Podcast: On the ground in Kabul during the Afghan evacuation: two JAGs speak!

One of the highlights of our 27th Annual National Security Law conference was the superb presentation by two fantastic judge advocates (JAGs) from the legendary 82nd Airborne Division, MAJ Rachel Walkup and CPT Haley Boyd.  Their remarks were so mesmerizing because both officers were on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul last August helping to evacuate more than 120,000 Afghans as the nation fell to the Taliban.  The video of their conference presentation is now available here.

Photo credit: Joy Dunlap

Calling their session Providing Legal Support at the Speed of America’s Immediate Response Force they related their role in the crisis response and some of the challenges they faced, from keeping the force informed of the rules of engagement, to practical issues, such as finding a means of tactical communication and trying to locate their personal gear (most of which never arrived).

There are endless numbers of talking heads in the media, along with academics and pundits who have opined about the operation, but these two officers were actually there–at ground level–doing the up-close-and-personal tasks of deployed JAGs

I can’t do justice to their full presentation with a few excerpts, but these extracts ought to whet your appetite to learn more. Here’s a sampling:

Asked about her initial actions, MAJ Walkup said:

[A]t that point [upon arrival at HKIA], my biggest priority is ensuring all those paratroopers who are starting to take control of the security of the airport are empowered to make good decisions, to understand what the rules of engagement are, what the big picture priorities of the United States are so that every one of those individuals who is faced with a tremendously hard situation and nuanced situation is able to make those good decisions.

So those first couple days are very chaotic. And I think many of saw the images on the next day, 16 August, where the civilians continued to come onto the airfield. And we continued to contain that situation and attempt to establish security so that we could start the evacuation process. And I will tell you and I’ll mention this later in kind of reflections, those paratroopers did a fabulous job.

It was a confusing situation, trying to distinguish between who is presenting a hostile threat to you versus the civilian who is just desperate to leave is a difficult task. And the team did a great job.

MAJ Walkup had served in Afghanistan previously, and she reflected on that experience as compared to what she found at HKIA in August:

I previously deployed to Afghanistan in 2015 and ’16. I knew ahead of time where I was going. I knew what the rules were. I knew who everybody was. I had a computer. And I had desk station, a phone that worked. I had rules, rules of engagement and tactical directives that were many pages long and had kind of gone through the system. And so it was a very established system that I entered with some unknowns. Right? There’s always going to be unknowns, but a lot more was in control.

This is a totally different situation, and really I think it’s what we’re going to be faced with much more frequently going forward. And there’s a little bit of irony there, because it was going back to Afghanistan where I had been many years earlier and the oldest theater that we have been involved with. And yet, it was as if it was a brand new situation that didn’t have the benefit of those established structures and systems.

And all the knowns that once existed had been wiped away. And so as a practitioner, figuring out how to deal with that change is important and understanding that as much as you can stay ahead of the issues as they arise. Right? So now, as issues arise in the world, we’re getting as smart as we can in the legal terrain in all of those issues in preparation if something were to happen.

Asked how the experience impacted her personally, CPT Boyd said this:

with CPT Boyd and MAJ Walkup
Photo credit: Joy Dunlap

I think it’s very rare, as an attorney, whether you’re a JAG or in the civilian world, to get to be a part of something that is just good. And this operation, the humanitarian operation, where we successfully got over 120,000 people out of Afghanistan was just a good thing.

There was no– or maybe much less complicated morality to it. We are part of saving lives. Just uncomplicated: getting people out in a good way. And I say “uncomplicated,” even though there’s a lot on the ground, that was very, very complicated. But the overall morality of it was good, and that was just a win that you don’t often get.

And so to be a part of that, it’s hard to articulate exactly how it has impacted me but it has, to know that I was part, even a teeny tiny part, of a historic operation that’s going to change so many people’s lives and hopefully give them a bright future in America and in other places. It’s really powerful. That’s satisfying. I don’t quite have the words to express it.

You owe it to yourself to watch (or listen to) the full presentation of these two remarkable Americans, and you can do so here.

The views and opinions expressed by the presenters are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other agency of the U.S. government.

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