With thousands of Americans and Afghans attempting to flee the now Taliban-led country of Afghanistan, U.S. officials are urging all those who seek escape to make their way to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. But with obfuscated messaging via the Biden administration, boarding a plane may not be so easy; to do so under immense time pressure could be even more difficult. On Tuesday, August 17, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked what guarantees of evacuation she could offer to those Americans who were still in Afghanistan after the August 31 deadline for withdrawal. She responded:
“Our focus right now is on doing the work at hand and on the task at hand … And that is day by day, getting as many American citizens, as many SIV [visa] applicants, as many members of vulnerable population who are eligible to be evacuated, to the airport and out on planes.”
These will not be words of comfort for those unable to make it to the single airport offering evacuation in the toppled nation.
While roughly two weeks may seem a long enough time to get oneself to the Kabul airstrip, there are several relevant issues at hand. First, with the Taliban having significant control across many of the 34 provinces – and local warlords in control of everything else – getting to the capital city may prove a dangerous adventure. This is a nation with poor infrastructure, treacherous regions, and a population with a distinctly militant mindset. Should any Americans be caught by warlords, they are highly likely to be held for ransom.
Bad News for the Stranded
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted that the American mission was in contact with the Taliban and that the group has assured safe passage for those attempting to leave. He said, “the Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment.” When pressed on whether he had faith in this commitment, he responded with a simple affirmative. With regards to what happens after the August 31 deadline, however, his answer was less than encouraging for those still on the ground. He replied:
“We believe that this can go until the 31st. We are talking to them about what the exact timetable is for how this will all play out.”
A question unasked by the White House press pool was what benefits the Taliban would accrue by allowing the evacuation of American citizens. With the Obama administration’s 2014 trade of five Taliban leaders for the return of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the American government – with Joe Biden as VP – demonstrated that pressure applied in the right places can yield bountiful returns. This is a strategy the new Afghan leaders will likely embrace.
Getting Through the Doors
Another factor hindering evacuation is access to the airport itself. As recently as Monday, August 16, Taliban fighters outside the airport were pointing weapons and firing shots to discourage people from trying to enter the base. The group’s leadership will be keen to avoid once again becoming an international pariah by breaking covenants, but as long as the Taliban fighters do not interfere inside the airport before August 31, they will have been seen to have abided by their agreement. That leaves a whole world of possibilities available outside the airport.
Any hindrance, any roadblocks the Taliban can erect to delay Americans or Afghans who supported the U.S. mission will be used. When August 31 comes around, we will almost certainly start hearing reports of U.S. citizens and allies trapped within Afghanistan. Will the Biden response become yet another humiliation for America and a much-anticipated payday for the Taliban regime?