What do we know right now? The Biden White House and US State Department are in disarray, not clear on what can be done, what order, what chances of success, events spiraling in Kabul.
Biden’s national security team met over the weekend, after issuing contradictory statements, first telling tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans loyal to us to “shelter in place,” then “make their way” to Kabul airport, then “because of potential security threats … we are advising US citizens to avoid travelling to the airport …” In short, chaos reigns – and mixed messages could lead to tragedy.
Here is what could be done immediately.
First, with an estimated 18,000 US citizens in-country, contact should be made with all US citizen points of contact and cell networks. US citizens should be directed to meet in one of three locations, locally at a spontaneously identified provincial pick-up point, where US helicopters meet them; along several primary roads, where the US protected ground transportation will meet and collect them; or in Kabul at a location beyond the airport, to be met.
What is the precedent? In some ways, there is none – but self-identified, spontaneous pick-up points subverts terrorist preplanning, allowing possible shifts as needed. US helicopters would have to conduct constant back-and-forth sweep operations or search and rescue of Americans.
Moreover, air and ground extraction – especially along established routes, at key points, cued by cellphone – mirrors generally COOP-COG, or continuity of operations/continuity of government planning, used in other circumstances. US allies are already conducting like operations.
Second – direct, sit-down conversations by senior military and diplomatic personnel with the Taliban in Kabul, assuming top-down Taliban coordination, should evacuation planning, dates, and expectations. Should that have occurred months ago? Yes, but better late than never. Does it come with non-trivial risks? Yes, but that is the price of miscalculation.
Third, direct, high-level diplomatic missions should be conducted with China, Russia, and America’s NATO allies, without hesitation. Two-fold goal: Update them in person on what is happening, why they have a vested interest in order – not tragedy; enlist them in a joint statement pressing full, peaceful evacuation of all foreign nationals and select Afghans, making any recognition of the country conditional on that outcome.
Fourth, the US should make clear that – if needed – a major military operation to secure all American citizens and key Afghan personnel will be undertaken if an orderly and complete evacuation does not immediately occur – which would significantly complicate Taliban control.
Fifth, a UN resolution should be immediately sought, seeking complete, peaceful evacuation of all foreign nationals and select Afghan nationals to safe third countries, subject to future sanctions and universal condemnation if the incipient Taliban government does not comply.
Sixth, the White House should announce that twice-daily briefings will occur – and be delivered by the Pentagon, which is now managing evacuations. These will update on the process.
Seventh, the Vice President should reprise her travel plans, reverse course, stay in DC, and demonstrate crisis leadership with an “all-hands-on-deck” frame of reference in the loop.
Eighth, as any Taliban order in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan, an emissary should be sent immediately to Pakistan to secure an appeal to the Taliban for full, peaceful evacuations.
Ninth, using the proxy voting process, the US House and Senate should issue a unified statement of appeal to the Taliban, Pakistan, and every interested country to facilitate peaceful evacuations.
This approach will not solve the problem, end Taliban inhumanity, or reverse the error. But given that this is the largest NEO – non-combatant evacuation operation – that the US has conducted in decades, it will morally, legally, and operationally test us. This approach may represent the best possible outcome now, assuring the American people and allies we are leading, not drifting.
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