Afghan People Desperate to Evacuate

The rapid fall of Kabul tore a hole in my heart. It’s taken me days to get my mind around what we’re witnessing and garner some focus to write this. First and foremost, I’m not surprised at the speed with which this happened.  Why everyone in our defense establishment is surprised, is what baffles me. I’ve been asked many times over the last few days, “What went wrong?” or “How could we have miscalculated so badly?” and my answer is, we didn’t.  Look at the assessments before this debacle and the answer from every intelligence product is clear:  The Taliban would own the country.  The only question was the timeline.

Hell, we forgot our own history in Afghanistan.  I was one of the first soldiers to set foot on Afghanistan soil, and the Taliban fell apart so quickly even we were surprised.  Why were we surprised when it went the other way?  Did we think we were so superior that the Taliban caved to our inevitable end state, or should we have known that the Afghan society writ large would inevitably default to the pragmatic – wanting to be on the winning side?  There is an obscure book written about the Vietnam war called The Rational Peasant, and that is what happened in Afghanistan.  The minute we announced we were leaving, the rational peasant picked a side.  It’s not hard to see which side.  Were they going to pick the Americans who were leaving?  Or the Taliban who were staying?  So, we knew that Afghanistan was lost, we just didn’t know how quickly the clock would run.

Which brings us to today.  The current administration is hell bent on not getting in a shooting war with the Taliban because by God we’re leaving that country and any gunfight will drag us back into the “forever war”. So, we’re doing nothing for the enormous number of American citizens, green card holders, and courageous Afghans who helped us during two decades of war.  I heard the US Secretary of Defense, Gen. Lloyd Austin, tell a news reporter that he didn’t have the ability to go into the city of Kabul and rescue Americans, and my jaw hit the floor.  The United States military has no ability to rescue American citizens in Kabul?  Seriously?  I know for a fact that’s absolute bullshit because I personally know the general in charge of security at Kabul’s airfield.  He’s the commander of the 82nd Airborne, and if you give him the word, his boys are on the street in ten minutes.

I understand the reticence of our political leadership, but we should take our Afghan blinders off and treat this like any other NEO on the planet – which is to say, “We’re Americans, and if you want a fight, we’ll give it to you. But I’m getting these people out. Now.”

A NEO – the acronym for a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation – is a highly orchestrated event for evacuating United States’ citizens out of harm’s way when a country falls apart.  It is the final result of the United States pulling down our flag and leaving an embassy. Because of this, it’s a very volatile action to trigger. In so doing, the United States is saying, “We give up.  Time to go.”  In the land of lawyer speak, it’s when the lead Federal Agency moves from the State Department to the Department of Defense, meaning the State Department has failed in diplomacy, and now it’s the knuckle-draggers turn.

We have entered that land in Afghanistan, and yet our ‘leadership’ is acting like we have to ask for Taliban support in order to facilitate safe passage to the Kabul airport for United States’ citizens for exfiltration. This is absolutely crazy. For some reason, we’ve let our past involvement in Afghanistan cloud our future options.  And by that, I mean our near-term plan.

I’ve been involved in exactly one NEO in my military career – Operation Bevel Edge, when Cambodia went to hell in the late-90s.  We deployed from Okinawa to Thailand and prepared to evacuate every AMCIT (American Citizen) in the place.  We didn’t actually do the operation, because things settled down, but as an operations officer for the Special Forces battalion dedicated to executing the mission, I had to drink from a firehose on everything from how to vette people attempting to leave, to the rules of engagement with hostile elements – and if there was one thing I learned, it was this:  AMCITS take priority.  If there is a threat, eliminate it.  Rescue the AMCITS…period.

And that’s where we stand in Kabul right now.  Actually, it’s where we stand with the entire country.  We should not be asking the Taliban for clear passage to the airport and then telling AMCITS in Kabul to make their own way. We should be executing a forcible entry into the city and evacuating every last AMCIT. The message should be clear:  We aren’t hostile to you, unless you’re hostile to us, but we’re establishing corridors of evacuation, and if you attempt to stop us, you will die.  And then back up that threat with firepower.

There’s actually a modern-day precedent for this, where we dealt with another faction that lived by the gun, and that was the release of Michael Durant after he was captured in Mogadishu during the so-called “Blackhawk Down” firefight.  We were leaving that country much like we’re leaving Afghanistan, but Durant was held by the warlord Mohammed Aidid.  Retired ambassador Robert Oakley was charged with getting his release.  He arrived in Somalia, and was met by Aided thinking he held the keys to the kingdom of taunting the Great Satan.  Oakley told him Durant was actually the key to his own destruction.  In no uncertain terms, after President Clinton had already said we were leaving Somalia and giving him victory, he told Aided that the United States wanted Durant back, and they would lay waste to everything Aided held dear to accomplish this.  Aided understood the threat.  Durant was released as a “goodwill gesture” shortly thereafter.

The Taliban won so easily they’re not even sure what they own, and make NO mistake, now that they’ve won, they do not want to pick a fight with the United States. Out of the entire universe of hostile actors, we are the only one that can reverse their victory, and they know that.  Why we’re sitting on our hands here is beyond me.  In Bevel Edge, the plan was to establish collection points throughout Cambodia by force, basically telling the warring sides, “Hey, you guys want to duke it out, have at it, but if you screw with me, I will annihilate you.”  There should be no argument that we should be doing the same thing here, but we’re not because of our inherent involvement in Afghanistan. I’m not even sure who has primacy of the mission right now.  Is it the State Department in its makeshift embassy at the airport, or is it the Department of Defense in its makeshift TOC at the airport?  Do they even know?

The fourth act of the Shakespearian drama of Afghanistan is playing out right now, and we’re apparently taking into account the first three, hobbling our effort based on a mistaken belief that any action will draw us back into the “forever war”.  Which is just devoid of logic.  We have an obvious mission, plain and simple.  We can’t alter the outcome of this disaster, but we also shouldn’t fall prey to it. This should be treated like any other NEO we would execute.  If country X fell apart, and United States’ citizens were in danger, we would execute Operation Bevel Edge, which is to say, we’d descend with overwhelming force and tell all fighting sides to back off until we leave.  We could do the same here, only ten times more due to our military footprint and inherent knowledge of the terrain.  We need to immediately impose overwhelming force and evacuate both American and Afghan civilians who helped us.

In the end, this is a matter of political will as opposed to military capability.  It’s not that hard to do, because if there’s one thing that the Taliban understands, it’s Mao Ze Dung’s words: Diplomacy comes from the barrel of a gun.