Editor’s Note: Matt Zeller is a US Army veteran. He is currently the advisory board chair of the Association of Wartime Allies. He is co-founder of No One Left Behind, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project. He is the author of “Watches Without Time,” which chronicles his experience serving as an embedded combat adviser in 2008 with Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As America’s war in Afghanistan comes to an end, many see the inevitable parallels to Vietnam – a long aimless war, a determined enemy ready to out bleed us, and now an evacuation reminiscent of the chaos of Saigon’s final hours.
When a war ends, two questions loom large: Was it worth it? And how do we end it? Only history can answer the first. Only we can answer the latter.
As North Vietnamese forces bore down in a final assault on the dying nation of South Vietnam, American diplomats, spies, and the small remaining cadre of military advisers desperately mounted a last-minute rescue. None of it was planned ahead of time. The fact that we were able to evacuate 130,000 of our Vietnamese wartime allies in such circumstances was a miracle. Many escaped via ships – the remnants of the South Vietnamese Navy and merchant fleet – and sailed to Guam.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country – we do not have the luxury of an ocean and boats to aid us in the evacuation of the more than 70,000 Afghan wartime allies estimated in need of rescue from certain Taliban death.
We cannot load everyone into trucks and drive to safety now that our war is over.
Should we choose to save our Afghan wartime allies – the interpreters, engineers, aid workers, and others essential to our effort – we are going to need the largest airlift since Berlin after World War II.
The White House has finally agreed our allies must be evacuated and it has a plan to evacuate those who can make it to Kabul. Sadly, it is not enough. The Association of Wartime Allies recently polled the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa population. Nearly 49% are outside Kabul – a population of approximately 34,000 people. Unless we go save them, they will die within weeks.
The Taliban claims to control 85% of the country and is fighting to take the cities it does not yet control. They may take Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, within weeks. An Association of Wartime Allies survey estimates that 3,200 Afghan allies are currently trapped in Kandahar.
The Taliban has a presence on Afghanistan’s roads and have created checkpoints for vehicles. They have used biometric data at these checkpoints to identify US allies and administer their death sentences on the side of the road. Hundreds have already suffered this fate, according to No One Left Behind.
Commercial air travel is scarce between Afghan cities, and most of our allies cannot afford the ticket. The Afghan military cannot defend or move these people. Only US troops can do it. Now, we have two options before us. Either we accept the mass murder of people we made a promise to save or we take bold action. I argue we must do the latter.
The President should order the 82nd Airborne Division or the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force back into Afghanistan. We should retake airfields we held mere months ago. Some remain in Afghan military control, others we will likely have to seize from the Taliban by force. From these air bases, we should begin the evacuation of our Afghan wartime allies that should have properly occurred before we withdrew any of our own forces.
Anything less than this bold action all but guarantees our allies and their families who are left behind will die gruesome deaths that the Taliban may film for the world to see. They want to convince our future allies that American friendship is a death sentence. With prior videos of horrendous executions as evidence, how could we argue it isn’t? How will any future allies be able to trust us?
Any lives we save now will prove to allies later that Americans keep their word and will not abandon our friends to our enemies. Our allies are in danger because of their service to the United States mission in Afghanistan. America must meet our commitment to them. A bipartisan coalition in Congress, as well as veteran, human rights and faith organizations all agree – we must save these people. A plan exists to make it happen. Only President Biden can give the order.
How will we end this war? With honor or shame? Do we have the courage and conviction to save these allies or will we leave them to die?