President Joe Biden has made two promises about Afghanistan since the collapse of the western-backed government:
• that the United States will complete its military withdrawal by Aug. 31, and
• that it will evacuate every American citizen in that country, and strive to rescue the Afghans at great personal risk under the Taliban takeover.
With less than a week before the end of the month, it’s difficult to see how both objectives can be met. Secretary of state Antony Blinken said Wednesday that some 1,500 Americans remain to be evacuated.
Biden and his advisors did not recognize the essential hollowness of the Afghan military. All the equipment and training the United States provided went to naught when the Afghans had to stand on their own. When the Afghan military collapsed, so did Biden’s timeline for the evacuation — and hence the scramble to get people out.
It is easy to understand Biden’s reluctance to abandon the Aug. 31 target. The Taliban has not exactly cooperated with the airlift, but it hasn’t interfered with it as much as it could. That could easily change, and almost certainly will if the airport occupation continues into September. He has good reason to stick to that date.
The airlift has gained momentum this week. As of Tuesday, more than 70,000 had been extracted from Kabul since the city fell on Aug. 15, a significant portion of them in the previous 36 hours.
But there remain thousands who want out, who need to be out — from people who worked with the western forces and in the now-deposed government, to women’s rights activists, local journalists and university faculty. All them committed themselves to the “nation-building” project launched by President George W. Bush after the U.S. invasion and continued at great expense by two successive administrations; all are now in jeopardy with the Taliban back in control.
The United States has a moral obligation to these people. It also has an obligation to our NATO allies, who also have unknown thousands of citizens who are stuck in Afghanistan and are urging Biden to put off the pullout.
The Kabul airport is the one way out, and that exit route is kept open — for now — only by American might. We support the Aug. 31 deadline, but we pray the airlift’s recent momentum continues until then, even if it requires additional use of military force.