It's America's "Dunkirk moment."
At least that's how former top US General David Petraeus described the US operation to airlift its citizens and desperate Afghan comrades from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, comparing it to the British retreat from Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940. Petraeus, who once commanded US forces in Afghanistan, also branded President Joe Biden's chaotic withdrawal a disaster.
US military brass hope to eventually be able to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day, and according to Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, the Taliban earlier promised "safe passage" to civilians who want to join the US airlift. But on Wednesday, the Pentagon and State Department issued conflicting statements about the ability of US citizens and Afghans to reach the Kabul airport.
The Pentagon said the Taliban is "guaranteeing safe passage" for US citizens. But State has said it cannot ensure safe transit to the airfield; a few hours later, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters that, "we have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport."
It's hardly reassuring that the US evacuation effort turns on the cooperation of a religious militia that it spent 20 years fighting. And it's unclear whether the Taliban or the US gets the final say in who stays or gets to leave, amid fears of a retribution campaign against those who worked with US and other Western forces.
What happens to those seeking refuge in the US who are not in Kabul, and must pass Taliban checkpoints just to move through the country? How do people who lack papers or who are stuck in the slow-moving US visa process prove their bona fides before it's too late? And how long is the Taliban indulgence going to last?
Sooner or later, it is likely to become clear that many of those who want or need to leave will never be able to do so. Biden will face new accusations of betraying America's helpers, and of putting coldhearted judgments of national interest ahead of basic humanity.
The Petraeus analogy goes only so far. The British exit from Dunkirk, partly on a flotilla of small civilian boats that transformed a humiliating defeat into a national parable of resilience, was followed four years later by the Allied invasion that freed Europe from repression. Afghans facing life under the Taliban can hope for no similar liberation.
'Passports that were in the Embassy's possession have been destroyed'
It's everyone's nightmare when applying for a visa. US personnel destroyed the passports of some Afghans as they were getting rid of sensitive materials at the American Embassy in Kabul, according to an update that Democratic New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim's office is sharing with people who request evacuation assistance: "Visa and passport appointments at the Embassy have been canceled, and passports that were in the Embassy's possession have been destroyed. Currently, it is not possible to provide any further visa services in Afghanistan."
It is unclear why the passports were destroyed. It is possible that diplomats determined that it would have been dangerous for the documents to fall into the hands of the Taliban, who could then target those Afghans. But needless to say, not having a passport creates major complications for Afghans who are desperately and urgently trying to flee the country.
"The women of Afghanistan should know they are not fighting for freedom in vain," Democratic New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney -- theatrically shrouded in a burqa -- told Congress in 2001, just days after Operation Enduring Freedom began. But two decades later, Afghan women's right to work, attend school and leave home unaccompanied could soon vanish. As the Taliban take back control of the country, Afghan women are racing to buy burqas again; prices for the all-encompassing veil have risen tenfold in capital city Kabul, where shop owners are frantically painting over advertisements that show women's faces.
The Taliban said Tuesday that there would be no discrimination against women -- within the framework of Islamic law. What that means in practice remains to be seen; in July, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said women were not allowed to attend health services without male guardians in areas controlled by the Taliban. "As a woman, they just keep us inside," one woman told CNN. "We fought for years to get out. Do we need to fight again for the same things? To get the permission to work, to get the permission to go to hospital alone?" she said.
The Biden administration is one of the most buttoned-up political operations in modern American history, especially compared with the backstabbing that regularly poured out of the Trump White House. But the debacle in Kabul has loosened lips and sparked squabbling between government departments, as revealed by inside accounts from CNN reporters.
Biden reportedly keeps asking his staff why they misjudged how quickly the Afghan army and government would fold. The White House thinks the President got bad advice from military and intelligence agencies, according to CNN sources. Pentagon insiders, however, complain that they've been on the ball and accuse the State Department of dragging its feet to get embassy staff home. The word "sh*tshow" was uttered by military officials frustrated with US diplomatic counterparts in Washington and Kabul.
CNN's State Department team says Foggy Bottom isn't willing to carry the can. The diplomats are blaming American spies for not tipping them off about the true vulnerability of the Afghan state. One intelligence assessment did say just last week that the Taliban could seize the Afghan capital 90 days after the US left — a prediction that didn't survive the weekend.
The spooks have had it with every US foreign policy screw-up being branded an intelligence failure -- though they can hardly break cover to defend themselves. But former CIA acting director Michael Morrell, who remains plugged in to the clandestine community, penned this tweet this week: "What is happening in Afghanistan is not the result of an intelligence failure. It is the result of numerous policy failures by multiple administrations. Of all the players over the years, the Intelligence Community by far has seen the situation in Afghanistan most accurately."
Biden insisted on Monday that the buck stopped with him. But in reality, it's being passed around Washington with far more proficiency than the baton in the US Olympic team's disastrous 4x100m relay race.
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