Afghanistan Airlift Continues Apace, But Will It Be Enough?

[ Posted Wednesday, August 25th, 2021 – 16:33 UTC ]

When future historians look back on President Joe Biden's legacy, one major part of it will be the end he has brought to American troops fighting in Afghanistan. Exactly how these future historians will deem it is still uncertain, at this point. It could go down as an absolute fiasco -- a textbook example of "how not to end a war." But if the rest of the airlift goes as smoothly as it seems to be running now, perhaps history's judges will be a little kinder to Biden. Again, this is still very much up in the air.

The White House is now claiming at least a limited amount of success for the airlift operation. What they have accomplished in a very short time is impressive indeed -- we are now airlifting out something like 20,000 people per day, which in and of itself is a logistical nightmare. These figures are updated constantly, and they now stand at over 80,000 people evacuated since August 14. That is indeed impressive, especially when you consider how slow the start of this process was. But will even 20,000 a day be enough?

One metric Biden will be judged on is whether every American who wants to leave will be able to get out by the time the airlift operation ends. That emphasis is there for a reason, because not every media outlet reports this correctly -- some merely say "every American." But there are American citizens in Afghanistan who do not actually want to leave right now, for various reasons. We can't very well force them to pack up and go. Today, estimates are that around 1,500 Americans who want to leave still remain in the country. That's down from over 10,000 (the first vague figure the administration gave, a few days back), so that's also a measure of the airlift's success so far.

To date, no American has died trying to get out. That's also an important milestone that could be upended by just one person getting shot at a Taliban checkpoint. So it will remain a tenuous thing until everyone with a U.S. passport who wants to leave has safely done so.

As for the Afghans who have helped us and our allies over the 20-year period of the war, most estimates put this number at around 300,000 people. And that's assumably not counting their families, so the successful evacuation of this group would wind up with much higher totals than that. Obviously, not every one of them is going to make it out of the country on the airlift. There are those who don't live anywhere near Kabul, for instance, who cannot physically get to the airfield in time. There are many who may not even qualify for a "Special Immigrant Visa" (those who only very peripherally helped the American war effort, or cannot actually prove on paper what they did, years and years later). Nobody really knows the scope of what it would take to airlift out everyone who helped our side -- and that's if they could make it to the airport in the first place. The Taliban are reportedly getting stricter and stricter about who gets let through their checkpoints, as they've already seen both a massive "brain drain" of talent as well as an exodus of money from their country. They're not happy about either one of these things, to put it mildly. And that's before even getting into the retribution/revenge factor.

Amazingly, the Taliban and the United States have been working together fairly well on this entire operation. This is galling to many Americans, but the fact of the matter is the Taliban won. They now control the country, and all the levers of power. The choice is to deal with them or somehow attempt to go it alone (which would be insane, since we are already reliant on them to pass Americans through their checkpoints).

This is a completely ad hoc collaborative effort, and a very temporary one as well. The Taliban have one major goal: getting all American troops out of their country for good. We have many goals, obviously, including the same one as the Taliban -- to get all our soldiers out, period. Currently, the Taliban have drawn a red-line date for when all the American soldiers must be gone by: August 31. President Biden is publicly supporting this deadline, even though it seems to many to be an impossible one if Biden also makes good on his promise to get everyone out who wants to (and is entitled to) leave. We are less than a week away from that goal. If we kept up the same pace as we have hit now, perhaps a grand total of 200,000 people might be airlifted out. But that's probably too optimistic, since the last few days will consist mainly of transporting all the soldiers out safely.

Biden has been giving all of this the best spin he can, touting the airlift itself (calling it akin to the Berlin Airlift) and trying to focus people on a much longer view than just what has happened over the last several weeks. Biden has also tried to gloss over the gross error in planning that led to the idea that the military should be evacuated first and then all the civilians afterwards, over the course of a few leisurely months (or perhaps even a year or two). This was some major-league hubris, obviously. But Biden hasn't really acknowledged the magnitude of this planning error yet. Incredibly, he asserts that the chaos was inevitable and would have happened even if the evacuation had started "a month ago." That is simply not believable, and Biden should soften his language considerably. If the airlift had begun a month ago, the hard cold fact is that the people fleeing would not have had to run the gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints, since back then the Taliban were nowhere near Kabul. Granted, Biden could be right that any exodus was going to be chaotic to some degree or another -- but there is chaos without the Taliban controlling the streets... and then there is the chaos we are seeing nightly on television. These are two wildly different scenarios, obviously. But Biden still speaks as if the two were somehow equivalent. This is a political error, since just about anyone can see the clear difference between the two.

The next two weeks are going to be crucial. Biden may be able to convince the Taliban to give us a very limited extension on that August 31 date, but probably not much longer than a few days to a week or two, at the absolute outside. As far as the Taliban are concerned, American military members were supposed to have all gone home this spring, on the original deadline Donald Trump negotiated. They've been pretty adamant so far about the end of the month being the ultimate deadline, so it's hard to see them giving in much at all. Biden has been publicly aiming for the same deadline, although he will admit there are contingency plans just in case.

My guess is the American public isn't going to measure this by the calendar, they're going to measure it by the actual results. If we get all Americans who wish to leave out safely, then nobody's really going to care what date we achieved it, to put this another way. If we get most of the interpreters and translators and other key Afghan personnel and their families out as well, then that will likely be judged a relative success (again, no matter when it happens).

If Biden falls short in any way, however, he's going to have to own it. He keeps echoing Harry Truman's "the buck stops here," and he will have to live up to those lofty words if anything goes wrong in a big way.

Biden's entire presidential legacy doesn't hang in the balance -- he will be judged on other accomplishments and failings as president. But the end of the Afghan war effort is sure to at least be a large part of his foreign policy legacy, and at this point it is impossible to tell how this legacy will be seen in the future. He's still got a chance to not have this chalked up as a monumental fiasco, but everything really has to go right for that to happen. We'll find out over the next two weeks whether he can pull it off or not.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


20 Comments on “Afghanistan Airlift Continues Apace, But Will It Be Enough?”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    The biggest failure is a moral one. We didn't start with the Afghans who had helped us, knowing that they would be the most difficult to find and contact, to protect on their way to the airport, and to find safe haven for in another country. Nonmilitary Americans should have been second, and the military last. It's like "women and children first": the most vulnerable should get the promptest attention.

  2. [2] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    If the airlift had begun a month ago, the hard cold fact is that the people fleeing would not have had to run the gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints, since back then the Taliban were nowhere near Kabul.

    I disagree, as stated Monday:

    Also, please note that if Afghani evacuations had begun months ago that would 1-panic the Afghani government (and hastened it's fall,) and 2- leave our troops without translators etc for the intervening months. So THAT was never in the cards.

    We just saw how quickly the Taliban swept up Afghanistan. Start the evacuations a month ago and it would have collapsed just as quickly, only a month ago instead.

    Listen up, armchair Generals! What would you do differently than Joe, especially if you were working with the same intel he was working with?

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Okay, say we evacuate the front line translators, informants and cooks first. Just how does the last to go US military conduct the most basic of operations without them?

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Okay, say we evacuate the front line translators, informants and cooks first. Just how does the last to go US military conduct the most basic of operations without them?

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    As for the historians, I think most of them would understand that the war in Afghanistan was never going to end well, even if the US military stayed for just one more month or just one more year or another 20 years.

    They might surmise that it would have ended well if Americans never left but, then again, they know as well as anyone who has been paying attention that America's attempts at nation building haven't gone well since the end of the second world war. So, there's that.

    The pertinent and ongoing lessons of Afghanistan have certainly not been lost on president Biden. He's been there and tried to do all of that. Ahem. Which should, by and large, put Biden in good stead with the historians.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Still, there are questions remaining about how well the US - and its NATO allies, including Canada - planned for the withdrawal.

    The decision to leave was made months ago and the Taliban have been making great inroads towards Kabul for almost as long. Why was everything left to the last freakin' minute?

  7. [7] 
    andygaus wrote:


    You could have evacuated allies who were not translators, kept just a few translators on base, had the military eat K-rations or use American cooks, and have the military perform only the most basic defense while packing up to go. I admit I'm not a logistics expert, but if the sense of duty to the people who risked their lives was stronger, it would have shown itself in the order of operations.

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    But again, the moment word got out (weeks or months ago) that we were starting to evacuate ur Afghanis this same collapse would have occurred. Why would any Afghani risk life and limb to cover our retreat?

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Come on, my friend. The 'word' DID get out months ago! And the Taliban's march to Kabul followed very soon after. Which was to be expected. No surprises there.

    This withdrawal was not done well at all - by the US and all of its allies - and I cannot understand why.

    The US and its allies have been in Afghanistan for 20 bloody years, for crissakes. They couldn't fend for themselves without most of their Afghan allies!?

    No, this withdrawal was botched from the get-go - rather like the mission once the mission became nation-building.

    Now, there is yet another chance for America to learn critical lessons. Will it?

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Likely, not. Because, "the next time will be different!" Sigh.

  11. [11] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    The "intel we had to go on" was always more like 'lie-tel', or maybe 'false-tel'. People who understand Afghanistan always knew that the intel gatherers will lying and/or stupid.

  12. [12] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    The Biden administration is catching hell from the mainstream (liberal) media over their management of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

    Omygawd people, the withdrawal is far and away the BEST MANAGED (as in least phuqued up) aspect of THE ENTIRE AFGHANISTAN WAR!!!

  13. [13] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Roger that, CRS!

  14. [14] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    One has to consider that this outcome was inevitable once Trump agreed to the Taliban, and hence the Pakistani ISI, wish to pull out during fighting season.

    As much fun as it would be to blame only Trump, Biden also needs to shoulder the blame to some extent by completing the pull out during fighting season.

    The only possible way this could have been slightly different is if they withdrew during the winter when you could have taken the afghan army regulars and distributed the highly skilled commando forces amongst the regulars and pointed them at the border regions and kept the TB bottled up in the spring. Of course this also assumes that the SVIP vetting process has been repaired and the SVIP holders had started moving.

    Even given the above, chaos is still a certainty vs. a possibility.

    War by it's nature is chaotic and history has yet to show a end to one that doesn't have chaos. History doesn't judge chaos, it judges how you manage events after the trigger.

    Media does however judge chaos to fill a 24 hour news cycle. Unfortunately with the immediacy of the media things seem worse than they are.

    History is legion, the media is not.

  15. [15] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Here's a neat little primer on the Cold War in the Middle East.

    At roughly ten minutes long this packs all the key points in, says this student of the Middle East.

  16. [16] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:



    Is that a French word? Prounounced "foo KWAY" peut-être?

  17. [17] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    The fighting season -- I never thought about that! Withdrawal had to have been better last winter (under Trump? Yeah, right) or next winter (as competently managed as possible by Joe.)

    I still maintain that the moment word leaked out that we were pulling our Afghanis out (and that would be instantly) the Afghan Security forces would have melted away, leading to some version of the same chaos.

    For what it's worth,

    1- most Americans want out of Afghanistan. It’s been a mess for 20 years now so why the surprise if it's a mess at the very end?

    2- noone saw the instant collapse of the Security Forces coming. So its not like Joe knew better and screwed it up (like, say, how Trump knew Covid was going to be bad yet screwed it up.)

    3- the midterms are 15 looong months away, politic memories are short and midterm voters tend to vote on the state of the economy rather than foreign policy issues.

    So I predict that so long as thousands of Americans aren't captured by the Taliban or ISIS (1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis redux) this isn't going to stick to Joe. Your welcome, Elizabeth!

  18. [18] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    #12 CRS When you are right your are indeed RIGHT! Who in their right mind thought we could exit this mess elegantly? Am I the only one who remembers the Vietnam exit?

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    SF Bear,

    It didn't have to be this way.

  20. [20] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    When did Biden announce the withdrawal timetable.

    Right, several MONTHS ago. And, the evacuation just ramped up in the last couple weeks. Unbelievable.

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