Former Afghanistan ambassador reflects on the evacuation and withdrawal

A group of people in a small clinic.
A nurse checks the weight of a child in a makeshift clinic organized by World Vision at a settlement near Herat, Afghanistan.
Mstyslav Chernov | AP 2021

As the world watches Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, another humanitarian crisis is deepening thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

A man in a suit sits in front of a backdrop for an interview.
Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson speaks during an interview with AFP at the US Embassy in Kabul on May 18, 2021.
Wakil Kohsar | AFP via Getty Images

Since August, when the U.S. pulled the last of its troops out of the country and the Taliban regained control, Afghanistan has plunged into economic collapse. As of last month, the UN estimated 95 percent of the country’s population was not getting enough to eat.

Minnesota native Ross Wilson, the former acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan at the time of the withdrawal, provides more on the situation in Afghanistan.

The following is a transcript of the discussion, edited for clarity.

I want to start with where Afghanistan is right now. The economy is in freefall, the Taliban government is under sanctions, much of the country's budget is dependent on foreign aid. Was this crisis foreseeable to U.S. officials at the time of the withdrawal?

Well, I think we had some hopes that there would be a consensual transfer of power from those who had led the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that we helped to establish after our invasion in 2001, to something a little bit broader that included Taliban but was not dominated by the Taliban, and certainly not exclusively, the Taliban.

The rather abrupt and violent, chaotic scene at the very end — particularly involving the collapse of the government — I think surprised us, particularly at that particular moment. And we had hopes that some in the United States and elsewhere, that the [Taliban] might rule more reasonably than they had in the 1990s, have proved not to have turned out. Arguably, the Taliban have returned to who they were before.

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You mentioned that chaotic scene, what were your feelings? What do you think back to the flight that you took to get out of Kabul and others were trying to get out? What regrets do you have regarding the chaos of that withdrawal?

The airport scene … I know that it looked terrible on American television, it was worse there. You had these mobs of people who came on the airfield and in the first couple of days. After that, we struggled with tens of thousands of people and moving them through choke points that seem to just go downstream. From the gates — the processing gates — to the terminal where people got processed for traveling to the United States, holding areas where they waited, to airplanes, to the so-called lily pads or holding points in countries between Afghanistan and the United States, then finally, on U.S. bases. And shortfalls and choke points with respect to the kind of agencies that support refugees of that sort.

There was also an almost unimaginable Niagara Falls of appeals for help, of demands that we get people or groups out from Afghans from other embassies and organizations and camo from ex-generals, NGO leaders, media executives, members of Congress, hundreds and hundreds of emails, texts, and calls every day. All well-intentioned, were deserving but overwhelming such that it got in the way of getting people out and made it extremely difficult to implement priorities that we had, in particular with respect to American citizens and the so-called Special Immigrant Visa category where we did not do as well as we would have hoped.

Do you think that you and your staff tried the best you could under the circumstances?

I think all of us who were there are incredibly proud of what we did — 124,000 people got out. That movement was affected by our State Department staff, but obviously, especially by the thousands of military personnel who provided the security and directly supported that evacuation effort. That's an unprecedented accomplishment, I believe, and we're all very, very proud of that. All of us are very, very sad about what we left behind.

I'm thinking about the situation in Ukraine. The president pledged last month to take in up to 100,000 refugees fleeing that war, but as of February, the U.S. had resettled only about 75,000 Afghan nationals, including those who worked for the U.S. during the war. In your view, what responsibility does the U.S. have to the Afghan people right now?

Just as a point of clarification, of the 124,000 evacuations we help to support from Afghanistan, about 79,000 or 80,000, were intended to come to the United States, others have gone to European countries, and they work for European embassies, they've gone to other locations.

So the numbers are a little bit less. There remains I'm sure it's an excess of 10,000 that has still not been effectively resettled either out of camps or locations in the United States, or an unlimited number of that are still in Europe or elsewhere on route to our country.

I think our biggest obligations are to American citizens who remain in Afghanistan, to legal permanent residents who remain there for one reason or another, to those who work for us and work with us as translators, interpreters, staff supporters, the SIV category.

There is work — I'm not involved in it — but there is work going on at the State Department to try to get people out. The last time I spoke with people, it was in excess of 4,000 had gotten out after our final departure on August 31. Which is not a huge number, but it's a good number, and I'm happy about that. And I think clearly, we owe a lot to those people who helped us and supported us. And all of us who were there cared deeply about them.

Do you worry that attention now has shifted to what's happening in Ukraine — rightfully so, that's what's happening right now — but what's happening in Afghanistan is just languishing on the world stage?

You know Cathy, I do. Obviously, one of the reasons I think why the president decided to go ahead with the withdrawal, is that there are other needs in the world, and they have to be addressed.

He wasn't anticipating Ukraine, but as sure as the sunrises and sunsets, there were going to be and will be further crises. I think it's important for the United States both to work with and assist those who got out. Work with and assist those who, particularly those who worked for us and with us — as well as American citizens, of course — to help them get out. And I think also there are millions of people in whom we invested effectively.

The health care that we helped to provide dramatically lowered infant mortality and improved life expectancy there. There are millions that are probably living now, who wouldn't otherwise have been. Millions of boys and girls went to school, through the generosity of American taxpayers and those in Europe and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of men and women went to universities, hundreds of thousands were active in civil society programs with us and developing the sinews of a reasonably free and independent country.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, most of those people remain in Afghanistan. And they can be a force for change, particularly as the Taliban proves unable to deal with the problems that the country faces, for which the Taliban are almost uniquely unqualified to cope effectively with. The United States needs to be there and needs to find ways to support those people and to support change as the wheel of politics will turn in Afghanistan, just as it turns everywhere else. And I think there are 40 million people there that are hoping for a better life in the future.

More of a personal question here. You've been called out of retirement several times to help lead U.S. embassies. Are you done being tapped to head to hotspots?

I believe I am. You know, one never says never. I was very reluctant to go into Afghanistan. Frankly, I finally concluded it was my duty to go and to do that. I'm not looking to do this again.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.