President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan ended an unsustainable U.S. military intervention with no end in sight. Over the last two decades of the war in Afghanistan countless Afghans assisted the American mission by working as interpreters and in civil society and human rights.
Right now, Washington is undertaking a massive evacuation of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, special immigrant visa applicants (SIVs), and other refugees with priority statuses. Kabul’s airport only has one runway and the Taliban have set up checkpoints outside some of its gates and along routes to the airport. Now is not the time for bureaucracy or delay. The United States will only get one opportunity to evacuate as many vulnerable people as possible. Below find four steps the Biden administration can take immediately to accomplish this goal.
Establish a through line between U.S. government agencies and civil society. There are several organizations that have worked around the clock for months on the issue of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and refugees with priority statuses. These organizations are staffed with subject-matter experts who have continuous contact with at-risk individuals and often have significant military or government experience. The Pentagon and Department of State should take advantage of this resource through an organized joint effort. It is also critical that information from U.S. government agencies is distributed through an established pipeline. Ad hoc releases of information and rumor mills have only induced panic.
Secure the airport. With the Taliban in control of Kabul it is increasingly difficult to secure the airport and its immediate surroundings. Nevertheless, a more orderly process would decrease chaos and entry points could be made more efficient to avoid trapping vulnerable individuals who are turned away or asked to wait and find themselves stuck in limbo between airport gates and Taliban checkpoints. Increasing consular staff and services inside the airport will also help.
Stop fixating on the paperwork. There should not be reports of C-17s departing from Kabul half filled. A fixation on prioritizing certain categories of evacuees over others, minutiae of paperwork, and whether an Afghan national is in contact with a U.S. based organization is slowing down the evacuation process. U.S. soldiers are not trained to serve as customs officials. A minimal set of details should be verified and then individuals should be evacuated to a third country. Details can be worked out in third countries and individuals who do not qualify for entry into the United States can be referred to the UNHCR or third countries. President Biden himself appeared to endorse this approach in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos when he said, “I had a meeting today for a couple hours in the Situation Room just below here. There are Afghan women outside the gate. I told ’em, ‘Get ’em on the planes. Get them out. Get them out. Get their families out if you can.’”
Use backdoor diplomacy where possible. The Taliban have set-up checkpoints, discharged their weapons, and harassed and beat individuals attempting to make their way to the airport. The United States has limited control over these actions, but keeping the communication lines open could prove critical to preventing the situation from deteriorating even more. A clear message should be delivered to the Taliban that slowing down the evacuation is not in their interests.