The withdrawal operation ends agonizingly in Kabul. With the departure of the last US soldiers on Tuesday, Afghanistan will once again be in Taliban hands. The allied countries accelerated the departure of their personnel and Afghan collaborators last week, after the attack in the vicinity of the capital’s airport that left dozens of people dead, amid the despair of those trying to reach their only door of salvation. In just two weeks, it was possible to evacuate more than 117,000 people from the country, in a complex large-scale operation that the US and NATO described as one of the largest in history, but which evokes other withdrawals in which — as now — thousands were left to behind.
“The withdrawal is one of the most delicate military operations that exist, to prevent it from becoming a stampede, because it is evidently a very delicate situation, with a feeling of defeat, of being overcome by the enemy, and the temptation to escape is obvious”, he says Jesus Núñez, co-director of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), Madrid. The reserve military emphasizes that as early as February 2020 the Trump Government signed a withdrawal agreement and defined an exit calendar, so that there was more than a year to prepare for the eviction. However, the United States withdrew combat troops, and when the capital fell into Taliban hands, a withdrawal “backwards” began.
Faced with criticism for the chaos of the operation, President Biden pledged to “mobilize all the resources” necessary for what he called “one of the largest and most difficult airlifts in history.” Despite the 5,000 soldiers sent to guarantee the airport’s security, the situation was already critical and the operation had to be speeded up.
Support news production like this. Subscribe to EL PAÍS for 30 days for 1 US$
General William Taylor reported last Wednesday that a plane took off from Kabul airport every 39 minutes, between US military aircraft C-17 and Hercules C-130, and other coalition aircraft. Hundreds of people left on the first flights, a pace that has since accelerated to 20,000 people a day over the past week, “one of the largest air evacuations ever carried out,” according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. However, the number of those who can be left behind is dramatic. O The New York Times estimates that at least 250,000 Afghans will remain in their country despite being eligible for US visas. The same will happen with some collaborators from other countries.
Analysts recall other large-scale operations, such as the Berlin airlift, which saved West Berliners from starving to death as a result of the Soviet Union’s economic blockade between June 1948 and May 1949, or the withdrawal from Dunkerque in 1940 , when more than 300,000 soldiers were rescued from the Nazi advance from the beaches of that French location. Despite these precedents, they are prudent when it comes to establishing similarities.
“I don’t know who has the measuring stick, obviously it’s relevant, but the way [a operação] is being done is painful”, says Núñez. “On a worst list, it’s the next one after Saigon.” This is another of the most recurrent references in recent weeks: the moment, in April 1975, when the Americans managed to hurriedly remove 7,000 people who were being rescued by helicopter from the coverage of the US embassy in Saigon, after of the humiliating victory of North Vietnam. It is estimated that more than 130,000 Vietnamese fled by sea and air.
The humanitarian factor is another aspect to take into account, highlights Pere Vilanova, head professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona. “Since 1945, there have been several wars whose end included major humanitarian disasters, because the final part of the war could not be managed properly.” Looking back, he recalls the defeat of the French Army in 1954 at the fortress of Dien Bien Phu and the loss of Indochina (present-day Vietnam). “When [os franceses] thousands of Vietnamese who had been collaborators or did not want to live under the communist regime leave the port on warships, throw themselves into the water”, he says. Vilanova also mentions the Algerian War (1945-1962), when France left tens of thousands of collaborators to their fate. “It is estimated that 100,000 of them suffered reprisals from the Algerians themselves.” The professor cites the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia at the end of the 1970s, after the American withdrawal, and recalls: “It is easier to start a war than to end it, and this is a common trait for all wars, and however much they intend to do things, always go wrong and always go very wrong from a humanitarian point of view”.
In Jesús Núñez’s opinion, the United States sinned by overconfidence. “The US believed its own fiction that there was an Afghan Armed Forces capable of controlling Kabul, and that this would give them enough leeway and coverage to withdraw soldiers first and then withdraw people,” says Núñez. Pentagon experts themselves said less than a month ago that the country was in a critical situation because the Taliban was advancing from the south and could reach Kabul in 90 days. It only took 10. “The real situation is that [os militares afegãos] they were never in a position to offer this security coverage”, he adds.
Running against time and under threat of more bombings at Kabul airport, the US-led operation managed to evacuate 117,000 people from the country in the past 15 days, including diplomatic personnel, Afghan collaborators and people considered vulnerable, including 5,400 US citizens. The UK put 15,000 of its citizens and Afghans out of harm’s way in what was the country’s second-largest air operation since 1949, according to the Ministry of Defence. Germany rescued 5,193 people, including 3,600 Afghans, on 34 flights. Even so, Berlin identified 10,000 people who needed to be evacuated, including Afghan collaborators, journalists and human rights activists. The Italian government completed its operation after managing to take 4,400 people away, while Spain transported 2,206. Countries are now looking for a way to help those who couldn’t escape. The powers are considering the possibility of dialoguing with the Taliban to find a solution.
Regarding the debate on whether or not it is the largest rescue operation in history, analyst Gabriel Reyes, from the Toledo International Center for Peace (CITpax), considers that “the volume [da operação no Afeganistão] is a little overrated”. Compared to Saigon or Dunkerque, “it’s a matter of proportions,” he says. But the analyst considers that, regardless of other considerations, this ending leaves a bitter aftertaste: “It’s like someone doing their homework at the last minute”, he compares. Within the same scenario, Reyes recalls that, despite the humiliation that the withdrawal from Afghanistan represented for the Russians in 1989, they sought a dignified exit, in stages and more orderly, whereas in the case of the United States it was a process of exit by chapters, vacillating, which accelerated and decelerated with the various governments, which did not reach an inclusive peace agreement and ended with the Taliban coming to power. “I think it’s a very sad and opaque output. The Taliban scored a goal and managed to overshadow 20 years of effort.”
sign up on here to receive the daily newsletter of EL PAÍS Brasil: reports, analyses, exclusive interviews and the main information of the day in your e-mail, from Monday to Friday. sign up also to receive our weekly newsletter on Saturdays, with highlights of coverage for the week.