through which passengers must pass doesn’t even have a perimeter protecting the surge of would-be refugees as thousands press forward. In fact, as of Friday, the head of the United Nations in Afghanistan did not even have direct contact with our military leaders inside the airport to coordinate an orderly response to the rising violence against people who were told just days ago to present themselves at the entrance to obtain passage out.

Incredibly, in the last 36 hours alone, our military instructed British troops who volunteered to rescue more than a dozen Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders and scores of Afghans with embassy travel visas to stand down. Our poor Marines at the gates were told they may not admit those rescued by the British, even if they hold proper U.S. documentation.

This is simply outrageous. Compare this administration’s indifference to Americans stranded in Afghanistan with the vast resources—including housing and transportation—dispensed indiscriminately to illegal aliens along our southern border.  

If anything is clear, it’s that the unfolding Afghanistan disaster isn’t a matter of lack of intelligence or planning. This is a lack of our administration’s competence and political will. 

Our military leadership’s assurances on Saturday that the airport is secure were disingenuous, at best. No, we are not “executing” anything remotely close to an effective evacuation process. While Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates, and other allies have systematically escorted their citizens to safety, the U.S. military—with a few exceptions when our Special Forces have rescued stranded Americans—has not. 

In addition, why our military has not opened alternative airports—including re-taking Bagram for evacuations—is anyone’s guess. The “surge” of U.S. troops into Afghanistan appears to be confined largely within the airport perimeter, which does nothing to address the problem at hand. 

Word came Saturday that food and water at the airport are limited and potential passengers should bring their own. Why aren’t we loading everyone we can, around the clock, and sorting those with visas and applicants at an intermediate stop—as we have done in the past? No one knows.. The situation is a continuously worsening mess.

At least part of the explanation appears to be that Kabul’s air-traffic control system is not very advanced and we lack operators with the know-how to run an older manual system. As a result, flights are departing with empty seats while private charter flights are being turned away. Our inability to track and organize nonmilitary evacuation and support flights is a problem that we created or at least should have anticipated. 

Adding to the mix, commercial planes that ordinarily would be available to support the Pentagon cannot secure insurance to fly to Afghanistan. There are at least two private citizens groups working to resolve this problem, but obviously, time is of the essence.

Scores of civilians have been attempting to gather information from, and assist, stranded Americans. Yet amazingly, as of Sunday, there seems to be no U.S. government-coordinated, consolidated database that provides those within the airport with essential information about potential charters, incoming flights, and people vetted and cleared for departure. We don’t even know exactly how many Americans are still in Kabul. 

Officials issue constantly changing guidance on where Americans should gather, apparently oblivious that movement around the airport and throughout the city is constricted by a maze of Taliban checkpoints. No Afghan security forces remain. 

Know this: every American and visa-holder left behind will become a potential Haqqani hostage candidate. This should alarm us all. 

Finally, Biden’s suggestion that the United States is not being criticized by other countries that are doing better is ludicrous. He must have missed the British Parliament’s vote of condemnation on Wednesday. Meanwhile, credible first-hand reporting over the weekend disclosed that senior Afghan leaders who have mounted a resistance to the Taliban in the north are so disgusted with the United States that they refused to speak to our military. 

I recently returned from the Middle East and Europe where our allies are vocally mystified and angry. At the Kabul airport, a shouting match erupted on Saturday between senior U.S. officers and our British colleagues trying to help. It’s not just that we have failed to provide meaningful safety for our own citizens, our repeated and demonstrated lack of situational awareness (at best), or deliberate false public statements (at worst), undermine our already dismal credibility with our allies and embolden our enemies.

Having spent years in the Pentagon, I know we are better than this. 

There seems to be no explanation for our ongoing failure to secure the safety of American citizens in Afghanistan and entrance into the airport, unless the administration has simply refused to authorize our military and other institutions to do it. One might call on our military leaders to insist on doing the right thing—either act now to escort our own citizens back to safety, enable access to the airport, or resign in disgust. Competent Pentagon leaders know how to exert political pressure on administrations when they want to. This time, they need to step up and provide the pressure our endangered citizens and those who risked their lives for us deserve. 

About Mary Beth Long

Mary Beth Long is a former assistant secretary of defense for international affairs and was responsible for Afghan security policy from 2005-2008. From 2010-2017, she operated a business office in Kabul supplying subject matter experts to various ISAF Commanders.

Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

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