Afghanistan, Lest We Forget
[guest post by JVW]
As we catch the final dying embers of 2021, let’s not forget that one of the biggest fiascos of the past two administrations is still unresolved. National Review Online has the details:
In mid December, Bryan Stern and two of his colleagues did something few Americans have done since late summer — they flew into Afghanistan. Their goal was to rescue 47 American citizens and permanent residents stranded in the Taliban-controlled country.
Once on the ground in Kabul, Stern and his colleagues with the civilian rescue organization Project Dynamo gathered with their evacuees in safehouses, making sure everyone had a negative Covid test, and had all their vaccinations and travel documents. The next day, the group traveled to the airport, boarded three commercial planes, and flew to New York via Dubai.
“Every one of them has been trying to leave since August,” Stern told National Review of this newest batch of Afghanistan evacuees his volunteer group rescued. “Grown men and fathers cried on my arm when we went wheels up.”
While the Biden Administration is content to move on to omicron and Build Back Better, it’s comforting to know that there are still groups who are working to ensure that U.S. citizens and our Afghan allies are rescued from potential danger at the hands of the newly-emboldened Taliban. Meanwhile, of course, the administration continues to lie and obfuscate about the situation on the ground, and rescue group participants find our government to be a less-than-dedicated partner:
Stern has focused his most recent efforts on rescuing American citizens and green-card holders, people who can fly commercially to the United States. But efforts by dozens of private rescue groups who have focused their energy on saving other American allies in the 20-year war — people who typically don’t have the paperwork for a direct path into the U.S. — have slowed to a crawl.
Leaders of some of those groups who spoke to National Review are pointing fingers at the U.S. Department of State. They say the State Department is doing little to help them rescue American allies, and in some cases it is actively blocking their efforts. They’re calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to help them save the people they once served with.
In their defense, the State Department argues that they do in fact appreciate the efforts of the rescue teams, and that the department is coordinating with them to check manifests and help ensure that evacuees are eligible to be permanently resettled in the U.S. Of course, one might argue, that is the absolutely minimum that the government can offer seeing as how it is sort of their responsibility to vet arrivals to our shores (yes I know: this duty is not entirely operative at our southern border). But the rescue groups are in fact struggling to hold evacuees in safehouses and keep them fed and protected during the period when they wait for the OK from the State Department. Jesse Jensen, a former Army Ranger who co-founded Task Force Argo and is running as a Republican for a Congressional seat in Washington, says that his organization managed to get 2,000 Americans and allies out of Afghanistan between August and October, but accuses the State Department of constantly changing the criteria for resettlement which is causing evacuation delays of eight weeks in some cases. And naturally the government isn’t shy about trodding all over private sector initiatives:
At one point, Jensen said, his organization negotiated 1,000 beds with a third-party “lily-pad country” to place their evacuees, but the state department “stole those beds from us” so they could resettle a separate group of evacuees who had initially been sent to Germany.
“The Germans were like, ‘We’re not going to keep these people. You need to get rid of them,’” Jensen said, alleging that a state department official reached out to his organization and said, “we need those beds, but it has to be your idea. It can’t come from us.”
The State Department declined to address Jensen’s allegation in its email to National Review.
For its part, the State Department claims that there are now fewer than a dozen U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan who wish to leave, which strikes me as arguing that anyone stuck in that hellhole is there by their own fault, which has become the standard talking point for the Administration and its defenders. In other contexts we call this “victim blaming,” but perhaps none of that is operative when the adults are back in charge as Official Washington is so fond of saying. And if you think our government is hostile to our citizens in Afghanistan, imagine what it must be like to be an Afghan ally of ours:
“I don’t think the current administration has any intentions of ever evacuating the men that fought and bled next to us, and their families,” said Ben Owen, the chief executive of Flanders Fields, an organization originally founded to help homeless veterans. Flanders Fields also joined the Afghanistan relief efforts over the summer.
Owen estimated there are easily over 100,000 American allies still trapped in the country. He noted that former Afghan national army commandos don’t qualify for SIV status.
“They get nothing. The U.S. government doesn’t see any duty to evacuate these guys. And they are dead. They are dead. They are dead if they get caught. I’ve had three executed in the last two weeks, one in front of his wife and children,” Owen said. “None of us are going to quit until we find a way to get them out. These guys, they fought like hell.”
Let’s acknowledge upfront that our government finds itself in a difficult situation. Clearly there is zero stomach in Washington to bring in 100,000 Afghan citizens and resettle them here (though one might observe that the Obama Administration had no compunction whatsoever about resettling 10,000 Syrians here and upping our overall refugee quota to six figures). But of course Joe Biden, like his old boss before him, was supposed to be this calming presence on the world stage who would spur cooperation among our allies and those who broadly share our same interests for world peace. The suggestion that the Biden Administration is doing virtually nothing to help find a home for our allies seems to be a pretty clear indication that, just like his boss, his vaunted ability to convince others to follow our lead is pretty much non-existent. Forgive me if this does not surprise me one damn bit. Into the breach steps a brave cadre of private citizens, but the petulant government is allegedly undermining them every step of the way:
Owen said that while the Taliban has temporarily stopped all charter flights out of Afghanistan, the biggest hurdle for most of the private rescue groups is that the State Department is not issuing what are known as “no objection certificates,” essentially letters to potential third-party countries stating that the U.S. government won’t object to them temporarily taking in evacuees. Kosovo, Albania, Rwanda, and Greece are among the countries that have demonstrated a willingness to work with private rescue organizations and the U.S. government, rescue group leaders said.
“All these countries are asking for is the U.S. Department of State, through an embassy in their country, to say, ‘Go ahead. We don’t care if you do this. We’re not going to help you do it, but we’re also not going to hinder your effort to do it,’” Owen said, adding that those countries are instead being told that if they accept evacuees from the private rescue groups they could be accused of facilitating human smuggling. “It’s incredibly frustrating to all of us.”
The State Department, he said, is “actively impeding our efforts to find third countries to accept flights of Afghans.”
Even Mr. Stern, who is trying to be diplomatic and give the State Department the benefit of the doubt as much as he possibly can, acknowledges that Foggy Bottom has dropped the ball: “[T]hey’re certainly not helping. Their position is, because we’re not contracted with you, we can’t and won’t help you.” The State Department’s response to NRO is that there are logistical problems with vetting refugees since there aren’t any U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan, which leads one to sarcastically wonder who exactly made the decision to evacuate the troops in the first place.
At this point Task Force Argo is out of money and would simply like to get its last three flights off the ground in Afghanistan (they grouse that the State Department has been reviewing the flight manifest since October). Flanders Field is struggling with financial issues too, Mr. Owen and his wife having dipped into their personal savings in order to continue their work, and Mr. Stern reports that members of Operation Dynamo are using their own credit cards to keep the operation aloft. Donor fatigue is a serious problem for all three groups; people who generously supported the missions back in the late summer when it dominated the news are wondering why they are still being called upon to give well after the media has moved on to sexier pursuits like COVID and White House intrigue four months later. It’s easy to forget Afghanistan despite our two decades of presence there, but Mr. Owen wants us to understand that it remains a very difficult and barbaric place:
“People are dying every single day. Girls are being sold into marriage. Women are being raped. Kids are being killed. It’s bad. We had a child get his finger cut off the other day because the dad wouldn’t turn himself in. The world needs to understand these things are happening,” he said. “We need awareness. We need the State Department to at least not impede third-nation agreements. It would be great if they would help us get them.”
You can donate to Project Dynamo here, to Flanders Fields here, and to Task Force Argo here.