If you ever wondered what it was like to get pleas for help from Jewish friends in Europe as the Nazis marched in, and not be able to save them, I can tell you.
Only this time the friends are Afghan human rights activists in Kabul who will be dead if they can’t get on an evacuation flight. And a hefty share of the blame rests with the United States.
Here’s a text message from Mariam, her name changed for her safety, who ran several programs for USAID (the American aid agency) and frequently promoted international business for her country on Afghan television. She writes from her hiding place in Kabul: “I am shattered. I see all that I have built collapsing in front of me. Humanity, hope, home. All stores are closed, and there are no burqas to buy anywhere” (referring to the tentlike coverings forced on women by the Taliban).
“I am making a burqa out of a bedsheet.”
No doubt the Taliban, who’ve already been pulling people out of their homes and murdering them in other cities, have lists of folks like Mariam in Kabul. If she can’t get evacuated, her U.S. connections are likely to get her killed.
If President Joe Biden was determined to withdraw the last U.S. troops by Aug. 31 — a mistake — his team should have thought through their exit plans.
They should have planned in advance for large-scale evacuations of Afghan human rights activists, women leaders and journalists with U.S. connections, as well as translators for the U.S. military. They should have carried out airlifts while they still held Bagram military airport near Kabul.
But they didn’t plan, as military officials and concerned Congress members have complained for months.
President Biden said this wouldn’t be Vietnam, where U.S. officials were evacuated by helicopter from the embassy roof.
And before we left Vietnam, we evacuated 120,000 Vietnamese who worked with Americans. Not now.
Instead, the U.S. is struggling to get thousands of Americans and embassy employees out from the military side of Kabul’s international airport. Tens of thousands of Afghans with U.S. connections may be left in hell.
That includes people like the brave Nargis (also a pseudonym), who ran shelters for battered women in Herat and won a Woman of Courage award from the State Department. She escaped to Kabul, but recently wrote: “I am in danger, the Taliban went to my home in Herat to search for me by name, as one who supported the American project.”
Nargis managed to get a rare visa to Turkey, but when she braved the mobs and reached the airport Sunday evening, the flight was canceled. Civilian flights have been ended. “Pray for me,” Nargis texted. “There are Taliban near the house,” she whispered in a voice message.
This is a woman well-known to senior U.S. officials, who worked with the U.S. aid grants. I visited her shelters and saw her splendid achievements. She, too, may be killed for her connections with this country if the Americans don’t evacuate her soon.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked on Aug. 2 about helping Afghan human rights activists, including women, his response was astonishing. His only suggestion was that they leave for a third country, which they can’t do since neighboring countries won’t take them. He said once they leave Afghanistan, they could apply for consideration to become U.S. refugees. That can take two years.
It was already clear by the time Blinken spoke that the psychological blow of the exit date, and loss of U.S. air support, had long since convinced Afghan soldiers that the Taliban were the winners. But the White House refused to face the reality that was already becoming apparent.
The evacuation plans should have been drawn up months ago, with these scenarios in mind.
Yes, it must be said that the former president precipitated this disaster with a horrible “peace deal” that gave everything to the Taliban. Donald Trump made zero plans to rescue Afghan translators for the U.S. military or women activists before his planned May 1 exit.
But there was no need for Biden to out-Trump Trump.
Consider this: For months, bipartisan groups of Congress members have urged a mass evacuation of Afghan translators for the U.S. military to Guam or on humanitarian parole to the U.S. There, their applications for congressionally mandated special immigrant visas (SIVs) could have been completed.
U.S. efforts to parcel out SIV applicants to Muslim-majority countries to wait out the complex approval process have made minimal progress: Only about 1,200 translators left Afghanistan so far. One, a friend of a friend of mine, had been waiting nine years for U.S. approval.
Around 19,000 remain in the queue, plus family members.
These translators will be pulled out and killed if they aren’t evacuated. “This is a policy failure of epic proportions,” says veteran James Miervaldis, head of No One Left Behind, a volunteer group trying to help translators. “This is a problem from hell that we made ourselves.”
I don’t know how many evacuation flights may yet be organized, but certainly not enough, with the Taliban in charge of the whole country.
If something terrible happens to Mariam, or Nargis, or thousands of activists and translators, history will condemn those who abandoned them to die.