These Are The Military’s Options For Extending Evacuations In Afghanistan. None Of Them Are Good.
There are no good options and each one has major operational hurdles and glaring pitfalls to overcome.
It is looking less and less plausible that the U.S. and its allies can get everyone out of Afghanistan they need to, as well as their own military personnel and assets, by the time the August 31st deadline strikes. This is becoming a massively contentious issue as parts of the international community, including close allies to the United States, and those in U.S. Congress, are demanding the timeline be left undefined in order to end the evacuation when it makes sense operationally, not based on previous promises to the Taliban. So what does a prolonged evacuation mission look like in what could be a fully contested environment—one in which the Taliban does not offer security assurances to the U.S., nor allows it to be in the country at all anymore, even possibly taking direct military action against American forces that remain there?
First off, some sort of deal is clearly being sought between the U.S. and the Taliban. CIA Director Bill Burns met with the head of Taliban, kingpin Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a clandestine face-to-face engagement, in an obvious attempt to work something out. The problem is, what the Taliban will want in exchange for allowing an extended U.S. evacuation operation will probably be very troublesome to give—most likely access to large financial resources and limitations on who the U.S. can evacuate, as well as yet another deadline. And that is if they are willing to negotiate at all.
After fighting the U.S. for two decades, allowing its once bitter enemy, who it has long branded as an occupying force, to basically operate a beachhead at the country's international airport in the capital indefinitely is hardly a good look, at least internally amongst the Taliban's own ranks. But the U.S. has locked access to billions in funds that the Taliban will really need in order to transition to ruling the country in any kind of a smooth manner (albeit everything is relative with the Taliban in charge).
Possibly a deal in which these funds are slowly released as the U.S. completes its evacuation operations could be had, but politically speaking, handing the Taliban access to billions of dollars is hardly a welcome move, especially for the already embattled Biden Administration who continues to cling to the hopelessly bogus claim that this evacuation operation was well planned and executed. Such an agreement will immediately be deemed a 'drug deal' by political opponents and even some allies alike. Just the human rights dimension of such an agreement would be very damning in itself.
Assuming the Taliban say no to any deal offered by the U.S., and beyond American forces leaving prematurely and likely destroying billions in hardware on the way out, the hulks of which will still be used as trophies by the Taliban, maybe the best hope would be that the Taliban will work with other foreign elements to keep its airport open to commercial flights. Under such an arrangement, the group would still need to allow foreigners to leave unmolested.
Yet under even this unrealistically hopeful scenario, there would be no U.S. force protection or presence of any kind. Basically, whoever is left would be entirely at the mercy of the Taliban, beyond whatever country is providing basic security at the airport. But as we know all too well, just getting evacuees to the airport safely is becoming the biggest battle.
Many would view this possibility as unacceptable, regardless. Once again, America would literally be betting people's lives—many of which are viewed as traitors or marked individuals by the Taliban—on the Taliban's word and kindness.
What about the U.S. government just telling the Taliban to piss off and that it will be finished when it's finished with the operation? Well, first of all, the U.S. would then be operating in a contested scenario, surrounded by the enemy, with a very shallow perimeter between its forces and Taliban militants, and this would be occurring in a dense urban environment surrounded by civilians where the Taliban have a distinct advantage. RPGs, mortars, and even basic gunfire becomes a massive threat when the proximities are so small and the bad guys are actually instructed to use those lowly capabilities against you.
As I have discussed in the past, a single mortar team could wreak absolute havoc on Kabul's airport, the aircraft parked there, and the people trying to evacuate and keep the airport operating. It is very clear where the aircraft—which are giant immobile gas cans when on the ground—are all parked. You could just imagine what even a single well-placed mortar could do to the flightline and those trying to board aircraft on it. Even fire from an AK-47 or machine gun can bring down a mighty transport aircraft. At the same time, traditional forms of airpower have little effect in countering or even responding to such attacks under these circumstances. Now, if the Taliban actually ordered an assault on the airfield, it would be a whole other level of bad.
In other words, Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is loosely akin to the highly intimate San Diego International in its size, layout, and urban locale, is about as bad a place to execute a contested operation like this as one can imagine.
Making things worse, the Taliban will just shut down all roads leading to the airport and brutally punish those who try to circumvent the de facto siege. At that point the U.S. would be relying on vertical lift—helicopters—to go collect people to evacuate. Every single mission would be different with its own major risks, the Taliban being basically everywhere is glaringly one of them, and even the helicopters would become prized targets. That isn't good when their only base of operations is at an airport in the middle of Afghanistan's largest city that is encircled by Taliban fighters.
Not the best scenario by any means.
Then we come back to Bagram Airfield—you know, the massive installation with two runways and a huge, well-fortified perimeter, located in a not-so-dense area around 25 miles north of Kabul? That one. In one of the strangest military decisions I have seen in my life, the U.S. gave the stronghold back to the Afghans in early July—well, more like it cut and ran from the facility it built up so much over 20 years. Why on earth the U.S. would have done this before the evacuation had ended is just beyond puzzling.
As we have stated repeatedly, Bagram would have provided a more secure location to help relieve the pressure of operations at Hamid Karzai International, as well as being a contingency location should the security situation in Kabul deteriorate massively, which at one point, it did. C-130s and CH-47s could have ferried evacuees from Kabul to Bagram to help offset some of the smaller urban airport's load. In fact, airliners could have been leveraged more easily at the far more secure Bagram Air Base instead of just military transports, and direct rescue operations using helicopters could have been run out of there more securely.
Listen, the list of advantages goes on and on. The point being is that the U.S. government could now either work a deal with the Taliban or take it back by force in order to continue the evacuation in a more secure and less high-profile locale. Beyond shuttling people from Hamid Karzai International, helicopters could be used to pick up evacuees all over the country at unpredictable locales and they could then be flown out of Bagram. The U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Italy is set up for just this kind of mission—airfield seizure. If they are not presently tasked, they could at least help secure the field until the United States decides to leave based on its own timeline.
The problem with this plan has to do with how the Taliban may react. If they decide to militarily contest the occupation of Bagram Airfield, the U.S. would still deal with threats from beyond its perimeter, although they will not be so dense, surrounded by innocent lives, or near in proximity as at Hamid Karzai International, which is a huge difference. The U.S. government could threaten to destabilize the Taliban government unless they leave American forces alone at Bagram and otherwise play very hardball with them. This could have the desired effect of the Taliban protesting the presence of U.S. troops at Bagram, but taking a wait-and-see attitude.
The other possibility is that the Taliban starts taking hostages and putting on large-scale executions until the U.S. military leaves. Of course, this would result in a dramatic response from the United States, as well as the world community, and the Taliban would be risking a ton in doing so just to antagonize the U.S. government even though they are fully aware that American forces will eventually leave.
Then we have the 'over the horizon' option, which isn't really an alternative to forces in situ at all. The cold truth is that Afghanistan is a landlocked country surrounded by nations that are either hostile to the United States or do not want to directly support our operations in the now Taliban-controlled country. In other words, staging special operations and other forces in a bordering country and flying groups of people out that way isn't readily on the table, at least that we know of, and doing so would come with great risk, especially without establishing a temporary austere base in the country to support these operations.
So unless a deal can be worked with a neighboring country—one that can even be trusted—even this low-volume solution is really not possible without going to sea basing, and that is the most inconvenient proposition of them all.
Kabul is 800 miles from international waters, which includes flying over Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is beyond the range of any helicopter without inflight refueling. Executing such long-range missions using CH-53Es, HH-60s, MH-60s, or MH-47s, would be a slow and challenging process to sustain and would be rife with risk, especially at the volumes needed to continue any meaningful form of mass evacuations.
The MV-22 Osprey fleet could potentially be mobilized to a large degree to support this concept, but doing so from the sea would require any available amphibious assault ships, sea bases, or even supercarriers, to be reconfigured to enable primarily these operations. This and deploying enough Ospreys would take time the U.S. does not have. How long the MV-22 fleet could sustain such an extremely high-tempo operation is also highly questionable.
There is one more wildcard that could impact all of this. Not all of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban. There is a burgeoning resistance group not far to the north of Kabul that has actually gained ground in recent days, although the Taliban is trying to see that come to an end. The group is led by ex-Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh and former Afghan politician Ahmad Massoud, the latter being the son of a legendary Northern Alliance general, and has battle-hardened fighters protecting an area of Afghanistan that has never fallen to the Taliban. You can read all about this group in this past article of ours.
This group's existence and moderate values could represent a major opportunity for the United States. The Pentagon could potentially help reinforce this resistance and set up an austere forward operating base capable of sustaining helicopters and tactical transport aircraft in this still autonomous region. Using a hub and spoke arrangement, helicopters could fly evacuees in from around Afghanistan and C-130s and possibly even C-17s could fly them out of the country.
We have a limited understanding of the disposition of this rebel force at this time and how the Taliban's new counter-offensive against them is going, so it isn't clear how feasible such a plan would be, but it may represent the best opportunity available if indeed the security situation in the region is relatively stable. Still, such a move will result in a major reaction from the Taliban, which sees this group as an existential threat to their dominion over the country.
There is a model for this already, though. It is how the U.S. military originally took control of Afghanistan with the help of the Northern Alliance, primarily by leveraging airpower to support advances by local forces. Doing the same just to support the group long enough to get everyone out could be a very attractive possibility, and the Taliban would not be able to use dense urban terrain to shield itself from airpower, like in Kabul.
A remote austere forward operating base could be set up independently in the country without help from indigenous forces, but securing it and the territory around it for what would be an operation that would last days, but will still be limited in duration, would be very challenging. Overall such a concept is extremely risky and it poses a whole number of extreme logistical and security challenges. Doing so for a one-off operation that lasts hours, not days, is much more plausible, but it does not address the sustained evacuation operations issue.
So, there you have it, there are no good solutions here that immediately come to mind, with the best and most realistic one likely being making a miserable deal with the Taliban to allow the U.S. to continue operations in exchange for funding their dastardly government or who knows what. Even then, getting Afghan allies out of the country will likely not be possible outside of pointed vertical lift operations as the Taliban is already drastically curtailing the ability of Afghans to leave their country.
The only other option may be just leaving many who the U.S. has promised safe passage behind to be dealt with by the Taliban. But even then, we are unlikely to be fully done with the evacuation, albeit who we can actually extract and when will become incredibly limited.
All this is a product of poor planning and questionable intelligence, or at least questionable interpretation and execution based on existing intelligence. We are paying the price now and it could get much higher before this is all over.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com