What the heck is going on with our State Department in Kabul?

The State Department is currently conducting a "surge" of consular officers into Kabul Airport and other locations in the region to help process the flood of people seeking evacuation.  That's right — instead of flying Americans out of Kabul, they are now flying additional American diplomats in!  What could possibly go wrong?  This "surge" is an insane idea for so many reasons.

Evacuees at Kabul Airport head for their plane.

First, there is the obvious risk of putting more non-combatant civilians into a tactically untenable position, completely surrounded by heavily armed hostile militants and swamped by hundreds of un-vetted local nationals.  These new consular officials not only add to the pool of potential hostages but are also high-value hostages.  They have security clearances and diplomatic passports.

Second, this plan shows irrational faith that the Taliban have no plan to attack the airport themselves and that they are capable of preventing renegade fighters from attacking it on their own.  A few mortar rounds could shut down takeoffs and landings.  There is no other way into or out of Kabul.  As the saying goes, "Past performance cannot guarantee future results."

Afghanistan is a clan-based, non-hierarchical society where every hamlet and valley has its own headman.  Rigid deference to centralized authority is not an Afghan cultural tradition.  Even if Taliban leaders wanted to maintain non-aggression, they have limited capability to enforce compliance among their loose collection of followers.  Incidents where an individual Afghan fighter becomes violent out of sudden rage or to avenge some perceived slight are commonplace.  This is a big reason why ceasefires seldom last very long in this part of the world.

Then there are all those al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other bad hombres released by the Taliban when they stormed the Bagram detention facility.  Everyone is walking around heavily armed, many with captured U.S.-provided weapons.  Honestly, I am amazed there have been so few shootings so far.

Third, this surge of consular officials indicates that the State Department is still trying to exert control over operations at the airport.  What very few people in or out of government realize is that per U.S. statute, the State Department, not the Department of Defense, is responsible for evacuation of U.S. nationals and any other "designated persons."  We practice civilian control of the military.  The military is not supposed to be telling civilians what they have to do.  The ambassador or chargé d'affaires can decide who gets evacuated, how and when they get evacuated, how they get processed, the whole thing.  DoD's role is only to support and assist DoS unless and until the State Department throws in the towel and cedes control.

The State Department and in particular the Diplomatic Service is tiny compared to DoD.  DoS has a paltry fraction of DoD's headcount and budget and has none of DoD's airlift capability or security muscle.  Furthermore, the State Department operates with a very different mindset.  Diplomats are more comfortable circulating position papers, schmoozing at embassy cocktail receptions, and authoring memoranda.  They are not known for rapid decision-making or barking commands at unruly crowds.

It is also far from clear whether evacuee processing is making full use of the military's vast trove of biometric data in Afghanistan.  Over the past 20 years, the military collected fingerprints, photos, and retinal scans of over a quarter-million Afghans.  Every person detained on suspicion of involvement with the insurgency was scanned.  Every Afghan national, third-country national, or U.S. contractor cleared to work on a U.S. base was scanned.  This kind of immutable identification data was essential in a land where much of the population is illiterate, where people often go by only one name, use noms de guerre or clan names, and where all names must be transliterated from a non-Western language into a phonetically similar English representation.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Taliban have captured some biometric devices and data.  Even so, the biometric database should be a vital tool for screening evacuees at Kabul airport.  It should be able to quickly triage evacuees, even those without documentation, into verified OK, verified as suspicious, and unknown — need further processing.

The military has a purpose-built information system for processing evacuees.  The NEO Tracking System (NTS) comes in a portable hard-shell case containing a laptop, fingerprint scanner, digital camera, and printer.  It will generate passenger loading manifests, sort and total by priority groups, and print bar-coded wristbands.

The time has come for the State Department to step aside and get all embassy personnel out of Kabul.  The situation is not suitable for keeping U.S. government civilians on the ground.  Move consular processing out to safe havens in Qatar and Kuwait, and leave the initial screening and passenger loading to the military.  Redirect State Department focus to persuading more third countries to admit at-risk Afghan refugees.  The bottleneck right now is not getting people onto airplanes; it is finding places to put them after they land.

Photo credit: YouTube screen grab.

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