There's No 'America First' Way to Evacuate Afghanistan

Arguing over who we should evacuate first ignores the uncomfortable truth of how little power the U.S. currently wields in Kabul.

As the war in Afghanistan sputters to a close, what does America owe to the Afghan interpreters and others who assisted our military during our two-decade deployment? For months, lawmakers’ bipartisan consensus was that the very least we could do was offer shelter in the United States to these people whose past assistance to us would surely endanger their lives under a Taliban regime.

But that was before this week, when the collapse of Afghanistan dominated the news cycle and professional partisan takesters started limbering up their reliable old pitchfork lines about letting foreigners into America.

“Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?” Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said on her show on Tuesday. “All day we heard phrases like ‘we promised them.’ Well, who did? Did you?”

It was a remarkably callous thing to say about people who spent years working hand-in-glove with and providing invaluable assistance to American military personnel—which perhaps explains why we’ve seen a second, more subtle version of the same argument cropping up over the last couple days.

According to this second argument, the problem isn’t that the U.S. would take in Afghan refugees. The trouble is that the U.S. would work to take in Afghan refugees while American citizens still need to be evacuated from Afghanistan too. After all, such was the speed and rapaciousness of the Taliban’s advance that thousands of U.S. citizens now find themselves stuck in Afghanistan. Shouldn’t solving that problem be our top priority?

So here, for instance, is Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance: “I’d like to hear zero about Afghan refugees until we get every single American out first.”

Here is Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene arguing that the fact that “Americans are not being allowed to leave, but Afghans are being taken to America” shows that President Joe Biden is “a complete failure to America.”

And here is former President Donald Trump reacting to a picture of a military plane full of Afghan refugees that took off from Kabul Sunday just before the airport was shut down: “This plane should have been full of Americans. America First!”

It’s easy to see why some would find this argument useful. It isn’t an outright rejection of the notion that we should accept refugees—just a more defensible assertion that refugee processing should take a backseat to the more pressing problem of getting U.S. citizens out of harm’s way, in keeping with the “America First” slogan that more than anything else defines the foreign policy impulses of today’s Republican Party. And it shines a spotlight on the Biden administration’s deeply wishy-washy PR around the Afghan collapse. Asked Tuesday whether Americans should be prioritized for evacuations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki only responded that “we are prioritizing a number of groups.”

But the argument is also a thorough misrepresentation of the facts on the ground right now. The depressing reality is that it means very little whose evacuation the U.S. is “prioritizing”—because the U.S. lacks the operational capacity to choose unilaterally to get anyone out of harm’s way.

The basic reality of the current American position in Afghanistan is this: The Kabul airport, which is held by U.S. forces, is one tiny island in a sea of Taliban-controlled territory. America and other entities can land and take off planes, so anyone who gets into the airport will make it to safety. But the streets surrounding the airport are seething with Taliban combatants, who have begun operating checkpoints of those trying to get through.

Although the Taliban reportedly agreed to allow safe passage for those in Kabul who wished to go to the airport, the State Department claimed Wednesday that they have been violating that agreement. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said at a press conference that the Taliban “are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport.” There are no reports yet of the same being true for Americans, but the State Department has repeatedly cautioned citizens marooned in Kabul that they cannot guarantee their safe passage to the airport. 

“I don’t think there has been any transparency from the Biden administration, or previously from the Trump administration, about any safe passage agreement,” Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and now works at the Hudson Institute, told The Dispatch. “So we don’t know what the agreement is. Now, will the Taliban shoot at Americans while they’re being evacuated? I don’t think so … the Taliban have wanted an American withdrawal from Afghanistan for a long time, and they will do everything to make sure that the Americans leave and do not come back.”

In our domestic political conversation, the White House may talk about prioritizing the evacuation of various groups and its critics may complain about those professed priorities. But both groups ignore the intolerable fact that both would rather leave unspoken: As things stand now, America isn’t getting to pick which Afghans and Americans will be flying out on our evac planes. That decision belongs to our jihadi adversaries.