Afghanistan wasn’t Dunkirk

Giving thanks for everyone who showed up to help in the Afghanistan evacuation and the aftermath — even though nobody asked

Thanksgiving has always been the most American holiday. A day to commemorate survival and adaptation and persistence. So it’s a good day to look at where we are, and what we as a nation need to do to survive and adapt and persist in this century.

Back in August, I was asked to help muster what resources I could to assist in the evacuation of a group of students and girls from Afghanistan. They were under direct threat from the Taliban for who they were and what they stood for and the vision of a future Afghanistan they wanted to be a part of — very much not the future Afghanistan that the Taliban wanted to rule. Like so many people who never expected to be called to this task, I did what I could, and it wasn’t enough. It is impossible to describe the anger and heartbreak and general sense of disbelief that defined this whole effort. But there was also wonder and gratitude and camaraderie. I got a glimpse of the truly massive self-mobilization that occurred to save the lives of the Afghans who fought with us and our allies, and the lives of those who fought and sacrificed in and out of uniform for this dream of a different Afghanistan.

There was no one group or effort, but dozens if not hundreds of groups trying to rescue different groups of stranded foreigners and abandoned Afghans during the chaotic evacuation. At some point, some of the larger groups started using the term “Dunkirk” to describe what they were doing. This was in reference to one of the darkest hours of World War II, when Allied forces were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France after their defeat by German forces in the Battle of France. The evacuation efforts were aided significantly by a fleet of private vessels — yachts, fishing boats, merchant vessels — from England that mobilized to help carry soldiers from the beaches to the evacuation ships or across the English Channel. This civilian effort was a central part of what Prime Minister Winston Churchill heralded as a “miracle of deliverance” for British and Allied forces. It was a central part of how he mustered national will to continue the fight after a staggering defeat.

It’s easy to see why this imagery became a historical reference point for the volunteers working the Afghanistan evacuation.

But let’s be clear that the evacuation of Afghanistan was not Dunkirk. At Dunkirk, the British government called for the muster of private resources so they could salvage as much of what was left as they could for the long fight still ahead. Yes, it was the only tool they had left, but they understood that the call for mobilization would also galvanize the ‘spiritual resources’ of the population to keep fighting a war that at that moment looked pretty grim. Crushing defeat became a victorious and heroic effort by the people themselves. It’s the kind of storytelling that can win wars and build nations.

The Afghanistan evacuation was the opposite of this. As the situation became more dire and the clock counted down to August 31, mushy messaging echoed out from USG podiums about how it was always going to be this way, inherited problems, oh well. There was no call for mobilization by the government. There was no desire to mobilize the resources of a nation on behalf of an impossible task. There was no acknowledgment that this was a problem that needed solving. That just didn’t happen. And we should really ask why. Not just because of Afghanistan, but because of what it says about all the challenges we face at home and abroad, and how and why we as a nation are failing to muster the resources we need to confront them.

The evacuation was much more bleak if you were involved in any small way because you learned that most of the doors had already been closed. For example, even as active duty troops and veterans pressed for the evacuation of all the Afghan interpreters that had been embedded with US forces and saved countless American lives, the US was proactively telling foreign allies they were on their own evacuating their own Afghan ‘terps’ and partners if they chose to do so. This trickled down across every level — military, diplomatic, non-profit organizations, media organizations, schools, aid groups. Everyone was fundamentally left to piece it together on their own. Some really stepped up. Countries like Portugal and Albania worked diplomatic miracles for Afghans they hadn’t known days before. Ukraine sent special forces and heavy aircraft to do rescues. Countries like Georgia that had long tried to prove their worth to NATO as a transit point to Afghanistan helped clear countless evacuation flights.

The US government — as a policy entity, as an entity of drive and purpose — did almost nothing in this effort, having already decided it was a task that would not be accomplished. This is not to say that individuals working in official capacities— at the State Department, USAID, the Pentagon, at various combatant commands — did not move mountains to save lives. They did — often far beyond the tasking they were given, or with the willing blind-eye of their superiors. The official if unstated goal was to get out as fast as possible and move beyond the moment of humiliation and chaos — to ensure it was forgotten by the successive news cycles and crises and chaos that would inevitably come. In every way, this seemed to be the choice of the current White House. Get out. Move on. Change subject. There was no storytelling to muster will, or even the understanding of why this was important.

When it became clear the US had left this vacuum, diverse actors mobilized to fill the void. Former US officials and diplomats, former and current aid workers and contractors, veterans, journalists and media groups, fixers, schools, religious organizations, private individuals who just wanted to help how they could. Never has such a frankensteined effort emerged so rapidly and with such relative success. Groups who didn’t normally cross-pollinate were suddenly moving lock-step. They worked for free and raised their own money to pay for the security and transportation costs of the evacuation. They found their own airplanes and security and buses and cars. They used their own diplomatic and security connections to fill gaps and work miracles. Foreign military connections were used, private contractors enlisted. Years of professional and casual relationships were called on, leveraged, pressured. Most hopeless in the mix were traditional Washington operators who still believed their high-level government contacts would deliver on what was clearly the right thing to do. Most learned early on this wasn’t going to happen. One message was passed to my group from the White House via a third party — they didn’t want records of direct contacts, no doubt. “What you are involved in is hard.” No sh*t. You don’t say.

What unified the evacuation amalgam was the sense that we should not have had to do this — assemble spontaneous networks of assets and operators and resources with no lead time to mount a humanitarian rescue operation of historic scale — but that it absolutely needed to be done. Networks of thousands upon thousands of volunteers who brought everything they could to the impossible task of saving Afghan lives with the clock ticking down to midnight.

It was miraculous — but also terrifying. Because think about what I just described.

As we stare at the abyss of the decline of democratic forces in the world, hinged in each of our countries on this question about why people are losing faith in democratic government, everybody looks around and asks, why? Well, this is why. It’s now normal for Americans to crowdfund their healthcare. They crowdsourced the initial pandemic response while the Trump administration blew smoke, finding ways to make education and childcare work, to get goods and services that were suddenly scarce, to import medical supplies, to mobilize people who could help address the sudden needs of the weird pandemic environment. And then, suddenly, they were crowdsourcing the evacuation of a country were we had been at war for two decades, and planning to leave for at least one.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on answering calls of duty, or at least the idea that we would answer if called. But what happens when no one is calling?

While the mountain of volunteer operators that were working the Afghanistan evacuation were big-hearted, well-intentioned, duty-driven individuals who had personal or ideological or humanitarian reasons for working in this effort, there were also the usual overt profiteers and attention seekers, as well as bad actors who seemed to want chaos and stories of failure to throw at the Biden administration and the United States and the free world writ large. And they got them. And they got more of them because of the way the evacuation was run, and the space left open for whoever showed up to fill the void.

Why have people lost faith in democracy? Why isn’t the center holding? Well, maybe a piece of why everything is falling apart is because our governments aren’t mobilizing our capabilities in the way they need to. No one asked anyone to do anything to help in the pending humanitarian disaster of Afghanistan after the allied evacuation. We just did it on our own. This was probably the most significant mobilization of American and international resources this century, and no government was responsible for it at all.

The Biden administration remained firm in the accelerated drawdown — some find this admirable, some misguided — and tied leaving Afghanistan and pulling US forces back from other areas of the world to needing a new focus elsewhere — China, new threats, whatever. I really hope this is about disentangling resources to re-engage allies and invest in other things that we need for an enhanced American presence in the world. I hope — but I am far from certain that a vision for this is in place.

The failure to connect a vision of American power in the world to the mobilization of America’s human resources and national will — this is prelude to failure in this century. Rebuilding American power must be based on summoning more Americans to a common national project that provides opportunity at home and abroad — or else it is an illusion of security when deep resilience is needed.

There are plenty of entities — Facebook and other transnational corporations that view states as competitors to their power; billionaire ideologues building structures of power and influence across and to subvert national boundaries; bitcoiners and other disruptors who view all states as inherently bad and untrustworthy forces — who will argue overtly or in private that this will be the way of the world. That the importance of nation-states is eroding, diminishing, will probably disappear. Not to be replaced by the multinational organizations dreamed up in the last century, but by disruptive forces focused on positioning themselves gaining control of specific areas of power as nation-states breakdown. And then there are states like Russia and China happy to echo the “every man for himself” sentiment that sets terms that they think they can dominate.

No one will be looking out for individuals within this melee. Everyone will be on their own. And that is why everything is falling apart. Because everybody increasingly feels that they are on their own, so we look at our fence line, our own household, to the defensible unit of what we value, however that is defined. And when everybody is defending the homestead, nobody is defending the bigger thing that used to give us all added protections and value. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the value of that bigger thing is decreasing.

There are more people than not these days, on the left and the right of the American political spectrum, who argue that we either have no right or no duty to be out in the world. We have problems at home. It isn’t our affair. There are a thousand excuses, but they all ignore that our geopolitical problems have started to look a lot like our political ones. Isolationism is the answer to neither, when it comes to the mobilization that is needed.

Our ability to solve problems is hamstrung on by our lack of ability to understand that they are interconnected. That the vision that can strengthen us at home is inextricably linked to our position in the world, in how we see ourselves and work to make others see us.

No one asks us to serve, even when events like the Afghanistan evacuation make it clear that people want to. In the absence of that request — that mobilization — people will find other things to serve than their nation. Sometimes, that’s good. But sometimes, it’s really not.

Americans will show up to do impossible things. It’s a defining characteristic of our history and our identity. So ask us. Ask people to serve, mobilize the resources we need for the coming century. Or everyone will run in a thousand different directions, trying to salvage bits of the things they care about, but weakening the whole in the process, even when they don’t intend to.

The problem in the Afghanistan evacuation is the problem in America — we are not mustering our human capital against the challenges of our times.

I am thankful for everyone who rose to the call. Who bolstered my faith that there is still a chance for the bigger mobilization of will that we need to adapt and persist in the trajectory of history we believe to be right and just.

But if the government asks nothing of us, how can it be asking enough of itself when we stand on this precipice of all that we think humanity is and what it might become?