On August 15, 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul and assumed the reigns of government. A few months earlier, the Biden administration announced the implementation of the February 2020 Doha agreement that had been negotiated by the Trump administration. This resulted in an announcement of a full withdrawal of U.S. forces and contractor support.
Defeat of the ANDSF. By the spring of 2021 the support provided to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) was greatly diminished and it experienced defeat after defeat on the battlefield. There are number of reasons for the defeat of the ANDSF and these will be studied for decades to come by military analysts and national security ‘experts’. However, the bottom line is that the Taliban took district after district and province after province until it reached the gates of Kabul. However, the reasons for the loss of Afghanistan extends far beyond the defeat of the ANDSF. The successive Afghan governments were inept and corrupt and lack influence and capacity at the sub-national level. The United States is far from blame – having made many strategic errors in Afghanistan over the course of twenty years.
Kabul Airlift. As the Taliban advanced, the United States was withdrawing the last of its forces. By August 15th, the remaining troops were either located at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul or at the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). In the preceeding months the Department of State (DoS), despite urging from the Department of Defense (DoD), refused to evacuate the U.S. Embassy as the Taliban were steadily making progress across Afghanistan. The DoS, over the course of time, has a dismal record when initiating non-combatant evacuation operations in times of crisis. Finally, much too late, DoS declared a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) and the DoD was presented with an almost impossible task of securing the Kabul airport and conducting operations in support of the Kabul NEO.
SIV Program. Over the course of the 20-year involvement of the United States in the long-running conflict in Afghanistan it received considerable support from Afghans. The military and other governmental agencies were very reliant on interpreters to conduct operations, activities, and implement programs in Afghanistan. In 2009, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program was established to provide an opportunity for some of these interpreters and others who assisted the U.S. to re-locate to the United States. Eventually, this would lead to the ability to apply for a legal permanent resident (LPR) status (Green Card). However, the program was slow and bureaucratic.
At-Risk Afghans. With the rise to power of the Taliban these interpreters and others realized they and their families would be subject to reprisals by the victorious Taliban. In fact, this has been happening over the past two years – former interpreters have been singled out for detention, imprisionment, torture, and death. In addition, former members of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC), Afghan Air Force (AAF), and Special Mission Wing (SMW) have also been hunted down and faced reprisals. It is no wonder that these at-risk Afghans swarmed the Kabul airport seeking space on U.S. military aircraft conducting the evacuation of Americans, LPRs, foreign nations, and those who could prove they were holders of a Special Immigrant Visa. The airport was overwhelmed.
Two Weeks of Chaos. From August 15 to August 30 the world was captivated by the attempt of nations from across the world to evacute their embassy staff, foreign nationals, and at-risk Afghans that they could identify as having aided their country’s efforts in Afghanistan. During this two week period over 124,000 people were evacuated from the Kabul airport by the various nations. Unfortunately, by the end of the NEO, many U.S. citizens, LPRs, and SIV holders were left behind.
Volunteer Groups. Beginning in early August 2021 informal groups of U.S. veterans and others began to organize themselves in an effort to assist the thousands of Americans, LPRs, and at-risk Afghans (interpreters and others) get access to the interior of HKIA. While a few were actively on the ground in Kabul the vast majority were supporting the effort from their home offices or workspace using phones, WhatsApp, Signal, Zoom, and other messaging services. These volunteer groups – like No One Left Behind, Team America Relief, and others – stepped into the gap caused by the inadequate planning and preparation of the DoS. Thousands of people got onto the HKIA evacuation flights as a result of these hastily formed volunteer groups. Over time, these groups – hundreds of them, small and large – would be affiliated with larger umbrella organizations such as the Afghan Evac coalition, Evacuate our Allies, or the Moral Compass Federation.
The Aftermath of the Kabul NEO. After the conclusion of the Kabul airlift at the end of August these volunteer groups continued to operate for several months – assisting Americans, LPRs, and Afghans in departures from the Mazur-e-Sharif airport in northern Afghanistan and in overland movement to Pakistan and other neighboring countries. As Afghans made their way to the United States the efforts of many groups turned to the resettlement process – finding jobs, living arrangements, processing legal paperwork, and navigating the difficulties of adapting to a new country.
Afghan Adjustment Act. One of the more important efforts of the various volunteer groups is the advocating for Congressional legislation that would provide a legal pathway for Afghans who arrived in the U.S. after evacuation from Kabul. In addition, there are provisions in the proposed Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA) that would provide SIV status to members of ANASOC, AAF, and the SMW. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to support this important legislation. Organizations at the national level such as Evacuate Our Allies (EOA) are fighting hard in Washington, D.C. for Congressional support for the AAA. This advocacy effort is also found across the country at the local level – the Maine Vets for Afghans is one such example.
More Work Remains. The work of assisting at-risk Afghans continues today – two years after the fall of Kabul. Some volunteer groups have disbanded, the members having completed their mission of relocating the Afghans they were assisting. Some are no longer operating – the members returning to their normal lives – after depleting their financial resources, spending time away from their jobs, and sacrificing family life. Many U.S. veterans of the Afghan conflict and members of these Afghan Evac volunteer groups have suffered from moral injury. But many groups, like Team America Relief, continue to assist in the relocation of Afghans to the United States, resettlement efforts, and advocacy for Afghans.
The author is a member of Team America Relief and Maine Vets for Afghans.