Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters just a short while ago that an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Americans remain in or near Kabul, Afghanistan.
NEW: 5000 to 10,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan near Kabul, according to Pentagon Press Sec. John Kirby.
— Ana Cabrera (@AnaCabrera) August 17, 2021
This is a rather stunning figure as the government of that sad simulacrum of a country started crumbling around Thursday. By Sunday, the US Ambassador was in full Brave-Sir-Robin mode (REPORT: US Ambassador to Afghanistan Has Taken Down Our Flag From the Embassy, Fled Country).
A couple of thoughts here. First, I’m impressed that Kirby could take time away from mission-critical work like bashing Tucker Carlson (Department of Defense Prints a Disturbing, Unprofessional Attack on Tucker Carlson, Proving How Politicized They’ve Become) to pass on useful information to the American people. It isn’t often you find a steely-eyed warrior like Kirby who can do two things at once. The nation is truly grateful for his condescending to serve us. Secondly, 5-10,000 seems to me, a non-STEM graduate, as a rather large range; in fact, it strikes one as much more of what is technically known as a “wild-assed guess” than anything else. Third, how do we not know how many Americans are in Afghanistan? What are they? Illegal immigrants or something? And finally, why are they still there?
The last is more than a rhetorical question. Typically, every embassy has plans for Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (called NEO). This operation is triggered when a deteriorating situation places American and other foreign nationals in danger and brings access to Department of Defense assets. Despite discussions on triggering a NEO in Afghanistan, the call on that is made by the ambassador.
Two days ago, the New York Times reported that a NEO was underway but did it in a way that leaves it unclear whether a NEO has been called or if the source is using the term as shorthand for “get the civilians out.”
But early Sunday, a NEO is exactly what was underway. A senior military official monitoring the situation in Kabul said the administration was now simply trying to “buy time and space to complete the NEO and get our folks out.”
It wasn’t until yesterday’s Pentagon presser that anyone used “noncombatant” and “evacuation” together; even then, I can’t find evidence that an official NEO has been authorized.
Biden's DoD Spokesperson:
"We had been planning for noncombatant evacuation operations since as far back as May right after the President made the announcement he was going to withdraw troops in April."
Then why are there THOUSANDS of Americans still trapped in Afghanistan? pic.twitter.com/OVjJ0DGI5e
— Mark Bednar (@MarkBednar) August 17, 2021
.@PentagonPresSec says DOD was "planning for noncombatant evacuation operations" since May and held a tabletop exercise two weeks ago to prepare specifically for such an operation from the Kabul airport.
— Quint Forgey (@QuintForgey) August 17, 2021
In the meantime, chaos reigns. As my colleague Nick Arama posted in Americans Trapped in Afghanistan While Biden Team Gives Them Horrible Instructions, Senator Tom Cotton was using social media to try and locate US citizens in Afghanistan while the State Department was telling them to “shelter in place.” Then, late last night, our State Department one-upped itself. It told Americans in Kabul that if they wanted help to fill out a handy-dandy web form requesting assistance.
just like the DMV only with fewer skills and less compassion.
— streiff (@streiffredstate) August 17, 2021
All of this indicates our humiliation in Afghanistan may not be complete. If you are following the security situation via the indispensable Afghan War News blog, there is this item:
Current Situtation. The air evacuation of U.S. embassy personnel, U.S. contractors, U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and Afghan citizens who could prove a working relationship with other countries continued. U.S. KC-135 Stratotankers circled over the skies of northeast Afghanistan ready to refuel military transports taking off from Kabul airport. The military side of the Hamid Karzai International Airport has been secured by U.S. military forces alongside the military forces of other nations. The Taliban control the civilian terminal and south side of the airport. It is projected that 4,000 U.S. troops will be on the ground by the end of Tuesday.
New Developments. Initial news reports indicate that a headquarters element of the 82nd Airborne Division may be heading to Kabul to provide greater coordination of the noncombatant evacuation operation. Spain sent a group of special forces and support personnel to assist in the evacuation. An Indian military aircraft loaded with passengers departed Kabul.
Miltary Aircraft Coming and Going. The military transports that land on the ground at the airport quickly dispatch their incoming cargo (usually troops) and then load the outgoing cargo (people). They are on the ground for the shortest period possible.
Commerical Flights. As of Tuesday, there are no commercial flights landing or taking off from the civilian terminal at Kabul airport. Online flight-tracking data shows that no commercial flights are currently overflying Afghanistan. Most commercial flights are routed through Iran, through Pakistan, and then on to their final destination.
The Stranded. The State Department reports that there are thousands of U.S. citizens awaiting flights out. The Pentagon estimates that there are between 5,000 to 10,000 Americans still in Afghanistan. Most most of them are sheltering in Kabul with no mechanism to tranverse through the Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport.
The Taliban. Thus far the Taliban have not interfered with operations on the military side of the airport. The civilian terminal is not open for business although there are thousands of Afghans there hoping to catch a flight out of Afghanistan.[My italics.]
News and Social Media. Graphic videos of Afghans swarming the runways have been aired on social media and news media outlets. Some have depicted Afghans clinging to the landing gear of C-17s as the aircraft took off. These Afghans either fell from the sky after takeoff or were crushed inside the landing gear compartment once the landing gear were retracted. A C-17 was reportedly inoperable for a short period of time due to landing gear malfunctions after a flight. Other videos circulating on social media incluided scenes of foreign nationals, third country national contractors, and Afghans bording aricraft.
I doubt that we have the will to insert a US division into Kabul and logistically sustain it, and house-to-house fighting to rescue trapped Americans has a certain “we must destroy this village in order to save it” flavor to it. My guess is that in a best-case scenario the coming days, we will see a protracted negotiation for the safe passage of US citizens to the Kabul airport. It will be great theater, and, inevitably, we will learn of cash changing hands to facilitate the transfer of custody. In a worst-case scenario, there will be a replay of the Iran hostage crisis.