Cipher Brief Expert Laura E. Thomas is a former CIA case officer and Chief of Base in Afghanistan, who led sensitive CIA programs at CIA Headquarters and abroad in multiple, international assignments. She has subject matter expertise in the intersection of national security and emerging technology and has served over 15 years in various national security and leadership roles. She now serves as the Senior Director of National Security Solutions for quantum computing and sensing company, ColdQuanta.
OPINION — Last week, I lost my composure as I entered the Dulles airport international arrivals area after a transatlantic flight. Scores of Afghan refugees stood between me and the process I had done countless of times – enter the United States after stints abroad, often on CIA assignments. These Afghans were certainly tired, most likely poor, and a huddled mass. Despite the immense challenges many will face integrating into a new society, they represent the fortunate few. Many Afghan allies, including U.S. citizens and U.S. Green Card holders, remain in Afghanistan, along with U.S. Government credibility, if we do not keep pressure on the Taliban to allow them to depart.
Americans should know the truth about what happened in Afghanistan in the last days of the official U.S. presence there. While we cannot treat talking about the problem the same as solving it, this truth-telling is the first step to holding U.S. leadership and the Taliban accountable. Acknowledging what we did wrong does not mean succumbing to it. Accountability matters. Without it, we repeat the same old thinking and actions. With it, we can take the difficult and complex steps forward to address our policy and planning shortcomings, as well as devise short, mid, and long-term strategies to relocate those Afghans who risk being hunted down and executed by the Taliban as a result of their work for the United States.
True leadership demands accountability of others, but most importantly, self-accountability. A former colleague described this lack of accountability succinctly, “a U.S. soldier who loses his or her rifle will face far more consequences than the political and military leaders responsible for planning our withdrawal.” That the U.S. Government was able to retrieve so many Afghans in so few days leading up to the official U.S. withdrawal was both positive and astonishing. But to herald this as a “success” is to whitewash events on the ground, the policy decisions leading up to it, and those left behind.
While the Taliban has allowed at least one flight with American citizens to depart since the U.S. withdrawal, the U.S. Government must ensure this is not mere window dressing from the Taliban, as they consolidate power and rake in foreign aid, only to renege on promises and take retribution once the next news cycle diverts the world’s attention.
If we do not help the thousands of Afghans left behind, we provide our adversaries the ammunition to paint us as a fair-weather friend and ally, both publicly and clandestinely, for years to come. This loss of credibility portends a loss of future sources and allies, ones that the U.S. Government will need to confront enduring strategic threats.
When I served in CIA, much of what motivated foreign sources to work with me and the U.S. Government, was the ideal of the United States – a country that despite its many systemic failings past and present – ultimately offered a better life for their children and a fairer sense of justice than their home countries. The United States certainly is not alone in offering this. However, the added power, resolve, and enduring presence of the U. S. Government, whether physical or simply that of a watchful eye, motivated sources to risk their lives.
To most anyone who served in Afghanistan at the mid-level as I did, the rapid fall of the Afghan Government registered no shock. Withdrawal and shifting U.S. Government resources to longer-term, strategic threats was necessary. The way the withdrawal was carried out was not. In thinking through any strategy, we must be sure that our actions do not destroy what we are trying to preserve.
Events on the ground from the last few weeks in Afghanistan are beginning to trickle into the discourse here in the United States. The situations are hard to picture, but I hope you will. Picture bringing your child to a Kabul airport gate on August 28th, 2021, among masses of people, risking stampedes and a suicide bombing that had already killed over 180 people in the preceding days, with more suicide bomb threats looming. You watch plane after plane take off; each one a beacon of hope wrapped in looming despair that it is one less flight for you and your family.
Imagine being guided by an American volunteer via phone to a sweltering bus where you sit for over 30 hours beside an entry gate to the airport compound with no food or water, not wanting to leave the scene for a minute, fearful the gate will open and you will miss your one chance to leave before the Taliban take ultimate control, putting your life in jeopardy. Imagine your receipt of an official U.S. Government message that you should go to a specific airport entry gate to be processed for a departure flight. You look down at your U.S. passport and at your children with the elated feeling that this is finally your chance.
Now picture the scene building in front of you as you and your children approach the airport after days of risky and failed attempts. You see Taliban guarding the gate per U.S. Government agreements. You hold up your U.S. passport to the Taliban soldier pointing his rifle at you and your children, cursing and threatening to kill you and them, saying “we run this country now, we don’t care what type of passport you have.” At best, the Taliban turns you away. Most likely, they beat you in front of your children in the process. At worst, they rip up your documentation and add your name to what is likely a hit list. This happened time and again in the weeks preceding the U.S. withdrawal. I was in phone contact with some of these individuals as they approached Taliban checkpoints. They were terrified and looking to me for guidance.
Shortly after the Taliban advanced into Kabul and just prior to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I – with many others – worked around the clock to help Afghan allies and U.S. citizens get through the entry gates at Kabul airport, and then onto planes. The same way we operated as intelligence professionals, seeking the facts of the ground, evaluating but not judging others, and separating exaggerated truth from outright lies, we were able to vouch for and help exfiltrate certain Afghans. This included children who were American citizens.
Chaos reigned from August 16th to August 31st in Kabul. The State Department repeatedly sent out instructions to American citizens that were divorced from the realities on the ground as experienced by countless Afghan-Americans. I – and other former intelligence and national security officials – provided this feedback immediately to senior White House officials. From all appearances, U.S. officials inside the airport operated heroically in deteriorating conditions while U.S. officials, oceans away, focused on what appeared to be a pre-scripted narrative.
Having served in crises and seen the policy process, I did not expect immediate reversals by the U.S. administration. But White House, Pentagon, and State press statements in the following days only amplified the stark difference between political talking points and realities on the ground faced by American citizens in Kabul. Despite U.S. Government assurances that the Taliban would and had allowed all U.S. citizens and Green Card holders through the airport gates, the Taliban did not. Time and again, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were turned away by Taliban, often beaten in the process. The Taliban soldiers at the airport ensured that an already overwhelmed airport did not become overrun. That the U.S. government had to rely on the Taliban’s guard and word, which they did not keep in many instances, meant that we made fundamental planning and decision-making errors.
Stepping off the plane and into Dulles airport last week brought me face-to-face with both the thin and often blurred line of American policy successes and failures. In the sea of nameless, Afghan faces at Dulles, my composure cracked because my mind could see only three faces who weren’t standing there. These were the faces of three children, all under six years of age, who did not make it out. Exactly seven days prior, their U.S. Green Card holding father had sent me a family photo, including his Green Card in hand for verification, taken just outside a Kabul airport entry gate. Like many others, he was desperate to flee with his family, but not allowed entry to the airport on multiple occasions by the Taliban.
I did not work fast enough to get this family with three small children onto the compound before the gates closed and U.S. forces turned over the external perimeter to the Taliban, two days before the official U.S. departure. These three children were part of a much larger list of names I had, and even larger lists held by various non-profits of American citizens, Green Card holders, Special Immigrant Visa holders and applicants that remain in Afghanistan against their will. They are still there, and we must get them out.
Many volunteers have turned to finding other exfiltration options for these families. And just as I am proud to see Americans volunteers helping, there is danger in well-intentioned but misguided advice. I saw American volunteers forgetting that an Afghan on the ground knows Afghanistan far better than they do.
Afghans know their language, their culture, and their ethnic differences best. Their lived experience speaks volumes above what any volunteer could read in a book or experience during a few tours in Afghanistan. At the same time, a person seeking exfiltration from chaos is willing to do almost anything. A former CIA colleague of mine characterized it well to some volunteers, “When you’re an American on the other end of a phone call with people in crisis, who are desperate to flee to the United States, your voice carries powerful weight. You may be their only hope, so be careful what guidance you give.”
These volunteers were responsible for getting hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghans to safety. Some volunteers, however, put Afghans at more risk by directing them all over Kabul with errant advice and misinformation. These Afghans lost precious time that they could have used to devise their own escape plans. Volunteers were mapping border crossings with Google Maps and sending oppressed ethnic minorities into Taliban strongholds. It was both beautiful and devastating to see. It spoke to our humanity but also to our ignorance.
Ultimately, this should have been a U.S. Government-led initiative, not an army of NGO volunteers. As John Maxwell says, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” Over the last few weeks, I witnessed leadership at the junior and mid-levels by current and former U.S. Government officials, but sadly, there was more posturing than leading at the senior-most levels.
Inscribed in the wall at CIA’s entrance is “And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.” Know the truth and demand that our leadership hold itself accountable and not abandon the thousands of Afghans left behind.
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