Trudy Rubin: President Biden, get our Afghan allies on evacuation planes

There will be plenty of time to hash over the U.S. mistakes in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

There is almost no time left to live up to U.S. promises to evacuate 18,000 Afghan people (and their families) who helped our military, along with thousands of women and human-rights activists.

Yet listening to President Joe Biden this past week it sounds as if we may abandon most of them to the Taliban because the White House bungled the withdrawal.

We can still get those people out, Mr. President. We have the means.

If you fail to act, you shame not only the White House but our military and our country. And you make mud of your claims to lead the world’s democracies in standing up for global human rights.

Americans need to understand that our Afghan allies are real people, with families like our own.

The images of crowds surging toward a U.S. military plane or pictures of turbaned Taliban may be hard to relate to. But most of the interpreters who worked with our military were professionals with skills, whose names are now on Taliban hit lists.

Many of the strong Afghan women activists have emerged from tens of thousands of young women who went to high school and university over the last 20 years. They have been involved in U.S.-funded projects like shelters for abused women or devising digital education programs. They have served in government posts and parliament.

Their involvement with the United States marks them at best for burka and virtual home arrest, at worst for prison or death.
We cannot carelessly dismiss these Afghan people as collateral damage in a failed war.

Read the message I received from a distinguished Afghan author with many U.S. connections, whose brother was a U.S. military translator: “I don’t understand why people like us are being punished and President Biden does nothing about it except delivering some empty speeches.

“Are we being punished for staying on the American side for the past 20 years, for helping the U.S. military as interpreters, for working with USAID projects, for being their hands and mouths in Afghanistan? Now the U.S. is leaving our families to the wolves. If this is not a true definition of betrayal, then what is? The U.S. military is departing and leaving my family behind to rot in hell.”

What do you say to that, Mr. President?

Of course, the United States has a history of badly planned departures from wars in developing countries, whose societies it misunderstood. Most recent was former President Donald Trump’s overnight decision to pull U.S. troops back from the north Syrian border with Turkey in 2019. He didn’t bother to warn our Syrian Kurdish allies, who were then murdered and dispossessed by the Turkish military.

Then there was George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s decisions to endorse a total pullout from Iraq, in 2008 and 2011, respectively, which led to the rise of ISIS.

And, before that, of course, was Vietnam. Read Graham Greene’s brilliant 1950s novel, “The Quiet American,” about a CIA agent, Alden Pyle, whose belief in U.S. exceptionalism blinded him to the disasters America would wreak on Vietnam. A prophecy ignored.

Yet our departure from Kabul is worse than the famed helicopter liftoff from a Saigon rooftop. When U.S. forces quit Vietnam they evacuated 120,000 Vietnamese who had U.S. connections along with Americans.

There is no excuse for doing less in Afghanistan.

The current evacuation disaster stems in large part from the rapid collapse of the Afghan army; events moved more quickly than most expected.

However, many U.S. experts on Afghanistan were predicting such a scenario as soon as the Biden announcement in April that all U.S. troops would exit by Sept. 11, depriving the Afghan army of critical air support, maintenance, intelligence — and morale. Believing the game was over, many Afghan soldiers stood down and local leaders made deals with the Taliban.

Biden’s claim that the “chaos” of departure was inevitable is untrue. The White House chose not to do a mass evacuation of Afghan translators and activists, although it was begged to do so by bipartisan groups of legislators. The U.S. military knew that once it left the huge Bagram military air base such an evacuation would be almost impossible, but the brass fell in line.

Now the White House and the Pentagon are trying to get Americans and allies out via the military side of Kabul International Airport, improvising amid the chaos. Stories proliferate — as I’ve heard by text and phone from Kabul — of Afghan activists being turned back from evacuation flights by U.S. guards or at Taliban checkpoints. No U.S. security is being provided to get these activists to Kabul airport, and information is scarce.

More U.S. evacuation flights are planned. But in recent days, the president made clear he would extend the final Aug. 31 departure date only to save Americans. Yet the evacuation is so messy that it is unlikely to get tens of thousands of translators and women out by that deadline.

“The Biden team didn’t see the cost of this,” says Brian Katulis, an expert on Afghanistan at the Center for American Progress. “The president himself felt they could leave and people wouldn’t pay attention.”

Perhaps then. But Americans are paying attention now.

Extend the Aug. 31 date, Mr. President. Make sure those Afghan people board evacuation planes. Otherwise, their blood will be on your hands.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101. Her email address is trubin@phillynews.com.

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