I know firsthand how ugly a wartime evacuation really is
The scale was much smaller than what our government has just undertaken in Kabul. Take the numbers for Afghanistan and remove two zeros, and you can approximate the scale in South Sudan. While the US government evacuated approximately 120,000 people from Kabul, we evacuated approximately 1,200 from Juba. Even on this smaller scale, it was an urgent operation, and about half a dozen of us carried out 19 evacuation flights in 19 days during the civil war in South Sudan.
The risk profile in Juba also differed significantly from that in Kabul, but many realities on the ground were similar, and there was little the US government could do in either case to change them much. Here’s why.
The hardest part of fleeing a war zone is reaching the exit – in these cases, the airport. Because the US government did not control Kabul, it had few options to help it, which put American personnel at greater risk. In South Sudan, we also faced this problem. We have received hundreds of calls from Americans and others too scared to walk through town alone amid the violence. We had limited success moving small numbers to the airport, but lacked the resources to do so safely on a large scale.
The challenge was even greater for those outside Juba. I spent days on the phone with Americans in the shelter of the country, their complexes under fire with battles just outside. As they ran out of food and water, I felt helpless, but we just weren’t able to get them out safely.
We learned how risky these efforts can be when colleagues from the military and the State Department attempted an evacuation flight in the town of Bor. He was aborted when the plane came under fire, leaving US servicemen seriously injured. Deciding when and to what extent to endanger our people is perhaps the most difficult question we have faced.
Once people have reached the airport, someone has to decide who to come in. In South Sudan, we did not face the crowds at the door. The airport had no secure perimeter, so the only issue was who we put on the planes.
In Kabul, American officials had two decision points and much larger crowds to deal with. The military decided who could enter the airport, and once inside, the consular officers decided who could exit.
But the Americans and our Afghan allies – those whose lives were in danger working on behalf of America – were not the only ones trying to flee in this matter. Dozens of people were trying to come in. And without any law enforcement authority, the US military could not impose greater control outside the gates. This decision point on who to let in was not only difficult but deadly. The enlargement of the perimeter would only have pushed the same problem further.
For every person who made it to the airport, hundreds or thousands did not, and American officials were responsible for every decision made.
These life or death calls were made by real people, about real people, with flawed information, based on vague and sometimes contradictory guidelines from Washington. Who counts as a family member? How do you prove they are? How to prioritize among hundreds when no document is complete? After all, many don’t get their passports or other documents back when they flee for their lives.
The answers to these questions are subjective and difficult to answer in volume. In Juba, we could not investigate doubts or verify documents as we were still racing against time, usually the airport closing at nightfall. In Kabul, they faced these limitations and more.
I remember those decisions well. I figured we had limited resources and places to offer and we could only help a certain number each day. But every decision I made to refuse someone still hurt me.
It is reasonable to wonder why so many people still had to evacuate after the fall of Kabul. If more Americans and allies had left sooner, we would have had less to go out in the end. The US government had control over one of these categories but not the other.
The government has warned American citizens for years not to travel to Afghanistan and has repeatedly urged Americans to leave in the past five months. For those who chose to wait, the hands of the US government were tied. And many have chosen to wait.
I saw that also in South Sudan. I had urged the Americans to leave at the earliest opportunity, but many did not. Americans don’t live in places like South Sudan or Afghanistan casually. They are there for a reason: family, business opportunities, or conflict-related work. Most want to be on the last possible flight and hope things don’t get worse. They all had good reasons, but you never know when the last flight will take place; it probably won’t be safe, and there are only a limited number of seats.
Where we could and should have done a lot better is getting our Afghan allies out sooner. Stepping up evacuations a few weeks earlier could have helped, at least modestly, although there were also reasonable fears that the move would destabilize the Afghan government (at the time, we did not know how quickly it would fall from anyway).
But we should never have been in this situation when Kabul fell. The real culprit is the dysfunctional special immigrant visa program that should have been fixed years ago. The SIV program provides US visas to Afghans whose work for the US government puts them at risk, but its 14-step process is full of unnecessary and difficult bureaucratic steps. It can take up to three and a half years, and many applicants are unfairly turned down. The Trump administration intentionally clogged the SIV program, but it had been down for years. If this system had worked as expected, several thousand Afghan allies would already be living in the United States today.
However, over the past few weeks, most of the challenges on the pitch were inevitable. Some things could have been better, but they could also have been much worse.
What I hope Americans understand is that our military and civilian officers on the ground have been charged with thousands of life and death decisions in dangerous circumstances, doing their best with limited information and resources. . They deserve immense gratitude, but they will live with the weight of these choices forever, and with what their decisions meant to those they did not choose.