“For all this talk of chaos, I just didn’t see it, not from my perch,” John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said on Thursday at the White House, following the publication of the Biden administration’s report on the Afghanistan withdrawal. That statement made me angry. My perch was a lot lower than his, and I certainly saw chaos.
I had a modest part in the evacuation that was precipitated by the U.S. announcement in July 2021 that it was pulling out all troops by the end of August. At the time, I was working in London for a member of Parliament who had a role liaising between other MPs and the ministerial team at the Home Office. Once the Afghan capital, Kabul, fell to Taliban forces, on August 15, and the evacuation became urgent, those MPs came to our office for help with their constituent cases involving family or friends in Afghanistan. We did what we could to put those cases before the right people in the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Ministry of Defense. Many Afghans who had worked with the Afghan government or NATO forces now feared retribution from the advancing Taliban.
The job was all-consuming for days. Thousands of people in Kabul needed help to evacuate and didn’t know where to turn. Should they go to the airport? To the Baron Hotel, where the British consular team was then based? To the Americans? Should they cross the border into Pakistan? Did they have the right documents? Was their case in our system? Did we know about the crowds, the danger, the fear?
I worked flat out, refusing to let myself stop, refusing to let myself be overwhelmed. I sent emails, submitted cases, made calls. I checked off every name, read every story. I made sure I looked properly at every face I saw in the photos sent from Kabul—the photos from the mother who had found the body of her son dumped on her doorstep by the Taliban, from the wife who had found her husband’s shoe in the debris of their living room after he was abducted, from the young man who had been threatened because he had worked for the Western occupiers.
Like everyone else, I was also watching the rolling news reports from Kabul. We all saw that chaos. Crowds of desperate people outside the airport. Parents passing their children over fences. People falling from the wings of planes. Bodies in the streets. And, most horrifying, the suicide-bomb attack on Abbey Gate, which killed 13 American service members, two British nationals, and more than 170 Afghan civilians, and injured hundreds more.
My experience pales in comparison to those who were on the ground in Kabul trying to deal with these circumstances. I greatly admire the military and consular personnel, who did their absolute best with what they had. They saved thousands of lives with no thought for their own safety. The U.S. airlift got more than 122,000 people out, the British airlift 15,000 more. Each of those lives saved is a testament to the courage and the dedication of those diplomats, soldiers, and aircrews.
To say they were doing all of this amid chaos is no detriment to them; in fact, the disservice is not to acknowledge it. The processes and systems set up to facilitate the evacuation were simply not designed to withstand the level of turmoil that occurred after the fall of Kabul. We thought we would have more time. We were meant to have more time. But we didn’t.
Apportioning blame for this is a difficult task. The Trump administration made a deal with the Taliban for the U.S. withdrawal that excluded the Afghan government, and then, by all accounts, did no planning whatsoever for how that would work. The Biden administration inherited that mess, and did what it could, but it repeatedly failed to see that Kabul was not going to hold long enough to ensure a secure and orderly withdrawal. The British government has had its own reckoning over failures in its processes, but ultimately had to work to the American timetable.
It is easy for armchair generals to pontificate on what they would have done differently—I know I have been guilty of that at times. We should welcome the Biden administration’s recognition that lessons need to be learned for the future. But to willfully ignore the chaos of the Kabul evacuation is to rewrite history. We cannot assess what went wrong by disregarding the experiences of those who were involved. That includes the Afghan civilians crowded outside the airport, the military and consular staff stationed there, and even the bureaucrats like me—safe in their nondescript offices abroad, but witnesses all the same. Those experiences are wildly different, but they share a common thread. They were all touched by chaos.
So my message to John Kirby is this: If you didn’t see chaos during the Kabul evacuation, where the hell were you looking?