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‘Haunted by the choices we had to make’: U.S. official describes evacuation mayhem

U.S. Marines at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint (ECC) at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla)

At the beginning of the Biden administration’s frenetic evacuation campaign from the airport in Kabul, U.S. diplomats tried to prioritize those Afghans who had served alongside American troops during the war — some of whom already had U.S. visas in their passports.

The embassy staff sent out electronic credentials to vetted Afghans so they could get through Taliban checkpoints and gain access to the airport, where American forces were ready to put them onto massive cargo planes.

But that plan quickly collapsed in chaos, as Afghans who received the coveted passes shared with them others and they essentially went “viral,” said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters Wednesday on the evacuation effort.

The same nightmare scenario unfolded when U.S. consular officials tried to help locally employed staff at the now-shuttered embassy get through Taliban checkpoints with a form of electronic identification, the official said.

“Within an hour, everyone in the crowd had that pass,” said the official who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity.

“Every credential we tried to provide electronically was immediately disseminated to the widest possible pool,” he said. “And so it was no longer a viable credential to differentiate among populations.”

The U.S. evacuation effort soon became catch-as-catch-can — driven by “the tyranny of physics and time,” the official said.

Although the State Department said it safely evacuated all the Afghans who were employed by the U.S. embassy in Kabul, thousands of other high-priority Afghans were left behind. That includes “the majority” of Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, risking their lives during the war as interpreters and in other roles, he said. Those Afghans are eligible for special immigrant visas because of their war-time service and are referred to as SIVs.

“I don’t have an estimate for you on the numbers of SIVs and family members who are still there, but I would say it’s the majority of them,” the State Department official said.

“Everybody who (participated in the evacuation) is haunted by the choices we had to make and by the people we were not able to help depart in this first phase of the operation,” he said.

The official said the evacuation effort was complicated by a thicket of other problems, including the Taliban’s own erratic and changing criteria for letting people through, false or exaggerated claims by some seeking to leave, and fear that the desperate crowds would resort to violence when American diplomats ventured out and pulled individual Afghans inside.

“We had many instances of people saying, you know, I have X number of American citizens outside your gate,” he said, but they would go out to find a group of people with no U.S. citizens or a mob of five Americans and hundreds of Afghans who refused to be separated.

In one case, he said, an Afghan national called the American team to say he was at one of the airport gates with a group of prominent Afghans the diplomats had been scrambling to help.

“So we called those at-risk Afghans, and they said ‘We’re at home,'” the official recounted. They went back to the individual in question, who then offered to help a separate group of high-risk Afghans.

US evacuation efforts will continue

State Department officials reiterated on Wednesday that the U.S. effort to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans will continue even though the last American troops have left the country. But the security situation on the ground is increasingly volatile, the airport in Kabul is not functioning, and overland routes out of the country are perilous.

“These efforts did not end on Aug. 31, and they will not end until we have secured the evacuation of any American citizens and (lawful permanent residents) and folks who worked with us and serve the American people,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.

The U.S. is working with international allies on reopening the airport in Kabul and looking at other ways out of the country, including overland routes, she said.

“I don’t want to be any more specific, because as you know, it is a long journey with lots of dangers,” Nuland said.

The Biden administration has said it evacuated more than 122,000 people, including about 5,500 Americans since the end of July.

Afghan refugees coming to US, other countries

On Wednesday, Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, said most of those people have not yet arrived in the U.S., so he could not say how many of the evacuated Afghans are special visa holders or eligible for entry into the U.S. based on other criteria.

Price said the Department of Homeland Security has processed an initial 31,107 evacuated individuals who are now in the U.S. Of those, he said, 4,446 are American citizens, 2,785 are legal permanent residents, and 23,876 are Afghans who faced possible reprisals from the Taliban, he said.

The official said the criteria used to decide who would be evacuated was highly fluid. For example, if a human rights organization said they had a group of Afghan nationals who needed to escape, they didn’t have time to vet each person. They verified the organization’s work, assumed their employees were vulnerable, and proceeded to get them out, often to third countries or other holding places, for further vetting.

“It wasn’t pretty,” he said. “And it involved some really painful trade-offs and choices for everyone involved.”

But virtually all the State Department personnel who were in Kabul working on the evacuation have asked to continue the assignment from Washington or other locations, he said. “We fully intend to stay at it.”

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