Report

U.S. Troop Pullout Sparks New Urgency for Afghan Evacuations

There’s little expectation the Taliban will make it easy to leave.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Afghans wait for the banks to open in Kabul.
Afghans queue up as they wait for the banks to open and operate at a commercial area in Kabul on Aug. 31. Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The last U.S. soldiers to leave Afghanistan departed Kabul shortly after midnight local time on Tuesday as the United States’ longest war was capped by recent weeks’ chaotic evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans, allies, and at-risk Afghans, thought to be one of the largest airlift evacuations in history.

The complete withdrawal of the U.S presence in Afghanistan, after 20 years and more than $2 trillion spent trying to stabilize and secure the country, leaves in its wake countless questions—practical, political, and moral—about the future of U.S. engagement with a Taliban-led Afghanistan. But it’s also left behind up to 250,000 Afghans who helped the United States with no clear answers about how, or whether, they’ll be able to escape what many fear will be violent Taliban reprisals.

The abrupt end to the U.S. military mission has the Biden administration as well as the ragtag networks of Afghanistan war veterans and former officials scrambling to figure out how to get hundreds of Americans and hundreds of thousands more Afghans out of the country. The first problem is simply making the planes run on time—or at all. After the collapse of the Afghan government two weeks ago, the United States dispatched more than 5,000 troops to Kabul to secure the airport, taking over air traffic control to enable rescue flights to shuttle in and out. 

The last U.S. soldiers to leave Afghanistan departed Kabul shortly after midnight local time on Tuesday as the United States’ longest war was capped by recent weeks’ chaotic evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans, allies, and at-risk Afghans, thought to be one of the largest airlift evacuations in history.

The complete withdrawal of the U.S presence in Afghanistan, after 20 years and more than $2 trillion spent trying to stabilize and secure the country, leaves in its wake countless questions—practical, political, and moral—about the future of U.S. engagement with a Taliban-led Afghanistan. But it’s also left behind up to 250,000 Afghans who helped the United States with no clear answers about how, or whether, they’ll be able to escape what many fear will be violent Taliban reprisals.

The abrupt end to the U.S. military mission has the Biden administration as well as the ragtag networks of Afghanistan war veterans and former officials scrambling to figure out how to get hundreds of Americans and hundreds of thousands more Afghans out of the country. The first problem is simply making the planes run on time—or at all. After the collapse of the Afghan government two weeks ago, the United States dispatched more than 5,000 troops to Kabul to secure the airport, taking over air traffic control to enable rescue flights to shuttle in and out. 

But with Taliban fighters flooding the runways after the last U.S. C-17 transport plane left Afghan airspace just before midnight, Hamid Karzai International Airport was left functionally useless, with no air traffic control to bring in aircraft landing from outside of the country—grounding any hope of charter flights at what was the only functional airport in the war-torn nation. The Taliban are reportedly in talks with Turkey and Qatar for support required to maintain a functioning airport, but serious security questions remain in the wake of the attack on the airport gate last week by the local Islamic State affiliate that killed nearly 200 Afghans and 13 U.S. service personnel. 

An estimated 100 to 200 U.S. citizens who wished to evacuate remain stranded in the country while the number of remaining Afghans who worked with the United States at some point and may be eligible for visas is estimated to be around 250,000 people. In a speech on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the administration would continue its “relentless” efforts to aid Americans and Afghans who are looking to leave the country. 

But following the U.S. withdrawal, any continued evacuation efforts are dependent on the whims of the Taliban. On Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the administration has “considerable” leverage over the Taliban to ensure they will fulfill their promise of allowing Afghans to leave the country. Organizers have little confidence the militant group will make things easy.

“We need to have a more scalable infrastructure in place in terms of tracking where people are going, making sure that they have third countries to land in and all their paperwork, because this is going to be a problem for as long as the Taliban exists,” said Evanna Hu, who organized the so-called Afghan Evacuation Coordination Team of ex-U.S. officials, aid workers, and volunteers. 

For now, Afghans looking to leave the country face a limited range of bad options. Some shelter in place—the Taliban have been knocking on the doors of people known to have worked for the United States—as they wait for the airport to reopen. Others are making the perilous overland journey to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan. But that’s not an option for all at-risk Afghans.

“It’s not possible for a woman in her 60s to travel to a third country and stay there for six months to one year to get her case processed,” said Shekib Rashidi, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan and has been trying to evacuate his mother to the United States, where he now lives. “I’m afraid that maybe my mum will pay for me being a U.S. government employee years ago.” His mother was unable to make it into Kabul’s airport after multiple attempts despite receiving an email from the U.S. State Department instructing her to make her way there.

A State Department spokesperson speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation on the ground acknowledged the difficulties facing those still seeking to leave the country. ​

We recognize that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a visa to a third country or find a way to enter a third country, and they, like many asylum-seekers, will face significant challenges fleeing to safety,” the spokesperson said. “Immigrant visa applicants who are in third country locations outside of Afghanistan may request that their cases be transferred to the nearest issuing embassy or consulate by contacting the National Visa Center.”

But the State Department continues to have limited information on many Americans in the country. Most information is provided through online forms taken voluntarily. “My first question I ask everyone is: Have you registered your presence with the State Department?” said Alex Plitsas, an Army combat veteran who spent the last several weeks working to help extract vulnerable Afghans and Americans from the country. “So, I’m actually worried that the number is actually much higher. We just don’t know. We just don’t know it yet because the State Department is at the mercy of the information they’re given by people who are actually there.” 

On Monday, Blinken announced the United States would establish a satellite U.S. Embassy for Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar. 

Even in the chaos of the past few weeks, volunteer networks working remotely to rescue Americans and Afghans could rely on encrypted messaging apps to arrange meeting points for U.S. troops to drop ladders over the fence, getting people into the airport even if they were struggling to get around checkpoints, though some Afghans eligible to get on flights were blocked from accessing the airport by Marines. 

But the departure of American service members and aircraft after the deadly suicide blast last week has left anyone wanting to get out of the country at the mercy of navigating Taliban checkpoints on the way to countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, which still house Afghan refugees from the wars in the 1990s. Organizers have woken up to email inboxes clogged with messages from Afghans, with no way to help them leave the country, as Americans at the gates stopped letting people through on Monday evening before the last flights departed. 

The United Nations has urged the creation of a humanitarian corridor into the country to stave off a potential crisis, with nearly half of the population in need of aid to survive—something that could ease the process of exiting the country for thousands of people. In a U.N. Security Council resolution passed yesterday and backed by the United States and three other Western nations, the world body urged the Taliban to provide safe passage to those seeking to flee the country. China and Russia, which have moved to recognize the Taliban government, abstained. 

But the bigger question for Western governments wary of extending an olive branch is whether the Taliban will reinstate the same kind of brutal Islamic regime they imposed between 1996 and 2001, when they ruled Afghanistan. More than 100 countries issued a joint statement on Sunday calling on the Taliban to uphold their promises as Afghans and the international community anxiously wait to see if the group will govern with less brutality. 

“I think the question we should ask is not if they are moderating, but if they want to use coercive force to rule,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies Central Asia. Some 70 to 80 percent of the Afghan budget comes from international donors, and any continued aid will likely be contingent on how the Taliban choose to govern. “The more coercive you are, the more isolated you are, by definition,” Murtazashvili said. 

And even with the international community pushing for the Taliban to play by the rules, without U.S. eyes and ears on the ground, evacuation organizers fear the group will have the upper hand, especially with concerns about brain drain among talented Afghans needed to run the country. 

Reliable sources of information could dry up from electrical blackouts, hampering internet access and cell phone connections. Communications into certain parts of Afghanistan have already been cut since the weekend. The Taliban have grabbed biometric databases collected by the U.S. government that could help them hunt down former interpreters and other ex-U.S. employees. And with the militant group already cracking down on journalism, there’s little confidence that much reliable information will be available beyond Kabul, making passage all the more treacherous for people seeking to leave.

“There’s a lot of scared people trying to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to do right now,” Plitsas said. “I think they’d rather make a run for the hills than deal with the Taliban. And I just don’t know how that’s going to end up.” 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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