Afghans Left Behind Need an Underground Railroad
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that the U.S. airlift is being shut down — by bombings and deadlines — some 100,000 to 300,000 Afghans are being left behind. These range from people who worked directly with the U.S. and NATO partner nations to members of the former Afghan government, teachers of girls, and outspoken anti-Taliban reporters. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the Taliban have pledged to let people leave, although that promise seems suspect. Over the past 10 days, non-Americans have been blocked from Kabul International Airport.
What can the U.S. do to help the several hundred thousand stranded Afghans? Perhaps we should think about creating a new “underground railroad” to provide an escape path.
The original U.S. underground railroad, which has rightly been celebrated in literature and history, was a complex network of routes that provided a northward path to freedom for slaves in the American South. It existed for at least half a century, from the early 1800s to the end of the Civil War, and provided freedom for more than 100,000 former slaves — at a time when the country’s entire population was only 23 million.
Establishing an Afghan underground railroad would be in some ways easier, because today we have vastly better methods of point-to-point communication. Many organizations are in contact with potential Afghan escapees via cell phone, email and social networks. At the moment, the Taliban lack the sophistication to track all these contacts, so the U.S. should be able to quickly build a secure database of evacuees.
Also, for at least the next few months, there will be significant confusion on the ground in Afghanistan. I’ve have visited every part of the country, which is roughly the size of Texas, and have seen that, beyond the few population centers, it is very decentralized.
Parts of it, including the Panjshir Valley in the north-central part of the country, are not firmly under Taliban control. The U.S. government, specifically the military and the Central Intelligence Agency, could develop a network for travel to the borders. Like the underground railroad in the 1800s, it would include “stations” or safe houses along the way, with “conductors” recruited from anti-Taliban elements.
Given the confusion on the borders, evacuees may be able to cross using their existing identities and paperwork. If they cannot, the U.S. government could provide “alternative documentation,” much as was done in the 19th century when slaves were provided forged freedom papers. Alternatively, the evacuees could ride the slipstream of internally displaced Afghans headed to refugee camps in Pakistan. Once outside Afghanistan borders, U.S. forces could pick them up. The U.S. could also help track and guide the evacuees, or even provide military cover — all at a distance “over the horizon.”
An underground railroad in Afghanistan would benefit from the country’s general anti-Taliban sensibility. Most Afghans vividly remember the days before the U.S. invaded their country, when the Taliban conducted brutal executions in soccer stadiums and permitted no education for girls. The long-running and highly regarded Asia Foundation Survey of the Afghan People has consistently found that less than 10% of the population supports the Taliban’s return. Unless Taliban 2.0 truly changes, it’s likely that anti-Taliban animus will last. This sentiment, along with the traditions of Pashtun hospitality, can help an Afghan underground railroad succeed.
A final lesson from America’s 19th-century underground railroad: The effort will be difficult, risky and fraught with disappointments and failures. But planning can mitigate the risks. Given the stakes, every Afghan who can be saved matters.
It would have been better to have started this process six to 12 months ago, or to have held the Kabul airport longer, or kept an alternative airbase or two. But those opportunities are lost. We have to play the ball where it lies on the field. Looking at the lessons of the American underground railroad may provide some inspiration for the path ahead, and allow the U.S. to honestly say no one will be left behind.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."
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