The debacle and horrifying images of Afghanistan falling quickly to the Taliban, with Americans and numerous Afghans who worked for allied forces still on the ground, may just show how futile nation-building efforts there were – at least for the U.S. – and that averting Taliban control would have required a permanent presence into the future. The U.S. government failed to build sufficiently resilient institutions after 20 years, it’s unlikely that would ever have changed.
Still, just how fragile the government and armed forces there were is striking. There were far fewer troops than official counts suggested (and, in effect, the U.S. was being billed for). Commanders were willing to surrender and walk away for amounts as low as $150 from the Taliban. And the U.S. Embassy burned the passports of Afghans seeking visas – important not to let the Taliban know who collaborators were, but also failing to process them quickly or bring the documents out of country to be handled in Europe.
Among the biggest strategic blunders in the drawdown of U.S. forces was the failure to maintain Bagram Air Base until the mission was considered complete. It was turned over to the Afghan government on July 1. And as a result the U.S. military, as well as civilians, have tried to use Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport for evacuations – a facility that isn’t nearly as secure even with armed forces on the ground.
— Global: MilitaryInfo (@Global_Mil_Info) August 16, 2021
Seeing desperate people chasing after planes, desperate to get out (and knowing if they returned home they’d face Taliban checkpoints) – so much so that they’ve grabbed onto planes taking off, and in some cases fallen from the sky (I won’t embed video here) – has been absolutely heartbreaking.
I will, though, follow up on the story of one cargo plane taking off with 800 passengers inside. This isn’t just most passengers in seats and some sitting on the floor or in the back galley. This is people packed body-to-body, although it doesn’t set the record for most passengers on a plane (which belongs to Israel’s airlift out of Ethiopia in May 1991).
Here’s what the inside of such a plane looks like. (HT: @crucker)
Photo from the inside of a crowded US military plane leaving Kabul tonight. pic.twitter.com/5GPPlwd88R
— WorldOnAlert (@worldonalert) August 16, 2021
While the Taliban and U.S. met productively in Doha to allow for the evacuation to proceed, that provides little protection for Afghans and doesn’t provide real guarantees yet on the ground. There are planes airlifting people from Afghanistan provided by Australia, Canada, India, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, the UK,, Austria and Belgium. New Zealand and Romania have sent planes, and reportedly Slovakia is sending one as well. All U.S. military dogs have left the country.