The United States evacuation from Afghanistan has the makings of a human and political disaster—and it didn’t have to end this way, says Khushal Safi, who heads the international safety office at Northeastern and is an Afghan native.
“None of this was a surprise, with the exception of the speed of the takeover,” says Safi.
In response to the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly seized control of the country with little to no opposition from the Afghan military or government. The transfer of power caught President Joe Biden by surprise, threatening his administration’s goal of evacuating an estimated 15,000 Americans and thousands more Afghans who assisted the U.S. during the 20-year war that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Pentagon said Thursday that 7,000 civilians had been evacuated from Kabul, site of the lone available airport after the U.S. abandoned Bagram Airfield in July. The Taliban is offering “safe passage” for civilians seeking to leave Afghanistan, according to the White House. But no timetable for completing the mass evacuation has been negotiated.
The coexistence is fragile, says Safi, who worked in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2014 as a U.S. intelligence officer.
“There is ample room for a mistake to happen that might lead to an escalation of conflict. As a hypothetical, a Taliban fighter takes a few shots at U.S. service members guarding the airport,” says Safi, raising one of many fears he has for the volatile environment in Afghanistan. “And then the service member returns fire. Now the knife’s edge stability has been disrupted, which can lead to further conflict.”
Safi spoke with News@Northeastern about the chaos in Afghanistan. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What has been the biggest surprise of the American withdrawal?
It seemed the U.S. government truly believed that Kabul would stay secure.
Therefore, the ultimate failure of this evacuation was either an intelligence failure, or maybe the misrepresentation from the Biden administration regarding the real on-ground truth of what was going on in Afghanistan. Clearly, Biden’s administration was caught by surprise.
Who faces the greatest risk in Afghanistan?
Those at immediate risk are Afghans who have worked with the military or the former Afghan government and are extremely fearful of retribution. Anybody who was working for the Afghan government in any type of official role, especially in the intelligence branches that were targeting the Taliban, is the most at risk.
In the longer term, anyone who won’t go along with Taliban rule is in peril, including gender rights advocates and historic enemies of the group.
Is the American government committed to helping Afghans come to the U.S.?
Based on the Doha accords, U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were supposed to be out by May. The expedited visas for Afghans who had helped the U.S. were approved on July 22. Clearly, it wasn’t a U.S. government priority. So you have to point the finger here at just sheer unpreparedness of the current and previous U.S. administrations.
That said, there are non-governmental organizations, politicians, and others in the U.S. armed forces who have been sounding the alarm bells for years. These voices seem to have been ignored or drowned out.
What becomes of the people who are unable to flee Afghanistan? Will there be other ways for them to escape harm?
In my opinion, Afghans are survivors. The ones with means and opportunity will seek safe haven either with their tribe, with factions opposed to the Taliban takeover—such as the opposition movement forming in the Panjshir Valley—or attempt to cross the rather porous borders.
Unfortunately, some will be jailed, tried under the Taliban’s versions of Islamic (Sharia) Law, and possibly executed. Time will tell how serious the Taliban are with their amnesty pledge, including who will have amnesty and who will not. I predict those with amnesty will have the protection of their tribal elders from stronger Pashtun tribes, while members of weaker Pashtun tribes and non-Pashtuns will have lesser opportunities for amnesty.
What is the gravest mistake the U.S. has made?
We evacuated Bagram Airfield, which was the dumbest thing anybody could have ever done. At what point do you believe abandoning one of the largest airfields in the world is a good thing knowing that you still needed to move Americans and our allies out of the country?
That will be the original sin of this evacuation. Closing Bagram meant losing access to a secure airfield. This limited the number of air resources as they were moved to other areas outside Afghanistan and resulted in a delayed ability to move personnel. In addition, the evacuation needed to depart from the Kabul Airport, a location the U.S. did not control, which resulted in a chaotic scramble of U.S. personnel and allies out of the country.
The U.S. negotiated a truce with the Taliban in February 2020. What role did those negotiations in Doha, Qatar, play in the chaos we are seeing today?
You can likely attribute the warming of U.S. relations with the Taliban during the Doha accords, and the invitation that the White House put out for the Taliban to come to Camp David to meet with the former President, as the point where a lot of Afghans saw the writing on the wall. They could see that the Afghan government really was cut out in the Doha accords, and there was more of a bilateral diplomatic initiative between the U.S. and the Taliban. At that point, if I’m wearing my Afghan hat, I would be like, “The Afghan government is on the outs.”
So, the U.S. sets the stage for the Afghan government’s downfall in Doha. And then the current administration ends the assistance mission the day U.S. forces pulled out of Bagram Airfield, which showed the Afghans that the U.S. had no interest in staying. As a result, the Afghan military had no interest in fighting, and so they looked to the next government. And that just happened to be the Taliban.
What do you anticipate from the Taliban?
I believe the Taliban is not going to enact some kind of revenge against departing United States forces or their allies right now. I think the Taliban is very focused on their image to the international community.
You have a more savvy Taliban. It’s the Taliban that were in Doha negotiating with Americans, the Taliban that sent envoys to neighboring countries to say, “Look, this is what we want to do.” It’s the Taliban that have co-opted governors, police, and military in preparation to return to power. The Taliban are aware that if they exact revenge, other tribal elements within Afghanistan will shy away from their leadership role.
We must understand the Taliban isn’t a monolithic force that controls Afghanistan with some kind of hierarchical military and government structure. This is a cobbled-together group of different Afghan tribes that are agreeing to go along with the Taliban in charge for now.
The tribal elders convinced former Afghan government officials and supporters by telling them, “Lay down your arms. There’s nothing to fight for. The Americans are leaving, and you’re just going to destroy the country by entering into a civil war.” So now the Taliban is beholden to these tribal elders who stuck their necks out for the Taliban.
At the same time, the tribal leaders aren’t dumb. All of these different tribes are arming themselves right now and waiting to see what happens. And they’re well-armed with U.S. weapons and U.S. training.