The speed with which the situation in Afghanistan has collapsed can be measured by the U.S. Embassy’s Security Alerts. On August 14–yesterday–the Embassy was encouraging Americans to leave Kabul on commercial flights:
The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan has received reports that international commercial flights are still operating from Kabul, but seats may not be available. The U.S. Embassy is exploring options for U.S. citizens who want to depart and who have not been able to find a seat on commercial flights. This notice is to solicit information from U.S. citizens who may wish to utilize such a options. If you have an existing flight booked, do not cancel that booking.
The Embassy referred to “any option that might be identified to return to the United States;” Americans could file a Repatriation Assistance Request to get in line for such opportunities. No such options were identified, however.
On August 15–earlier today–the Embassy produced another Security Alert. Previously, the Embassy had encouraged Americans to head for the airport to get out of Kabul. No longer:
The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place.
The Embassy was still talking about registration for “options” that might arise in the future, even as the airport was falling to the Taliban:
U.S. citizens wanting assistance in departing the country should register for any option that might be identified to return to the United States, and must complete this Repatriation Assistance Request for each traveler in their group.
As I understand it, there are currently a number of American citizens at the Kabul airport, which has fallen or imminently will fall to the Taliban. U.S. soldiers reportedly are en route to protect them there. Who knows what happens if Taliban leaders choose to attack?
There evidently are a non-trivial number of Americans and other Westerners scattered around various locations in Kabul. Kabul is now in the hands of the Taliban, including the Presidential Palace. The Biden administration has issued a stern warning to the Taliban that they had better not kill or mistreat Americans, or else.
While the situation in Afghanistan is obviously fluid, it is hard to see any reason why the Taliban would be unable to take American and other Western hostages if they are so inclined. I have no idea what tactical decision Taliban commanders might make. Perhaps they are uninterested in hostages for some reason, or perhaps they can be (or have already been) bought off. But if they do decide to take prisoners, the humiliation of the U.S. that is now in progress will become worse by orders of magnitude.
The worst-case scenario is a full-blown hostage crisis like the one that helped to destroy the Jimmy Carter administration. At this point, whether such a crisis eventuates appears to be in the hands of the Taliban.
UPDATE: This Wall Street Journal story, posted two hours ago, gives the most coherent picture I have seen of what is going on:
By evening, the main road to the Kabul airport—packed with Afghans desperately trying to escape and with thousands of American troops protecting the evacuation effort—presented a bizarre scene of Taliban fighters mingling with uniformed Afghan troops.
At the U.S. Embassy compound on Sunday helicopters ferried American and Western diplomats and civilians to the military side of Kabul airport. One after another, Chinooks and Black Hawks took off from the landing zone, spraying dust.
Below them was a city of traffic jams and roundabouts choked by cars—many of them filled with Afghans trying to reach the airport’s relative safety. Dark smoke, presumably from burning documents, rose from the presidential palace.
President Biden has rushed 5,000 troops to Kabul to secure the airport and help evacuate American diplomatic personnel. By the end of the day, the Green Zone that contained much of the foreign presence in Kabul emptied out as embassies closed or relocated to the military base in the airport.
In the airport, large crowds gathered at the military gate, trying to get through the checkpoint. There was an exchange of gunfire, with a warning of a ground attack sounding in the terminal.
On the tarmac, dozens of gray U.S. Air Force and British transport planes awaited their passengers. Civilian flights were suspended.
The U.S. Embassy released one more statement:
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly and the situation in the airport is deteriorating rapidly,” the U.S. Embassy said in a notice sent after nightfall. Consular operations, it added, were suspended indefinitely. “Do not come to the Embassy or airport at this time.”
This may seem like a disaster to you, but be of good cheer. Indeed, it is time for a victory dance, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken:
Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected parallels being made with the rushed U.S. exit from the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam in 1975, when staff was evacuated by helicopter from the building’s roof. He said the aim in Afghanistan was to target al Qaeda, which had been achieved.
“This is not Saigon,” said Mr. Blinken, speaking to CNN on Sunday. “We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11. And we succeeded in that mission.”