Afghan Airlift Tradeoffs

Humanitarian instincts rightly trumped security concerns.

A series of reports point to something obvious but largely overlooked during the mad rush to evacuate Afghan civilians: the problem of vetting.

Bloomberg (“U.S. Struggles to Learn Who’s Who in Afghan Airlift of 124,000“):

Days after the Biden administration finished evacuating about 124,000 people from Afghanistan, it’s coming to grips with the reality that it doesn’t know who many of those people are.

What’s emerging, according to government officials and advocates, is that a small percentage of the Afghan citizens who got out are the ones the U.S. pledged to place at the top of its priority list: the thousands who had worked for the U.S. and its allies as well as employees of nongovernmental groups and media organizations.

Instead, initial findings suggest that while some who escaped were locally employed staff, many got out because they were part of the initial crush of people who made it to Kabul’s airport as the city fell to the Taliban or secured passage through airport gates thanks to luck or help from people in the U.S. or elsewhere.

[…]

In fact, many of the Afghans who were most vulnerable to the Taliban — applicants for the Special Immigrant Visa program intended for translators and others who aided the American war effort — didn’t make it out because the U.S. told them going to the airport would be too dangerous. And they never got a call to come before the last U.S. plane departed to meet President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 departure deadline.

Those findings are provoking new anger from advocates who had taken Biden at his word when he said the U.S. would stay until Americans and the Afghans who worked for the U.S. over the course of the 20-year war were able to escape. Instead, thousands of people who wanted to leave through the SIV program were left behind.

NBC News (“About 100 Afghan evacuees to U.S. flagged for possible ties to Taliban or terror groups, sources say“):

The U.S. plans to send at least two Afghan evacuees back out of the country to Kosovo because of security concerns raised after they arrived at a U.S. airport, said two sources familiar with the U.S. evacuation.

The Afghans will undergo a further review in Kosovo.

The sources caution, however, that federal officials are acting out of abundance of caution, and just because a person is flagged does not mean they are a terrorist or pose a threat. Something in their profile — their name, background or a number in their cellphone — raised enough concern that they could not be permitted to stay in the U.S. pending additional review, according to the sources.

“A lot of people were moved very quickly and the intelligence community has been working hard to evaluate whether any of them pose a threat,” said a senior federal law enforcement official. “Some of the vetting occurs while they are overseas, and some of it occurs here … We are not going to allow people to intentionally be released into the community if they have unresolved derogatory information.”

Any other evacuees who trigger similar concerns will also be sent to Kosovo, said the sources.

Of more than 30,000 evacuees from Afghanistan to the U.S., about 10,000 needed additional screening as of Friday, said the sources, and of those about 100 were flagged for possible ties to the Taliban or terror groups. Two of those 100 raised enough concern for additional review.

Other evacuees who are currently being evaluated in the D.C. area were found to have been deported from the U.S. previously for past criminal offenses, said two sources briefed on the data. The Department of Homeland Security is now deciding what to do with the individuals.

AP (“Afghan evacuation raises concerns about child trafficking“):

U.S. officials are looking into reports that in the frantic evacuation of desperate Afghans from Kabul, older men were admitted together with young girls they claimed as “brides” or otherwise sexually abused.

U.S. officials at intake centers in the United Arab Emirates and in Wisconsin have identified numerous incidents in which Afghan girls have been presented to authorities as the “wives” of much older men. While child marriage is not uncommon in Afghanistan, the U.S. has strict policies against human trafficking that include prosecutions for offenders and sanctions for countries that don’t crack down on it.

One internal document seen by The Associated Press says the State Department has sought “urgent guidance” from other agencies after purported child brides were brought to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Another document, described to the AP by officials familiar with it, says Afghan girls at a transit site in Abu Dhabi have alleged they have been raped by older men they were forced to marry in order to escape Afghanistan.

The State Department had no immediate comment on the documents or the veracity of the details in them. Officials say that they take all such allegations seriously but that many of them are anecdotal and difficult to prove, particularly amid the crush of Afghan evacuees at multiple locations in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

This was, of course, inevitable. As sad as it is that we didn’t get all of “our” people out, it’s not obvious how we would have done so given the rapid collapse of the government in Kabul and the takeover by Taliban forces. And there was a huge tension between the slowness of the visa process and the exigency of time; ultimately, humanitarian concerns won out over security concerns. In my judgment, that was absolutely the right call. That the vetting has to take place now that they’re here is messy but it rather obviously beats the alternative. (I had feared a suicide bomber getting on one of the evacuation planes and blowing it up in-flight. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.)

Depending on one’s perspective, this final report tells competing stories.

CNN (“Trump adviser Stephen Miller warned of ‘Iraqs and ‘Stans’ in the US while slow-walking the entry of Afghan allies”):

Stephen Miller seemed floored by the idea, raised during a fall Cabinet meeting in 2018, of  keeping open the doors for Afghan allies and other Middle East refugees to enter the US. 

“What do you guys want?” Miller, then a top adviser to President Donald Trump, asked incredulously, according to one person in the room. “A bunch of Iraqs and ‘Stans across the country?”
His words stunned many in the meeting, but they were no accident. Under Miller’s guidance, several sources told CNN, the Trump administration was purposefully slow-walking the entry of all refugees — including allies who aided American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Now, after the end of America’s longest war, “the majority” of Afghans who worked for the US during its two-decade military campaign have likely been left behind in Afghanistan, according to State Department estimates, at the mercy of the country’s new Taliban regime. And Republicans are criticizing President Joe Biden for the chaotic withdrawal and for vetting allies too loosely.

But the mayhem in Kabul, as crowds of Afghans tried desperately to flee the country in the final days of August, was due in no small part to the slowdown during the previous administration, according to former officials who argue more allies could have been admitted in the years prior.

The Trump administration’s suspicion of refugees stalled an already cumbersome system of approval for Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan allies, these officials said, and the Biden administration ultimately inherited a significant backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants.The SIV program for Afghan nationals has been plagued with management problems and low annual caps for years leading up to the withdrawal by US forces. But while Congress and the Obama and Biden administrations share some of the blame, the Trump administration — specifically Miller, according to former administration officials — did much to hamper the process long before the US ramped up its efforts to withdraw from the country.

I suspect most OTB readers will, like me, see this as further evidence that the main cause of our shameful abandonment of so many of our Afghan partners was a function of decisions made by the Trump administration. I had already been telling my Trump-supporting friends on Facebook who were blaming Biden that Trump had done nothing to get them out when he’d left office on January 20 and that his own deadline for the exodus was May 1—a little more than three months away. Biden unilaterally extended the deadline to August 31 but the die had been cast. Now, we have further confirmation that racial bias played a significant role in the previous administration’s policies.

But, of course, Trump supporters can point to the other reports as evidence that Miller was right to be concerned and that the policy was therefore justified. Foreign policy involves tradeoffs and, if you prioritize security over decency, the Trump policy was certainly safer.

Still, I’ll take the relatively small risk that a terrorist or child trafficker or two gets through our screening processes in exchange for 100,000 people scared for their lives being safe. It seems the least we can do.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. rachel says:

    The haters already inside our house are a worse danger to the character of our country than any of these people could possibly be.

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  2. Mikey says:

    I suspect most OTB readers will, like me, see this as further evidence that the main cause of our shameful abandonment of so many of our Afghan partners was a function of decisions made by the Trump administration.

    Pretty much everything bad about our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a function of decisions made by the Trump administration.

    I’m open to discussion on this, but I remain unconvinced President Biden could have done any better with what Trump left behind. The moment the shit deal with the Taliban was done, the conclusion we saw was inevitable.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rachel: You beat me to it.

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  4. HarvardLaw92 says:

    The exigency at the time was to get as many as possible out of the country. We accomplished that as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The exigency now has to be vetting those we got out. They’re not competing priorities.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    We all know, and Biden knew all along, that whatever Biden did Republicans would charge that it was not enough and too much.

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  6. Andy says:

    Yes, I think getting as many out as possible was the right thing to do at the time, even though relatively few among the 200k-300k eligible SIV personnel made it.

    But it’s simply not the case that anything that went wrong can be wholly blamed on Trump. The SIV process has languished through three administrations. The Biden admin only relaxed processing requirements when the Taliban were on Kabul’s doorstep.

    And none of this would have happened had the Biden administration correctly judged the developing situation after May 1St and determined that the claims of the government and military being able to hold were at least suspect – an error that Biden himself admitted to.

    But, as has been the case for a long time, domestic partisan politics is driving the bus. The Democratic narrative is basically what Mikey says – any errors were Trump’s fault, even the ones that Biden copped to. And the Republican narrative is that Biden deserves complete blame for two decades of failed policy.

    It’s quite depressing that this is the “debate” we’re having, having already forgotten there are still Americans, permanent US residents, and Allie’s in Afghanistan right now trying to get out.

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  7. grumpy realist says:

    Good article over at Politico pointing out how withdrawals during a civil war are always messy.

    Too many people think that Disney movies are what happens in real life.

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  8. steve says:

    Trump screwing up should not immunize Biden. I thought leaving Afghanistan was going to have problems no matter when we left or who was in charge, but that does not mean it could not have been done better. In particular I think that they could have processed Afghans faster if they had made it a priority. We should have started evacuating them much earlier. Yes, it would have been even better if Trump had started but dont think that absolves Biden. I still think that whenever you started seriously evacuating Americans is when it goes bad and we get a bombing or similar so dont think any plan would have avoided that.

    I will also confess that it looks like I was wrong about the Taliban. I did not think that they would hold to the agreement, which it looks like they largely did. I thought we would see a bombing by one of the Taliban if nothing else just as power thing between one of the many Taliban groups. Instead it was an ISIS offshoot.

    Steve

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:

    And none of this would have happened had the Biden administration correctly judged the developing situation after May 1St and determined that the claims of the government and military being able to hold were at least suspect – an error that Biden himself admitted to.

    How would this have changed anything?

    We had no ability to prop up either the government or the army. They would have collapsed regardless of the date of departure. Desperate crowds would have formed. Mayhem would have ensued. ISIS et al would have seen opportunities.

    Had we extended our departure date the Taliban would likely have resumed attacks. Americans would have died and the critics would all be yelling that those deaths were Biden’s fault for extending the deadline. Then, when we finally announced a definite date, it would have looked even more like we were chased out the door. And the Taliban would not have held its fire. They might well have decided to shoot down a loaded C-17.

    The one fixable error would have been the visa process, but I think that would have changed very little. Once we announced a date there’d still be SIV holders who wanted to stay, there would still be NGO people who believed they were safe, there would still be SIV and NGO people in the hinterlands who had to make it to Kabul where they’d have crowded around the gates. . .

    Biden handled this about as well as could be realistically expected.

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  10. Lounsbury says:

    @grumpy realist: Hollywood movies in general give Americans broadly some very magical ideas of what Americans can do outside of their own borders including what can be controlled for and arranged. My old US diplo friends would get the most ridiculous calls from Americans expecting the US diplomats could order around national police or send US enforcement to them. Action movies syndrome.

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  11. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, while doubtless there are fixable errors on the margins, the very fact that the collapse of the Ghani government surprised even the Taleban (a collapse that by reports occured on rumours of Taleban inside of Kaboul, not actuals) rather highlights any material physical move up is certain to have merely moved up the date that the house of cards came down.

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  12. Mikey says:

    @Andy:

    But, as has been the case for a long time, domestic partisan politics is driving the bus. The Democratic narrative is basically what Mikey says – any errors were Trump’s fault, even the ones that Biden copped to.

    I said I’m open to discussion, and I am. But so far most of Biden’s critics haven’t really offered up much of substance. Biden’s people started spinning up the SIV program shortly after his inauguration, and they were horrified at what Trump had done to it. Maybe they could have moved even faster to fix it? If evidence is produced that they could have, I will change my view.

    The one question I still have is how it was possible to misjudge the speed with which the Taliban would take over. Were we truly so blind in the outlying provinces that we had no way of learning of the deals being struck? Was communication with Ghani and his people so broken that we couldn’t tell him the Taliban actually weren’t in Kabul hunting him down? It looks like there was something seriously broken in the intel process, and that needs to be investigated.

    As to the rest, @Michael Reynolds said it pretty well. By the time Biden took over it was too late to alter the course Trump’s deal had set, and any drastic change would have resulted in a lot more destruction and death.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    It’s quite depressing that this is the “debate” we’re having, having already forgotten there are still Americans, permanent US residents, and Allie’s in Afghanistan right now trying to get out.

    The US citizens and permanent residents were repeatedly told by the state department to leave. They’ve had a year. If they are there, it is because they have balanced the risks and believe that they are doing something worth staying for, or they are fucking idiots.

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  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Andy:

    But it’s simply not the case that anything that went wrong can be wholly blamed on Trump. The SIV process has languished through three administrations.

    This! I was going to note that, no, I’m not going to blame FG for all the problems, there are plenty of problems that he had no role in causing at all. Now I don’t have to. Thanks! 🙂

    @Gustopher:

    The US citizens and permanent residents were repeatedly told by the state department to leave. They’ve had a year. If they are there, it is because they have balanced the risks and believe that they are doing something worth staying for, or they are fucking idiots.

    This, too!

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  15. JohnSF says:

    My anger levels just hit boiling point.
    Bloody Foreign Office!
    Reported in The Times today.
    British citizen (Afghan ethnic) at the Uzbek border, after Kabul has fallen, being refused entry, contacts FO helpline.
    Reply is (apparently recorded on phone and played back to Times journalist)

    “If you registered with the British embassy in Afghanistan, you need to contact them again, and see if there is any update.”

    What? What? What the f*ckin, f8ck! This is just disgusting incompetence.
    Raab must go.

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  16. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Quite a lot of the British citizens there who were evac’ed or left have families there they were trying to get out.
    And were unable to get them out earlier due the bureaucratic complacency, stubbornness, indifference and sheer incompetence of the Foreign Office and/or Home Office
    Especially the Home Office, which handles immigration and visas etc: the Tory rule has been “put every possible obstacle in the path of possible immigrants, especially those of brownish hue”.

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  17. JohnSF says:

    Incidentally, the current joke in Islamabad:
    “In 1989 ISI defeated the Soviet Union, with American help.
    Now ISI has defeated the United States; with American help.”

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Seen on my Yahoo news feed just now:

    Republican support for Afghan refugees wanes as Trump, Fox News promote anti-immigrant claims
    Republicans have become more skeptical about whether refugees fleeing Afghanistan should be allowed to come to the United States, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

    Annnnnd this is surprising because…?

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  19. Andy says:

    All,

    I’m in the mountains for the weekend with only phone and little signal, so can’t really respond for the next couple of days.

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  20. JohnSF says:

    @Andy:
    Lucky you. 🙂

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  21. Andy says:

    @JohnSF:

    Lucky you.

    Yes, one of the benefits of living in Colorado! Weather was perfect too.

    As for the topic at hand, this thread is dated at this point – I’ll revisit Afghanistan and some of the comments here should they come up in the future.

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