America has been held hostage before. In 1976, TWA Flight 355 was taken over by Croatian nationalists, and a New York City police officer lost his life in an effort to resolve it. The 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro by militants with the Palestinian Liberation Front ended only following American military intervention. Most famously, the vanguard of the Islamic revolution in Iran took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. These traumatic episodes pale in comparison to what the United States may now be facing in Afghanistan. America may now be in the middle of the largest hostage crisis in its history.
On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it had ferried at least 37,000 people out of the increasingly inhumane conditions that prevail in Hamid Karzai International Airport—the last remaining bastion of Western influence in Afghanistan. That’s no small feat. But insofar as you can call the herculean conscription of both civilian and military forces into the effort to evacuate Americans and their partners from behind Taliban lines “easy,” that was the easy part. The clock is ticking down to zero hour, and the United States will not meet its deadline.
“We’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated,” Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin promised late last week. “And I’ll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.” That “clock” had been set not just by the president, who has insisted that the United States would remove all vulnerable Americans and U.S. allies from Afghanistan by August 31, but the Taliban. “It’s a red line,” said Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen. “If the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations, the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.”
In the effort to speed things along, the United States has reluctantly begun executing special forces operations designed to exfiltrate Americans outside of the airport, even at the risk of inflaming tensions with the Taliban and their State Department-designated terrorist allies who are providing for our “security.” Simultaneously, American forces are reportedly turning away Afghans eligible for evacuation and relocation. But even abandoning our allies to prioritize Americans will not cut it. As of Monday, only about 3,300 of the estimated 10 to 15,000 Americans who were trapped in Afghanistan when Kabul fell have been ferried out of the country. Even at this unsustainable pace, the American mission in Afghanistan will not be over by August 31. And everyone but the Biden White House seems to know it.
“Given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated, the number of SIVs, the number of others who are members of the Afghan press, civil society leaders, women leaders—it’s hard for me to imagine all of that can be accomplished between now and the end of the month,” said U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Monday. A number of prominent federal legislators are demanding that the administration commit to a longer operation, and they are joined by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He will use the occasion of an emergency G7 summit on Tuesday to pressure Biden to “ensure safe evacuations, prevent a humanitarian crisis and support the Afghan people to secure the gains of the last 20 years.”
Joe Biden finds himself in a trap of his own making. U.S. forces operate out of Kabul’s airport at the pleasure of the Taliban. At any point, what Biden called a “ragtag” group can disable the airport and reengage in combat with the American forces they’ve so far allowed a narrow berth. Biden is determined to avoid that outcome. The only alternative to such a disaster would be to bribe the Taliban into submission. It’s an option the president has already foreshadowed. “The Taliban has to make a fundamental decision,” Biden said on Sunday. To be successful, they are “going to need everything from additional help in terms of economic assistance, trade, and a whole range of things.” The Taliban, Biden said, is “seeking legitimacy to determine whether or not they will be recognized by other countries.” No doubt, all these carrots are being dangled before our captors by CIA Director William Burns, who was this week dispatched to Kabul likely to negotiate an extension of our mission there.
The message from the Taliban couldn’t be clearer: Your money or your lives. And there are thousands of Americans in Afghanistan from which the Taliban might choose to make a few examples. As the heartrending audio received by Rep. Carol Miller’s office attests, the Americans trapped behind enemy lines believe they are abandoned by their government to the mercies of a vengeful Islamist militia. As one staffer at the abandoned American embassy admitted, “it would be better to die under the Taliban’s bullet” than to face the brutality of a likely unsuccessful effort to reach American service personnel on their own. Our citizens and friends are resigning themselves to a terrible fate.
America’s humiliation in Afghanistan did not end with the fall of Kabul. It is only just beginning.