Ahmad wants to make it to Australia. Or the United States. Or Britain. He doesn’t mind which one. The 29-year-old is simply desperate to escape Kabul.
“I just want to get out of here, wherever it is,” Ahmad (not his real name) says via telephone from the Afghan capital. Even over a glitchy WhatsApp connection you can hear the anxiety in his voice.
After working as an interpreter for the coalition forces in Afghanistan for the past three years, Ahmad fears he will be punished by the Taliban now that they control the country. He doesn’t give any credence to the Islamist group’s promise that they will not take revenge against Afghans who assisted the foreign forces.
“I fear death,” Ahmad says. “They would not stop with killing me. They would kill my wife, my brother, my family. Today they are showing mercy but in the future there is no guarantee.”
It’s this level of desperation that led thousands of Afghans to swarm the international airport at Kabul on Monday, a day after the Taliban seized the capital. The images of bedlam shocked viewers around the world – especially the sight of Afghans clinging to the side of a military aircraft as it lifted off the tarmac and took flight. At least two people died after falling to the ground.
The pandemonium continued over the following days as Afghans tried to scale fences to make it inside the airport. On Thursday, a local waiting in the surging crowd outside the perimeter fence filmed a tiny baby passed over razor wire into the hands of a US soldier.
By the end of the week, US officials estimated that 12 people had been killed in and around the airport. Most died from gunfire or after being trampled in stampedes.
“The chaos outside the gate right now is so bad that women and children are being crushed literally to death – people are dying just waiting to get into the airport,” Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman who served in Iraq, said at an event hosted by the Centre for a New American Security think tank on Friday.
And worse could follow.
“The Taliban could start massacring people at any moment,” Moulton warns. “There are already reports that they are going house-to-house around the country, starting to hang government officials and assassinate people they thought were collaborators or worked with the Afghan security forces.”
The scenes of chaos at the airport were very real. They also provided a powerful visual metaphor for the haphazard and humiliating end to the US-led war in Afghanistan. US President Joe Biden had promised an orderly end to the 20-year war that cost the lives of 3500 coalition troops – including 41 Australians. What transpired was mayhem.
NATO officials estimate more than 18,000 people have been evacuated in five days from the airport, which is serving as a makeshift embassy hub for several nations. They say the US military could soon be evacuating 5000 to 9000 people per day – if applicants can make it past the crowds and Taliban soldiers into the airport.
Biden and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have vowed to do everything in their power to provide safe haven for Afghans such as Ahmad who assisted the coalition war effort. But he and the more than 20,000 other Afghans who have applied for asylum are looking for more than promises. They need a way out of the country.
Too little, too late
In early August, Ahmad received an email from the Australian government. It looked like good news. Defence Minister Peter Dutton had certified him as eligible to apply for a visa under Australia’s special asylum program for at-risk Afghan employees. But he is still waiting on final approval for his visa.
Complicating the process is the fact that his wife, who is six months pregnant, has been unable to retrieve her passport and birth certificate from the administrative office in Kabul. Like the rest of the city, it is now under Taliban control.
Ahmad also applied for a special American visa in January. He says he provided all the requested documents – including letters of recommendation from his American colleagues – but his application is still pending.
He experienced chaos first-hand on Tuesday when he rushed to Baron Hotel, just 1.5 km from the airport. The hotel is now the site of the British embassy, and a British colleague had told Ahmad that they could issue him a visa and evacuate him if he made it inside.
“It was like all of Afghanistan was there at the gate,” he says. “It was horrible for me.”
To get into the hotel, you had to pass through three checkpoints, all controlled by the Taliban. Because Ahmad did not have a British visa, they did not let him pass through to the makeshift embassy.
“The Taliban were beating people, telling them, ‘Stay here and we will build a good nation. Why are you leaving Afghanistan? We suffered 20 years for you so you should stay here’.”
He returned home with no visa, and fading hope.
Afghanistan was the last thing on most Americans’ minds when Biden spoke about the status of the US withdrawal on July 8. Summer was in full swing and the threat of COVID-19 seemed to be receding.
As he has done since he unveiled his exit plan in April, Biden sounded positive about the withdrawal.
“The draw-down is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritising the safety of our troops as they depart,” Biden said.
He acknowledged it was possible that the US-backed Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, would be forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. “But the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” he said.
These words would come back to haunt Biden just 38 days later when the Taliban took control of Kabul. Ghani, rather than attempt any kind of power-sharing, simply fled the country.
Biden’s claim that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “highly unlikely” was always overly optimistic. Speaking at the Pentagon this week, Mark Milley, America’s top military officer, said that US intelligence agencies had offered a range of scenarios.
These included a Taliban takeover following a rapid collapse of Afghan security forces and government, as well as a civil war or a negotiated settlement.
But the timeframe of a rapid collapse, Milley said, ranged from weeks to years following the American departure. “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated the collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” he said.
Get out now
To get a sense of the deteriorating security situation on the ground, all the Americans had to do was look to Australia. In May, Australian Defence officials presented the government with a damning intelligence assessment. The situation in Kabul could deteriorate rapidly and Australia should urgently close its embassy, the advice stated. Australia was paying for a significant security contingent for a relatively low number of embassy staff, and it should get out now.
The advice was issued on the notion that there could be a protracted fight for the capital between the Taliban and Afghan National Army – nobody anticipated that the Afghan government itself would cut and run.
Senior officials see last week’s chaos as vindication for the decision to close Australia’s embassy on May 28. But once the diplomats had left, Australia had to rely on other nations – primarily the US – for intelligence.
Between April and August, 430 former interpreters and other local contractors flew out of Afghanistan and resettled in Australia, but there are hundreds more looking for a way out.
While Canberra started planning for an urgent evacuation mission once the regional cities started to fall to the Taliban in early August, Australia – like its allies – thought it still had more time.
By Sunday, the Army’s 3rd and 17th Brigades in Townsville were on standby; the next day they flew out to Australia’s forward operating base just south of Dubai. The first RAAF C-130 Hercules aircraft finally landed at Kabul airport early on Wednesday morning, dropping off officials charged with the daunting task of getting people onto flights and picking up only 26 passengers – Australians, Afghans and one foreign official.
Another 76 with Australian visas were carried to safety by the British, and then sixty people made it onto the second RAAF flight on Thursday night.
Morrison promises many more flights, but the logistics of sharing the one war zone runway for an international mission are daunting – and it’s even harder for those trying to make it to the airport.
Those stuck in Kabul must navigate a two-step nightmare: trying to get their urgent visa paperwork from the Australian government, and then trying to make their way past the Taliban checkpoints. One former interpreter for Australia was allegedly shot in the leg by militants as he tried to make his way to Australia’s first evacuation flight.
Every nation involved in the evacuation mission has to be cleared to land by the US forces that control the airport. There is only one runway and many countries frantically trying to get their people out. Wild weather towards the end of this week has made the rescue operation even more tenuous.
The Morrison government has been criticised by many former soldiers and national security experts for not evacuating more Afghan staff and contractors before this week. The government is resolute in its belief that it did as much as it could, saying fresh security clearances were needed in all cases and some failed.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age there has been a lack of appreciation for the “depth of work and effort” over the last three months to get Afghans out of the country.
“Certainly events have moved very quickly in recent days and it makes us grateful we did get as many out as we did, but it now becomes more difficult day-by-day.”
Dutton repeatedly pointed out this week that some former interpreters had switched sides to the Taliban in the intervening years since they assisted Australian troops.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is not convinced. He says Australia could have taken more people in recent weeks and processed them in a third country.
“We seemed to allow a very ponderous start to the business to getting Afghan supporters out,” Jennings says. “Say the total number of people is 300-400 people – if we just had to pack them all up in RAAF C-17 aircraft, and it turns out that some of the people weren’t quite as close to Australia as they claimed – so what?”
Jennings says closing the embassy was the right decision, but “probably done too quickly”.
“We should have hung on a little bit longer and proceeded much faster with the moving out of Afghans who we wanted to bring back to Australia,” Jennings says.
Labor MP Peter Khalil, who served as a senior advisor for both Australia and the US in Iraq, knows all too well the consequences for former interpreters once western forces begin to leave. His former interpreter was beheaded by al-Qaeda on the streets of Baghdad in 2007.
Khalil had been calling on the Australian government for months to fast-track the process for getting Afghan employees out. “It’s been said there’s a moral obligation to the interpreters who have worked with our ADF for two decades,” he says. “But there’s also a national security necessity. Because what kind of message are we sending the world? That those people who worked with us, served with us – we don’t have their backs?”
Cultural and technological arrogance
Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington DC, says the collapse of the Afghan government was entirely predictable. But he thought the Taliban would wait until the Americans had left the country to take over. “I was surprised by the speed, but that’s what we pay intelligence services for,” he says. “We had all the people training the Afghan army. Did they not realise how fragile this was?”
Chris Miller, the former director of the US National Counter-terrorism Centre, this week described the failure to foresee the rapid collapse of the Afghan state was “an intelligence failure of cataclysmic proportions”.
“We have something fundamentally wrong with the way we do our intelligence assessments in our country,” Miller told the Associated Press. “It’s cultural and technological arrogance.”
As well as the Afghan forces’ lack of will to fight, Biden has sought to blame his predecessor for the botched end to the war. In February 2020 the Trump administration struck a deal with the Taliban to leave the country by May of this year. Biden insists this left him with only two feasible options: to stick as closely to the original deadline as possible or to escalate the number of US troops in Afghanistan.
David Schanzer, a counter-terrorism expert at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, says Trump does bear responsibility for what has unfolded.
“We negotiated a withdrawal agreement and left the Afghan government on the side,” he says. “We said we were leaving no matter what the Taliban did, no matter whether or not they had legitimate peace talks with the actual government of Afghanistan. It was a travesty.”
Which is not to say that things could not have been handled more competently by the Biden administration.
“With hindsight, it would obviously have been better if the Americans had kept a few thousand troops and their air force there until the winter and then withdrawn,” Lieven says. “It would have been much more difficult for the Taliban to launch an offensive in the winter. That could have bought the Americans a decent interval to get people out.”
Niamatullah Ibrahimi, a Middle East expert at La Trobe University, says both Biden and Trump are to blame for this week’s events.
“There was this powerful narrative coming from Biden and the Trump administration that was suppressing this sort of criticism – you were accused of being anti-peace for questioning the process,” he says.
“President Biden inherited the deal – but he owned it and actively campaigned around it, and will have to deal with the legacy of it. And I think that legacy will continue to haunt him.
“My view it’s not a failure of intelligence, it’s a political failure.”
By the end of the week Biden was no longer committed to his August 31 deadline for a full troop withdrawal. US forces, he suggested in an interview with ABC America, may have to stay longer to ensure that all American citizens in Afghanistan can get out. He notably did not commit to evacuating all Afghan allies out before US troops leave the country, an omission that was noticed by worried US legislators.
“The Taliban’s rapid ascendancy across Afghanistan and takeover of Kabul should not cause us to break our promise to the Afghans who helped us operate over the past twenty years and are counting on us for assistance,” a bipartisan group of 50 senators wrote to Biden following the interview.
“American inaction would ensure they become refugees or prime targets for Taliban retribution.”
It’s a stance that Ahmad, stuck in Kabul, agrees with but is powerless to do anything about. He feels abandoned by Australia, the US and Britain. “The process is completely wrong. They left us behind here. Everyone is confused. They told us they would evacuate us, but they did not tell us what we needed to get out.”
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