There’s plenty of blame to go around for the 20-year debacle in Afghanistan—enough to fill a library of books. Perhaps the effort to rebuild the country was doomed from the start. But our abandonment of the Afghans who helped us, count on us, and staked their lives on us, is a final, gratuitous shame that we could have avoided. The Biden administration failed to heed the warnings on Afghanistan, failed to act with urgency—and its failure has left tens of thousands of Afghans to a terrible fate. This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden.
Khan, an Afghan interpreter I first wrote about in March, is on the verge of escaping from Afghanistan with his wife and small son. Three clocks are ticking. The first is his wife’s pregnancy. She’s at 34 weeks—two more weeks and she’ll no longer be allowed to board a flight out of Afghanistan. The second clock is the availability of a visa to the United States and an air ticket. After years of waiting, yesterday Khan finally received his Special Immigrant Visa as one among thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. military. By then, amid the general panic of Afghans trying to get out of the country, ticket prices to Europe and the U.S. had doubled, from $800 to $1,600, and seats were going fast. A travel agent told Khan that none were available until the end of August, but yesterday morning, Khan’s pro bono lawyer, Julie Kornfeld of the International Refugee Assistance Project, managed to book his seats on a Turkish Airlines flight on Tuesday.
The third clock is the Taliban. In the past week, every city except Kabul fell to the insurgents. A few days ago, U.S. intelligence sources predicted that Kabul could go as soon as next month. This morning, the Taliban are at the city gates, preparing to enter the capital and seize total power. “I think when they enter Kabul, first they will block the airport because they do not want us to escape,” Khan told me by phone from Kabul. Just as he seems to have obtained everything he needs to save himself and his family, it might be too late.
In recent days Kabul became the last point of escape for Afghans who fear for their lives under the return of the Taliban. Every provincial capital has fallen to the insurgent offensive; regional airports have closed; roads to Kabul and the borders are being controlled by Taliban checkpoints; government-security forces are in a state of collapse across the country. The U.S. has sent several thousand Marines to assist with the evacuation of embassy personnel, even as those officials deal with the flood of visa applications and entreaties from interpreters and others with American connections. Today, the U.S. government is more focused on saving our own than on saving the Afghans who counted on us. For many of them, time is running out. For some, it already has.
All of this was foreseeable—all of it was foreseen. For months, members of Congress and advocates in refugee, veteran, and human-rights organizations have been urging the Biden administration to evacuate America’s Afghan allies on an emergency basis. For months, dire warnings have appeared in the press.
Some of these answers might have been sincere. All of them were irrelevant, self-deceiving, or flat-out false. While some officials in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House itself pushed quietly for more urgent measures that might have averted catastrophe, Biden resisted—as if he wouldn’t allow Afghanistan to interfere with his priorities, as if he were done with Afghanistan the minute he announced the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. forces. This hardness is perplexing in a president who spent years in the Senate working on behalf of genocide victims and war refugees; who once promised an Afghan schoolgirl that he would make sure the U.S. didn’t abandon her; who cares intensely about the welfare of American troops.
Veterans, with their code of leaving no one behind on the battlefield, have been among the most passionate advocates for Afghan interpreters. A retired officer involved in discussions with high-ranking administration officials told me that the Veterans Administration plans to offer to counsel to Afghanistan vets who will experience the trauma of losing their Afghan comrades to beheading by the Taliban. The retired officer struggled to understand Biden’s resistance. “If his son Beau were still alive today, he would be able to communicate to his father in a way that he’d be receptive,” the veteran told me. “I don’t know who else would be able to do that. I’ve literally thought, How do I try to get a message to the first lady? She and Michelle were both very engaged with military families and veteran issues. I thought she could convey the message in a way the president might be receptive.”
In the past month, about 1,200 interpreters and family members have been evacuated on flights from Kabul to Fort Lee, Virginia—but they had already received final visa approval. The U.S. embassy in Kabul began pushing to expedite thousands of remaining applications. But in the absence of any organized evacuation by the U.S. government, Americans in civil-society institutions tried to fill the void and scrambled to save their Afghan associates. Foundations and well-connected donors have been negotiating with countries such as Albania and Qatar to accept charter flights full of Afghan passengers—women’s-rights leaders, human-rights activists, teachers, journalists, administrative staff—on a temporary basis. Journalists are getting desperate calls from former fixers—only to find that the P2 refugee program, created by the administration to resettle Afghans who have worked for American media and nonprofit organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development, exists on paper and nowhere else.