As President Joe Biden returned to Washington Tuesday, breaking off his vacation at Camp David for a second time, the White House said that the Taliban had agreed to provide safe passage to Kabul’s airport for civilians who have the right to live in the United States.
But the assurances raise multiple questions, including:
- How long will the Taliban’s cooperation will last?
- Who will it allow to leave?
- Will it stop short of launching purges against Afghan civilians it views as US collaborators?
Thousands of hurriedly deployed US troops appear to have restored order to the airport following harrowing scenes of Afghans, who fear for their lives under Taliban rule, clinging to departing cargo planes, which sparked a political crisis in Washington and stained the US image abroad.
But the level of reliance on the Taliban for the safe completion of the US evacuation not only underscores how badly the administration was taken by surprise by the militia’s lightning advance on Kabul. It means that US officials must accept tacit cooperation of a militia that is itself perceived by civilians who helped US forces over 20 years as a mortal threat.
Many US experts and members of the Afghan diaspora fear that the Taliban will seek retribution against interpreters who worked for the US military and diplomats. There is also concern that members of the now-dissolved Afghan military and special forces will also be targeted.
And given the Taliban’s record of repression and suppression of women and girls under a harsh interpretation of Islam, there are likely many thousands of Afghans who want to leave and will be unable to do so.
A former Afghan interpreter who worked with US troops and is now in the United States told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he believes his family back home could now face reprisals from the Taliban.
“There is not a system for them to get out,” said the man, whose identity, voice and appearance were disguised by CNN for his and his family’s safety. The interpreter said that assurances by the Taliban for an amnesty for all Afghans should not be trusted.
“If these guys are going to be left in Afghanistan … trust me, they will be hunted down and killed,” he said.
US not ‘taking anything for granted’
Nevertheless, as Biden’s team struggled to impose some political order on the crisis, the President’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that the US believed that the Taliban was sincere in its offer.
“The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” Sullivan said in a White House briefing.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that there had been no hostile interactions between the Taliban and US forces at Kabul airport following discussions between Gen. Frank McKenzie, who heads US Central Command, and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. McKenzie has since visited Kabul airport.
“I would just let the results speak for themselves so far and we’re not taking anything for granted,” Kirby said.
A White House official told CNN Tuesday night that US military flights evacuated 1,100 US citizens, US permanent residents and their families during that day. More than 3,200 people have been evacuated and 2,000 additional Afghans have been relocated to the United States. Military leaders believe they will soon have the capacity to extract 5,000-9,000 people per day.
The restoration of calm at the airport and the growing momentum of the airlift may buy Biden some time after he failed to quell a political storm despite insisting on Monday that the “buck” stopped with him over the crisis. But the President largely placed blame elsewhere — on his predecessors for letting the war go on for two decades, on ex-President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and on the Afghans themselves for not fighting for their fractured land.
By returning to Camp David soon after his speech, the President again looked disconnected. And he did not make his first call of the crisis to a foreign leader — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — until shortly before he helicoptered back to the White House on Tuesday evening. Given the magnitude of the crisis, his lack of contact with allies who fought alongside the US in Afghanistan and who were shocked by Kabul’s fall is notable.
Fear in Kabul
The US belief that the Taliban will allow the evacuation to take place as planned came as the militia put on a public relations show of sorts on Tuesday, pledging that it would not allow Afghanistan to be used to harm foreign powers — amid fears in the US that the country will again become a terrorist haven. Militia spokesmen also pledged to respect women’s rights. CNN’s Clarissa Ward in Kabul, however, reported that behind the calm facade there was growing fear and concern among women — few of whom are now on city streets.
The Taliban, savoring its victory, has not yet interfered with US troops on the airport — the tiny patch of Afghanistan the US still controls. But basing the operation on assurances from a radical Islamic group that has effectively driven the Americans out leaves the US highly vulnerable.
It would be too strong to say that the United States is trusting the Taliban to allow the evacuation to proceed unimpeded, since Washington has warned grave consequences for its enemies if Americans are harmed. But equally, the White House little choice but to hope the militia’s forbearance continues.
Its claims were met with skepticism by Republicans.
“I don’t think you can ever trust the Taliban,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday.
“Now we’re stuck in a situation where we’re begging the Taliban to please do not violate our perimeter at this airport as we evacuate. I don’t know how long the Taliban is going to … keep with that agreement. I don’t even know if we have an agreement, to be honest with you.”
Sullivan, however, said that he was confident that the operation would be able to go on until the end of the month.
“We believe that this can go ’til the 31st. We are talking to them about what the exact timetable is for how this will all play out, and I don’t want to negotiate in public on working out the best modality to get the most people out in the most efficient way possible,” Sullivan said.
An uncertain future
It remained unclear how many people the Taliban would allow to leave or if Afghanistan’s new leaders would balk at the departure of specific individuals. Officials also did not publicly make clear how Afghans sheltering in their homes — or Americans left behind — in Kabul could travel to the airport. And it also appears unlikely, given the short time frame, that Afghans who worked with the US and live outside Kabul would be able to get to the capital in time before the evacuation ends.
Another complication arises from the logistical challenge of identifying and processing Afghans who have the right to go to the US or other allied nations involved in the NATO-led Afghan war effort.
The slow progress of the administering of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who were employed by the US caused intense frustration among applicants and political leaders in Washington for months. CNN reported on Tuesday that Pentagon officials were harshly critical of the State Department’s failure to speed up the program in recent weeks.
That was before the closure of the US embassy in Kabul. CNN’s Kylie Atwood reported on Tuesday that US personnel destroyed the passports of some Afghans awaiting visas, possibly to stop them falling into Taliban hands.
However long the tenuous truce with the Taliban holds, however, it seems almost certain that there will come a point when the US leaves without rescuing all the Afghans who are eligible to travel to the United States.
Such a scenario will not only trigger further accusations of betrayal against the Biden administration. It will infuriate US veterans, former diplomats and journalists who have been engaged in frantic efforts in recent days to find ways out for former employees and contacts stuck in Afghanistan.
The scope of Washington’s willingness to accept responsibility for Afghans stuck under Taliban rule after the US withdrawal in the longer term also remains uncertain at this point. Given the strength of feeling in Congress, it appears likely there will be some support for a much broader refugee program similar to the large-scale migration that followed the US defeat in the Vietnam War.
At the time, President Gerald Ford authorized the US-sponsored evacuation of 125,000 refugees — a process that led to a huge and thriving Vietnamese US diaspora through family reunification and sponsorships.
But that idea may be politically difficult given the bitter current debate over immigration. Already, several pro-Trump media figures on Fox News are questioning the need for such refugee arrivals.
Their attitude only further underscores the fresh, and enduring, tragedy of Afghans who have yet again been left defenseless because of a superpower’s desire to pursue its own national interests — in the case of the US to exit after a 20-year war. Sullivan said that the idea that women and girls in Afghanistan would again face severe repression was “a very hard thing for any of us to face” but that the alternative was to again send Americans to die in Afghanistan.
“These are the choices a President has to make.”
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