A view of the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

Opening and Closing US Embassies--From Sierra Leone to Afghanistan

U.S. officials are very well aware that local citizens who work with the U.S. military are endangering themselves and their families when the U.S. departs.

The people of Afghanistan are in a state of fear of the Taliban who now control Afghanistan's capital, major cities, and countryside--after the U.S. and NATO twenty-year occupation. Here are some of my personal observances during sixteen years in the U.S. diplomatic corps and experiencing the opening and closing of U.S. Embassies in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan and the effects on the civilian populations of the countries involved.

In December 2001, I was a part of a very small team from the U.S. Department of State that was sent to Kabul, Afghanistan to reopen the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy had been closed for 12 years following the Soviet exodus from Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war between the warlord militias that fought to gain land and influence. The U.S. had sent CIA paramilitary and some U.S. Army Special Forces into Afghanistan in October 2001 to chase down Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda after the events of 9/11.

Now, twenty years later, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and a few thousand international military including the U.S--the U.S. and its NATO partners are exiting Afghanistan under a pitiful agreement brokered during the Trump administration by former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad, himself an Afghan who came to the U.S. as a teenager. The deal with the Taliban sold out the government of Afghanistan and ended up with the release of 6,000 Taliban prisoners for an agreement that the Taliban would not fire on U.S. military during its departure from Afghanistan. No deal was struck for power-sharing or any other aspect that could have put the government of Afghanistan on a strong negotiating footing.

After the U.S. undercut the Afghan government, it is now left with no leverage in dealing with the Taliban and is facing the rapid takeover of the country as many of the 300,000 Afghan personnel trained by the U.S. and NATO militaries have surrendered to the Taliban or returned to the warlord militias from which they came.

I was told when I arrived in Afghanistan that there is a time-honored tradition of changing sides depending on whom has more personnel and firepower, to live to fight another day and we are definitely seeing that now. Today we see that the president of the country Asraf Ghani has fled to a neighboring country. I met Ghani when he arrived in Afghanistan as a private citizen in January 2002--just coming from a lengthy employment with the World Bank. He was minister of finance for a period during the administrations of Hamid Karzai.

5,000 U.S. military are arriving in Kabul to protect Kabul International Airport as over 4,000 U.S. government and contract employees leave Afghanistan. The State Department spokesperson Ned Price on August 12 said that it is "not an abandonment, not an evacuation, not a wholesale withdrawal, but is a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint." A skeleton staff may remain in Kabul to keep the U.S. Embassy nominally "open." Despite what the State Department calls it, the Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. on August 13 called U.S. actions "an abandonment."

U.S. Embassy personnel have destroyed sensitive documents as they prepare to leave Afghanistan. U.S. Presidential Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is attempting to extract a commitment from the Taliban that they will not attempt to take over the extensive U.S. Embassy compound "if it ever wants to receive foreign aid."

Evacuation of US Embassy in Sierra Leone in 1997

With the Embassy staff in Kabul in withdrawal/evacuation mode, it reminds me of what I and our Embassy staff went through 25 years ago in 1996 when a coup of militants and an element of the Sierra Leone, an Army overthrew the elected government of the West African country of Sierra Leone. The violence on the streets of Freetown, the capital of the country, including the temporary kidnapping of a U.S. marine and an Embassy local employee driver, caused the evacuation of the entire international community, Embassies, UN offices and international NGOS, and most of the Sierra Leonean government who felt they were in mortal danger.

While there was no U.S. military involvement in Sierra Leone's civil war, the U.S. Embassy had been the backstop of gunfire as the nearby State House was taken by the rebels. 90 windows were blown out of the embassy and the rebels made attempts to come into several Embassy properties but they were talked out of entering by our brave local employees.

After the U.N envoy, the British High Commissioner and I, as Charge d'Affaires of the U.S. Embassy, had discussions with the leadership of the coup about their giving up the coup in exchange for the government meeting several demands. The three of us were told by our higher-ups to stop discussions and prepare for evacuation as they had received indications that we might be kidnapped if we continued the talks.

That began the rapid organization to prepare for closing the Embassy in just a few days. The U.S. military sent the huge amphibious assault ship USS Kearsage for the main evacuation. The Kearsarge had been offshore Zaire for possible evacuation of Americans from that country so we had to wait for the main evacuation for the Kearsarge to arrive. We put some Embassy family members on a chartered flight that the British Embassy had arranged but over the next three days we evacuated over 2500 persons, including many U.S. Embassy local employees, by helicopter from a U.S. military secured hotel to the USS Kearsarge, a huge U.S. Navy ship several miles offshore. Thousands of Sierra Leonean citizens gathered at the hotel hoping they could be evacuated, but the decision in Washington was that the U.S. could not evacuate all of them. They were on their own to get to neighboring countries if they wanted to flee from the violent coup makers.

The Embassy remained closed for one year until a Nigerian military force pushed the coup makers off the peninsula on which the capital was located. The U.S. Embassy was closed six months later when rebel groups again came into the city. Peace in Sierra Leone was finally achieved with the introduction of 18,000 United Nations sponsored military units that stayed in the country for several years.

Back to Afghanistan

I was in Kabul in December 2001 on the small team that reopened the U.S. Embassy. I stayed for about six months. Our team never dreamed the U.S. would have stayed in Afghanistan for 20 years. In fact, our initial cables back to Washington predicted we should do what the U.S. intended to do in a short time and as foreign militaries in Afghanistan, no matter the rationale for their presence, eventually were pushed out by Afghans.

Possible Retaliation

U.S. officials are very well aware that local citizens who work with the U.S. military are endangering themselves and their families when the U.S. departs. The history of the U.S. wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia have seen retaliation against persons who have worked with U.S. forces, but the protection of those persons is never considered in the decision making of sending U.S. military into a situation much less during the fast withdrawal of forces. After 20 years in Afghanistan, it is estimated that 50,000 persons are eligible for some type of U.S. visa.

Retaliation by the Taliban against Afghan national military and national police forces trained by the U.S. and NATO were expected and have occurred. Afghan military units are surrendering to the Taliban in hopes they will not be killed in a time-honored tradition that rather than dying in fighting, if you recognize that the opposing forces have more personnel and weaponry, then you surrender to save your life. Government forces on the borders of Afghan have surrendered in droves. From May 1-27, at least 26 outposts and bases in four provinces--Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni--surrendered after the Taliban used village elders to deliver to outposts messages to surrender or be killed, some elders and government officials.

However, surrendering does not work for all units. In July 22 Afghan Special Forces commandos, including the son of an Afghan general, were executed by Taliban as they were surrendering.

The executions by the Taliban remind me of 2001 when General Dostum and U.S. forces executed Taliban prisoners taken from Sherboyan prison and executed in the desert as documented in the 2002 film: Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. Memories in Afghanistan are long and retaliation is a given.

I don't think the Taliban will take over the U.S. Embassy compound as the Taliban wants international aid, and I suspect we will have a substantial military force inside the Embassy to protect it. There were already 90 marines inside and I think many of the 5,000 will go into the compound to protect the facility as seeing the facility overrun would not be what any administration wants to have seen.

Warlords and Their Militias--Same Story 20 Years later

While in Kabul in 2001/2002 I also met regional warlords who had wrecked havoc on Kabul after they had pushed the Soviets out. With Khalizad, I met with General Dostum and warlord Mohammed Atta in Mazar-i-Sharf in January 2002 to try to get them to stop fighting among themselves--and ending up getting food poisoning from having lunch at Dostum's house. Dostum was the warlord whose militias killed over 3,000 Taliban and other prisoners from Sherboygan prison by shooting into containers that contained the prisoners and their bodies buried in the desert. Afghan Convoy of Death documents these murders and will be a basis for retaliation by the Taliban against Dostum and his militia twenty years later.

Similar Taliban retaliation should be expected by the Taliban against warlord Ismail Khan who has ruled the Herat region on the border with Iran for over 20 years. Khan was captured in Herat several days ago.

Presidential Palace in Kabul

Today we know the Taliban have entered the Presidential Palace which President Ghani fled from earlier today.

Now on TV are images of the Taliban in the Presidential Palace. I remember going to the Palace for the first time in 2001 and Hamid Karsai invited us to stay for lunch-a pilaf, the first hot meal we had had in Afghanistan, before we got our little stove working in the bunker we were staying in and doing take-out from the restaurant owned by the brother of one of our Embassy employees!!!

The paintings in the Presidential Palace were being retouched from having been protected by an overlay of paint to cover images that the Taliban would have destroyed.

A few weeks later, I was in the National Museum when statues and figures were returned by museum employees who had taken them to their homes or had buried them to protect them from destruction--as the Taliban had blown up the iconic massive Buddha statues in Bamiyan when they took into power in 1996.

Impact on Women in Afghanistan

We all are very concerned about the plight of women under another Taliban rule. While tens of thousands of Afghans were killed and hundreds of thousands were wounded by the violence of the U.S./NATO military operations after Al Qaeda was forced out of Afghanistan, the occupation did provide some positive aspects for the role of women:

  • 3,135 functional health facilities created by 2018, giving 87% of Afghan people access to a medical facility within two hours distance;
  • In 2003, 10% of girls in primary schools had increased to 33% in 2017;
  • In 2003, 6% in Secondary education had increased to 39% in 2017;
  • 2017 3.5 million Afghan girls in school with 100,000 studying in universities;
  • Women's life expectancy grew from 56 years in 2001 to 66 in 2017;
  • Childbirth mortality declined from 1,100 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 396 per 100,000 in 2015;
  • By 2020, 21% of Afghan civil servants were women (compared with almost none during the Taliban years), 16% of them in senior management levels, and 27% of Afghan members of parliament were women.

But according to a Brookings report, in the rural areas where 76% of Afghan women live, it's a different story. Gains for women have been unequal, with the increases far greater for women in urban areas. For many rural women, particularly in Pashtun areas but also among other rural minority ethnic groups, actual life has not changed much from the Taliban era where they are still dependent on men in their families for permission to access health care, attend school, and work.

Most importantly, many Afghan men remain deeply conservative. A study showed that only 15 percent of Afghan men think women should be allowed to work outside of their home after marriage, and 66% of men complain Afghan women now have too many rights. Families allow girls to have a primary or secondary education--up to puberty--and then will proceed with arranged marriages. Even if a young woman is granted permission to attend a university by her male guardian, her father or future husband may not permit her to work after graduation. Rural women said that the Taliban reduced sexual predation and robberies that debilitated their lives and most Afghan women in rural areas continue to be covered with the burqa.

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