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Evacuating is the most demanding mission of 20 years in Afghanistan

Security at the airport in Kabul
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The images of the last two weeks have been riveting to many Americans, but especially to the nearly 800,000 U.S. veterans and service members who served in Afghanistan. No one wanted this to end in the way that it has. There will undoubtedly be plenty of time for critical analysis and accountability, but the mission at hand is getting our citizens and Afghan friends safely out of the country. Evacuating Afghanistan is the most demanding mission of our entire 20-year experience. We are lucky to have our professional military on the ground in Kabul sorting this out alongside their diplomatic and intelligence community partners.

In the official language, it is called a “Non-combatant Evacuation Operation,” or NEO for short. I learned about it after arriving at my first unit in Germany in early 1981. The idea was to have a plan to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of American family members and civilians in the event of heightened military tensions with the Soviet Union. We spent a lot of time and effort planning and preparing for it — but fortunately never had to execute it. The U.S. Government has, however, conducted NEO operations on many occasions. The 1975 evacuation of Saigon, likened to our current operation in Kabul, is a well-known example. 

But over the years, we have conducted many voluntary or ordered NEO operations from South Sudan to Liberia. We evacuated Americans from Kuwait in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox — when the U.S. undertook operations against Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities. Outside of our evacuation from Saigon and subsequent movement of the Hmong people — the preponderance of our previous NEO operations was smaller and much more focused.

What we are facing right now in Kabul is anything but that. This evacuation is unprecedented in terms of scope and challenge. The complexities playing out in real-time demonstrate why this will be the hardest mission we will ever do in Afghanistan. A large and diverse evacuation population, an emboldened adversary keen to see us fail at our task, the presence of violent extremist organizations looking to take advantage of a lucrative targeting opportunity, extensive distances to sustain our effort, and operating space limited to a portion of an international airport adjacent to a chaotic, violent and increasingly desperate situation with crowds clamoring for evacuation.

To this, we must also add the challenges of bureaucratic friction and political stakes. 

All of this exacerbated by the additional security challenge of vetting Afghan evacuees and finding places to stage and eventually settle them.  

And finally, most complicated by a self-imposed timeline that appears at times arbitrary and inadequate to the task. The job for our military leaders on the ground could not be more difficult.  

As challenging as the last two weeks have been at Kabul Airport — the next, and seemingly last, few days will be the most difficult. Our political leaders will have to make the problematic assessment that all Americans who desire to depart have left and that we have gotten out all of the Afghan partners we could. And, in addition to getting out evacuees — our military will also have to get themselves out safely and professionally.

It could play out in a variety of ways — and all incur a significant degree of risk.

If the Taliban physically and overtly limits Afghan citizen movements to the airfield –– a quicker departure of our forces would seem imminent. The challenge of our military moving to recover otherwise deserving Afghans would be nearly impossible and would carry with it a significantly increased risk to force and mission. Additional resources would likely be necessary to help find and evacuate these Afghans. As difficult as it has been to account for American citizens in Afghanistan — our leadership would face hard calls about whether we got out every Afghan we could or not. 

If Afghans can continue to get to the airfield and meet the evacuation criteria, we may choose to see this through for a while longer. However, this would require our military forces to remain engaged to ensure those that we can get out are safely moved. The challenge for our leadership will be balancing the risk to force and mission against what will likely be the diminishing ability and numbers of Afghans to get to the Airfield and increasing opportunities for terrorist organizations like ISIS to take advantage of the situation.

I believe we should do everything possible to evacuate those who supported our efforts and objectives in Afghanistan. It is a moral imperative that we should not fail in a rush to get out of Afghanistan. But this is a daunting task — made even more so by the harsh environment of Afghanistan. It is a credit to our military that we have evacuated nearly 100,000 evacuees under these conditions. Their mission in the coming days will get more complicated — physically, mentally and morally. I suspect the final decisions about staying longer will revolve around our military leader’s assessed risk to our force and mission. I don’t envy any of them in this regard, but knowing as many of them as I do, I am confident that they will make the right recommendations to our political leadership. And we will need to support them when they do.

Gen. Joseph L. Votel is a retired four-star general in the United States Army, most recently serving as the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from March 2016 to March 2019. Votel is a distinguished senior fellow on National Security at the Middle East Institute. 

Tags Afghanistan armed forces fall of kabul Joseph L. Votel Middle East Military National security the Taliban War in Afghanistan

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