As the evacuation of Kabul under the Taliban's rule grinds on into its second week, let's get caught up on what is happening now in the war-torn country.
There are more very troubling signs that many U.S. citizens and allies in the capital won't be able to make it through the chaotic gauntlet surrounding the airport and on to salvation. The interview below is the best account I have heard about the situation and how futile it has become for those who are actually cleared to leave the country. It seems that some major bone-headed missteps by the State Department have only made the situation all that much worse:
We have all seen scenes from outside the perimeter wall at Kabul International, but this video from this morning gives a good look at how perilous it really is:
Even with these massive challenges, the Pentagon says it has evacuated 17,000 people the week.
Beyond what is happening outside of the airport's walls, some of the major choke points in the entire operation are where U.S. military airlifters are landing with their cargo holds full of people. The massive influx of people is causing huge diplomatic and logistical issues. Essentially, the U.S. is putting evacuees in huge hangars at air bases, such as Al Udied in Qatar, which are becoming major humanitarian crises in themselves. The mass overflow of people coming out of the country to bases in the Middle East halted movements at Kabul International for hours yesterday, for instance. Now the Biden Administration wants to active the Civil Reserve Air Fleet of commercial airliners to help move these people, many of which are refugees, to other locales once they reach their first and very temporary destination.
While the Germans, French, and British are executing pointed recovery operations outside the gates of the airport, the U.S. had, until yesterday, claimed that it was not doing the same, at least publicly. Apparently, some tension was building over the issue between the countries involved, as the U.S. thought it could destroy any chances of a successful evacuation mission if one of these operations went wrong. Now we know that the U.S. has, at least to a very limited degree, used helicopters and special operations forces to extract some individuals outside of the airport's grounds, as well. As we detailed, the 160th SOAR "Night Stalkers" are there in greater force now and they, along with the special operators they carry, are the most capable of executing these types of operations.
These types of operations may have to be greatly expanded in order to successfully evacuate U.S. citizens and key Afghan allies. There is a new warning that ISIS' franchise in Afghanistan may use the situation at the airport for a mass casualty event or some other type of terror attack. This is not surprising as all it would take is one grenade or suicide vest to dramatically complicate a very complicated situation and cause carnage against those trying to leave the country and possibly even U.S. and other forces deployed to the airport's perimeter. The Taliban and what is referred to as ISIS-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, are also in open conflict with each other.
An AP piece on this developing story reads, in part:
The official said that small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will be given specific instructions on what to do, including movement to transit points where they can be gathered up by the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.
The changes come as the U.S. Embassy issued a new security warning Saturday telling citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without individual instruction from a U.S. government representative. Officials declined to provide more specifics about the IS threat but described it as significant. They said there have been no confirmed attacks as yet.
Meanwhile, the Taliban's leadership continues to consolidate power and move to organize a formal government in Kabul. This included the return of Taliban co-founder and once imprisoned figurehead of the group, Mullah Ghani Baradar, to the Afghan capital. He was also the primary negotiator with the Trump Administration on the so-called peace plan. Those negotiations occurred out of Qatar, where the Taliban has held a formal, public-facing, political office.
At the same time, the newly formed indigenous military resistance to the Taliban's newly minted rule is growing and expanding in the nearby Panjshir Valley. The group, which you can read our full report on here, is led by Amrullah Saleh, the now ex-Vice President of Afghanistan and son of the legendary figure Ahmad Shah Massoud who led the Northern Alliance before being assassinated by the Taliban in 2001. Now, the Taliban are pushing a large column of fighting vehicles and foot soldiers their way in what appears to be an attempt to snuff out the resistance group before it can metastasize.
When it comes to aircraft movements, one, in particular, was of interest as of late. An E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) aircraft, which provides battlefield connectivity across multiple radio systems and data-link waveforms (you can read all about it in this exclusive feature of ours), was orbiting over Bagram Air Base. Bagram was turned over (well more like abandoned) by the U.S. military to Afghan forces in early July, a move that was puzzling at the time as it seemed like it would be an essential node to execute the evacuation. Instead, just Kabul International is being used, which is a single point of failure of mammoth proportions, with its single runway surrounded by urban sprawl and now, the Taliban. You can read more about how puzzling this move was in my tweet thread from last Sunday posted below.
It isn't clear what the BACN aircraft would be doing over there, but taking back Bagram temporarily, even with the tacit approval of the Taliban, would be highly advantageous, especially considering huge sums of people still need to be evacuated from Kabul Airport, with its single runway, where the security situation could collapse at any moment due to a huge array of potential events. Doing so would require an additional thrust of manpower, but even securing the installation for contingency operations would be an improvement on the current status quo. This is especially true if the evacuation will spill past its August 31st deadline. Shuttling evacuees there via helicopter and C-130 the 25 miles to Bagram could provide a major relief valve for the current operations at Kabul International. Still, the administration's willingness to make such an expansion of the mission at this point is highly debatable.
There is also the possibility that the E-11 BACN aircraft is working in some way to support or monitor operations near the aforementioned Panjshir Valley. Supporting pointed special operations missions is also a possibility, we just don't know.
As for how the Pentagon got the Taliban's advance on Kabul so wrong, it still remains unclear. Claims that there was no intelligence that pointed to the immediate fall of the Afghan Army and its controlling government are conflicted by reports that there was such intelligence and even outright concerns raised.
But just how hours before the Taliban took the capital, and it was very clear that they would imminently, the Pentagon still acted like that was not going to happen remains a major sticking point.
On that note, the U.S. military pulling its aerial surveillance assets out of the country before the actual evacuation will prove to have been a major mistake, one that we should have learned in Iraq when ISIS blitzed across the country with little warning. Instead, we relied on far from persistent 'over the horizon' capabilities and the Afghans. A terrible move that likely contributed, at least in some major fashion, to the U.S. government being surprised by the Taliban's advances. But by last week, the writing was on the wall. The disconnect between what we were seeing and hearing thousands of miles away and what the administration and the Pentagon, which presides over a trillion dollar a year military and intelligence capability, were stating was just beyond comprehension.
The photo below is also worth mentioning, not just because it is touching, but it shows the configurations for some C-17s operating out of Kabul for mass evacuation operations. The bracing staps are there for people to hold onto as they sit on the floor of the aircraft. A massive slide of people during evasive maneuvering, for instance, could drastically disrupt the aircraft's weight and balance, potentially leading to a very dangerous situation. It also keeps people from piling into each other during maneuvers, causing all types of potential dangers. You also see that the floor has been covered in plastic. It has been noted that the C-17s single restroom cannot support many hundreds of people. As such, people have been relieving themselves on the aircraft's cargo floor, which can take time to clean and is not a pleasant job. This appears to be some sort of mitigation of that stark reality.
Then there is this video of an A400M dispensing flares on departure from Kabul International. It isn't clear if this was triggered by the crew proactively or if the aircraft's countermeasures suite got tripped and executed the flare release. We may see more of this in the coming days, especially considering the Islamic State threat. While MANPADS (shoulder-fired heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles) have proliferated throughout the region, they are not considered a highly dense threat in Afghanistan, but all it takes is one and they are certainly in circulation.
There is also the question of the Mi-17 flying in the background. It isn't clear who is piloting the Mi-17, although there are a number of Mi-17s that had belonged to the all-but-defunct Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) on the ground at Kabul, and the Taliban have apparently gotten a few that they've captured into the air. In addition, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operates a small number of them in support of its own mission in the country. These aircraft were used to evacuate its own facilities recently, for instance.
So that should get you up to date. We will continue to update this post with new information throughout the day.
You can find the latest in The War Zone's continuing coverage of the crisis in Afghanistan here.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com