I Know Firsthand How Ugly a Wartime Evacuation Really Is

The scope was much smaller than what our government was doing in Kabul. Take the numbers from Afghanistan and tap off two zeros and you can get closer to the scale in South Sudan. While the US government evacuated about 120,000 people from Kabul, we evacuated about 1,200 from Juba. But even on this smaller scale, it was an urgent operation, and about half a dozen of us made 19 evacuation flights in 19 days during the civil war in South Sudan.

The risk profile in Juba was also very different from Kabul, but many local realities were similar and there was little the US government could do about that in either case. Here’s why.

The hardest thing about escaping from a war zone is the exit – in these cases the airport. Since the US government did not control Kabul, it had few options to help, which put US personnel at greater risk. We were also faced with this problem in South Sudan. We have received hundreds of calls from Americans and others who were too scared to cross the city alone in the midst of the violence. We have had limited success getting a small number to the airport, but we did not have the resources to do it safely on a large scale.

For those outside of Juba, the challenge was even greater. I’ve spent days on the phone with Americans seeking refuge in the countryside while their settlements are under attack with fighting right outside the door. When 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 could be when colleagues from the military and the Foreign Ministry attempted an evacuation flight to the city of Bor. It was canceled when the plane came under fire and US soldiers were seriously wounded. Deciding when and how much we endanger our employees is perhaps the hardest question we have faced.

When people get to the airport, someone has to decide who gets on. In South Sudan we didn’t have any crowds at the gate. The airport didn’t have a secure perimeter at all, so the only problem was who we put on the planes.

In Kabul, US officials faced two decision points and much larger crowds. The military decided who could enter the airport, and inside consular officers decided who could leave the airport.

But it wasn’t just Americans and our Afghan allies – those whose lives for work for America were in danger – weren’t the only ones trying to flee in this case. Numerous people tried to come in. And without a law enforcement agency, the U.S. military couldn’t enforce greater control outside the gates. Making the decision about who to let in was not only difficult but fatal. Expanding the perimeter would only have postponed the same problem further.

For every person who made it to and into the airport, hundreds or thousands did not, and US officials were responsible for every decision made.

These life and death calls were made by real people, through real people, with imperfect information based on vague and sometimes conflicting instructions from Washington. Who is considered a family member? How do you prove it is them? How do you prioritize among hundreds when no documents are complete? After all, while fleeing for their lives, many do not grab their passports or other documents.

Answers to these questions are subjective and difficult to answer on a large scale. In Juba we couldn’t investigate doubts or verify documents because we were always fighting a clock, usually the airport closing in the dark. In Kabul they found themselves exposed to these restrictions and even more.

I remember these decisions well. I told myself that we had limited resources and space and that we could only help so many on any given day. But every decision I made to reject someone still hurt.

It is reasonable to ask why so many people were still being evacuated after the fall of Kabul. If more Americans and allies had left sooner, we should have come out less in the end. The US government was in control of one of these categories but not the other.

The government has warned American citizens not to travel to Afghanistan for years and has repeatedly urged Americans to leave the country over the past five months. The hands of the US government were tied for those who chose to wait. And many decided to wait.

I saw that in South Sudan too. I urged Americans to leave at the first opportunity, but many didn’t. It is no coincidence that Americans live in places like South Sudan or Afghanistan. You’re there for a reason – family, business opportunity, or conflict-related work. Most want the last possible flight and hope that things don’t turn for the worse. They all had good reasons, but we never know when the last flight will be; it probably won’t be safe and it only has so many seats.

Where we could and should have done much better is to get our Afghan allies out sooner. Speeding up the evacuations a few weeks earlier would have helped at least modestly, although there were legitimate fears that the move would destabilize the Afghan government (at the time we didn’t know how quickly it was going to fall 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 U.S. visas to Afghans whose work for the U.S. government puts them at risk, but its 14-step process is fuller unnecessary, difficult bureaucratic steps. It can take up to three and a half years and many applicants are unfairly rejected. The Trump administration intentionally clogged the SIV program, but it had been broken for years. If this system had worked as intended, many thousands of Afghan allies would already be living in the United States today.

In the past few weeks, however, most of the on-site challenges have been inevitable. Some things could have gone better, but also a lot worse.

What I hope Americans understand is that our local military and civilian officers 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 forever live with the weight of those choices and what their choices meant to those who did not choose them.

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