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Assessment / AAR

NEO Kabul Afghanistan 2021

The Biden administration was caught by surprise with the speed of the Taliban offensive across the country and how rapidly the insurgents occupied Kabul. It had to quickly put together a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) to rescue its Kabul embassy personnel, American citizens, foreign diplomats, Afghan interpreters, and other Afghans associated with the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Other nations quickly joined the effort to evacuate their citizens and Afghan workers.

The NEO operation will always be remembered as the Biden administration's 'Saigon moment'. This is a reference to the picture of a U.S. helicopter on the roof top in Saigon, South Vietnam evacuating embassy staff and Vietnamese nationals from the embassy grounds.

General Scott Miller had recommended that the State Department plan on evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Kabul prior to the withdrawal of American troops, making his recommendation before Biden announced the full withdrawal in April. The State Department dismissed is recommendation. On August 6, 2021, senior members of the Department of State, National Security Council, Pentagon, U.S. Central Command, and the intelligence community gathered for a table-top exercise to walk through plans for a possible noncombatant evacuation operation in Kabul. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also recommended an earlier evacuation. 1.


1. The Evacuation Should Have Begun Sooner. The U.S. citizens, interpreters, embassy workers, and others should have been flown home when we still occupied major airfields like Shindad, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram. One possible reason the evacuation did not take place earlier is that the U.S. did not accurately forecast how quickly the Taliban could take Kabul.

2. Bagram Air Field. Many critics say that BAF, located about 35 miles north of Kabul should have been held along with HKIA at the very last phase. The Bagram option went away as soon as DoD was ordered to reduce its presence to the 650 personnel in Kabul. The numbers wouldn't allow holding both locations. There was a contingency plan for BAF to be reoccupied to operate as an additional air hub to evacuate people - the 82nd Airborne Division was on standby for this mission. Another contingency was if the Taliban attacked HKIA then BAF would quickly be occupied from which to mount operations. During Congressional testimony in September 2021 DoD officials took pains to explain the decision to vacate Bagram Air Field while the last phases of the withdrawal were still in place. See "DOD Leaders Address Bagram Departure, Noncombatant Evacuation Operation Timing", DoD News, September 29, 2021.

3. U.S. Troops in a Trap? 6,000 U.S. servicemen on an airfield in a landlocked country surrounded by many thousands of enemy fighters. What could go wrong? Can a NEO conducted in a 'permissive environment' suddenly go kinetic? Dien Bien Phu, Khe Sanh,and Khartoum are just a few scenarios that come to mind. Read "Is Kabul airport the next Dien Bien Phu?", by Harlan Ullman, Atlantic Council.

4. Extending the Perimeter? If the Taliban are not allowing Afghans with SIV documentation through their checkpoints . . . should the U.S. troops push the perimeter deeper into the center of Kabul (along Airport Road) to allow more freedom of access?

5. Forays Into Kabul. Why doesn't the U.S. actively venture into Kabul to rescue trapped U.S. citizens? SECDEF Austin stated in a news conference on August 18, 2021 that the U.S. doesn't have the required numbers of troops to do that mission - that security of airfield and processing evacuees is the priority. There are reports that British Special Forces, the French Police (RAID), and contractors with Private Military Companies (PMCs) have ventured into Kabul to rescue people sheltering in homes or in embassies.

6. Air Bridge Within Afghanistan. Why didn't the U.S. set up a mechanism to fly to different airports in Afghanistan to pick up U.S. citizens? There are commercial airports throughout Afghanistan. This, of course, would require intense coordination with the Taliban.

7. Info About How to Access HKIA. The information available about how to access the Kabul airport once the city fell to the Taliban was sketchy. Most people only knew about the civilian terminal - and were not aware of other HKIA access gates to get onto the military side. It wasn't until Thursday, August 19, 2021, that maps (posted on social media) by non- governmental entities that depicted the locations of the HKIA three gates (see also NYT At War) were available.

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Endnotes

1. See "State Department, Pentagon trade blame over Afghanistan evac", Politico, September 30, 2021.

 

 


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