“Brace for Impact”: Americans should prepare for terrible scenes coming out of Afghanistan

President Biden has announced that all U.S. troops and other personnel will withdraw, without conditions, from Afghanistan by September 11th.   Although the decision, we are told, was contrary to military advice, the purpose of this post is not to debate the wisdom (or not) of the President’s decision.  Rather, it is only to share my personal reflections as to what that decision might mean for Afghans…and Americans.

I wish I could be more optimistic – and I want to be wrong about this – but I believe Americans need to brace for the impact of what could be terrible scenes coming out of Afghanistan, sooner rather than later.

Recently I was contacted by two different vets about the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi and Afghan Translators. They were concerned about Afghan translators they personally knew and who were struggling to leave. (They were looking for an immigration lawyer who could help with these cases).

It’s become a serious if not desperate situation.  An article in The Hill yesterday said there “are 12,000 authorized, but unused, slots for the last two years and an inexcusable backlog of nearly 19,000 SIV applicants and 50,000 family members.”  It’s difficult to imagine any lawyer being able to get much done to accelerate things in the near term.  Below are essentially the observations I shared with a colleague:

I’m afraid these SIV numbers may be the tip of the iceberg since there are, literally, millions of Afghans who worked closely with the US and NATO over the past two decades.  They all could be targets of Taliban and other insurgents’ vengeance.

It’s hard to see any silver lining here.  All NATO troops are expected to be gone by July, and although it is not well understood, the agreement with the Taliban requires all US contractors to also be removed.  This has a number of impacts, starting with the fact that Afghans have virtually no organic capability to support or maintain their aircraft, and that means their entire Air Force will likely be grounded shortly after the contractors leave.

The collapse of indigenous Afghan airpower could be devastating.  Airpower – US, NATO, and Afghan – has been essential over the years to keep not just the Taliban, but also ISIS and al Qaeda, at bay.  It has been one of the very few asymmetric advantages that the coalition forces held over the various anti-government fighters, and the only aspect of American power I think the enemy truly feared.

US military commanders are gamely trying to figure out a way to support the Afghan military from afar, but it won’t be easy (and the phrase “damn near impossible” comes to mind).  It is one thing to conduct a one-off bombing or missile strike of a strategic location from long range, but quite another to conduct ongoing tactical air support of troops-in-contact with the enemy.

Unless an adjacent country permits a rather large footprint of American airpower and special operations forces, and the Administration decides to support the deployment of hundreds or even thousands of troops to what would likely be a tricky central Asian location, I think the job is, in a serious military sense, undoable.

Moreover, without a physical presence on the ground, gathering the necessary tactical intelligence for day to day operations will be much harder to do.  Even the Administration’s own CIA director admitted in April that: “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact.”

The exit of US personnel may also include civilian security contractors who provide bodyguards and other force protection services to a variety of civilian entities.  Efforts will be made to find substitutes, but once U.S. and NATO military personnel leave, I predict civilian security personnel from other countries will soon follow. In my view, too few will be disposed to ‘operate without a net’ that the presence of U.S. and foreign forces can provide in extremis.

My guess is that most international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will soon figure out (if they haven’t already) that the security situation, even in their relatively secure compounds in Kabul, will deteriorate, and perhaps rapidly.  Look to see them heading to the door in a significant way this summer.

Yes, the Administration has promised continued aid and support, but can that realistically succeed in the absence of the kind of security only nearby U.S. forces can provide?

The real crisis will be about what I expect to be very large numbers of Afghans who will, with increasing desperation, frantically try to flee.  Even with wealth and connections, it won’t be easy.  For ordinary Afghans, it will almost never be in the cards.  As September 11th approaches it won’t be hard to imagine any number of heartbreaking scenarios.

When the Republic of Vietnam was dying in 1975, there was a terrible scramble as hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese sought to get out as North Vietnamese tanks and armored vehicles bore down on Saigon. I think about 110,000 made it as many were able to flee in fishing boats or helicopters to a fleet of US Navy ships not too far offshore. 

The Administration may be right that there won’t be “a chaotic ‘fall of Saigon’-type evacuation from Kabul,” but not for the benign reasons some might think.  Rather, the remorseless realities of distance and time may not permit any significant numbers of Afghans to evacuate – whether in a “Saigon-type’ operation or otherwise.

Why?  Being a coastal country, Vietnam was much easier to flee than land-locked Afghanistan. The closest Navy ships to Afghanistan are at least 300-400 miles away, and the flight time for large transport aircraft from other U.S. military installations in the Middle East is four to six hours—and that’s assuming Pakistan is in the mood to grant overflight privileges.

The only way a truly large scale evacuation could happen would be if a massive, coalition planning and resource-gathering effort were underway right now.  Literally, every second would be needed to pull off an operation at the scale that would be necessary to make a real difference.  I just don’t see that happening.

I also really don’t know how long the Afghan government can hold on…but, again, I am not optimistic.  It could collapse very quickly, and we have to remember that when the Soviets left, the bloody civil war accelerated with the Taliban eventually prevailing.

I fear most for Afghan women and girls if they come under the thumb of the Taliban (and/or ISIS, and/or al Qaeda) rule.  The bombing of the girls’ school last week could be a grim harbinger of horrifying things to come.

Should we bring thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of Afghans here?  I am conflicted about that as every English-speaking and/or educated and/or human rights-oriented and/or entrepreneurial business person – not to mention capable Afghan servicemember – we bring here is one less person of the very kind Afghanistan needs to have any hope of surviving as a country at least as free and human-rights tolerant as it is today – which isn’t all that much, but is something.

As I asked here in a somewhat different context: “Any discussion of immigration needs to address a difficult moral question: is there a point where the facilitation of migration – legal or illegal – becomes, de facto, the looting of human capital from countries which desperately need it?”

For Afghanistan, I dread that in the near term we are hurtling towards a real human tragedy, and over time, a catastrophe of the first order.  We can also expect to see China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan maneuvering to fill the vacuum after we leave, and it’s hard to imagine anything good for Afghanistan coming out of that. 

Furthermore, the strategic injury to the U.S.’s global reputation could be very serious and generational as our enemies may see the pull out as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

Concluding thoughts

Given the long stint we’ve had in Afghanistan and the lack of news attention to the matters there, most Americans are less knowledgeable about what we’ve accomplished and many may view our involvement more in terms of politics and budgets. 

But it’s also about freedom and it’s about people.

Many have come alongside American troops to fight for freedom.  How can we best help them continue the fight?  Or should we just help those who helped us to flee?  

Regardless, I think all Americans, irrespective of their politics, need to brace themselves for the impact of terrible scenes that could come out of Afghanistan.  Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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