A Tale of Two Evacuations

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Photo source: Pixabay

As I reflect on the recent news of leaving Afghanistan, it reminds me of the evacuation I participated in as a junior enlisted marine in Beirut, Lebanon in 1984. Despite both the differences and similarities between these two operations, the main thing to remember is, as Marines, soldiers, or whatever branch of service, we receive our orders from the top. Our orders descend from the commander-in-chief to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, through the chain of command, all the way down through the lowly private standing next to you. We go and we accomplish the mission, trusting in the decisions of our superiors and absent of politics. Or so we thought!

The fighting in Lebanon had been going on for years. I arrived in Beirut in early December 1983. As a newly assigned member of the Marine Security Guard Detachment at the U.S. Embassy, I was motivated to be there. The embassy detachment was small but was as technically and tactically proficient as any unit in the Corps. Many of the detachment Marines had served in other embassies and diplomatic missions. Terrorist car bombings were practically an everyday occurrence, as were sporadic daily gun battles and artillery fire. It seemed the factions were all fighting each other, the Lebanese Army was fighting the factions, and on the edges of this chaos were the Iranians and Syrians firing on the Marines. The marines were on a “Peacekeeping Mission” and were stuck in the middle. We were augmented outside the embassy by “Foxtrot Co. 2nd Bn 8th Marines and had one mission; To protect the embassy personnel; to safeguard classified materials, and to protect government property.

There are similar circumstances between the evacuation in Beirut 1984 and the one recently conducted in Afghanistan 2021: terrorism, humanitarian issues, warring factions fighting each other, partisan congressional decisions, lack of diplomatic progress, and politicians who ignore the intelligence reports from the operators in the field.

The first time I ever heard the rule of the 7 P’s was in the Marine Corps, and I believe it was taught to me by Gunnery Sergeant Randy Sears. Sears explained, that “Regardless of the task if it required planning, the 7 Ps were applicable. “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance”! In February 1984, the fighting in Lebanon was so severe that decision-makers in Washington D.C. decided to close the American Embassy. And simultaneously, they decided to build a new U.S. embassy annex in East Beirut. Unlike Afghanistan, we did not have 20 years to develop a contingency plan. It seemed to be an almost instant decision! A rapid, shoot from the hip type plan, which would require applying the 7 P’s.

The process to evacuate was tedious. Perimeters were set and entryways were established with barricades covered in concertina and razor wire. There was no climbing over or diverting the entry process. The implementation was organized and peaceful, largely because those wishing to do us harm did not know we were leaving. The rules were simple. Evacuees needed proper identification and were allowed two suitcases each. The explosive detection canines would sniff the individual and their suitcases, before coming inside the perimeter checkpoint. Once inside, the individuals and their suitcases were searched for weapons or contraband. Once cleared, the evacuees with their suitcases were escorted to a staging point to await the helicopters for transport. The evacuees were moved to U.S. naval vessels somewhere out in the Mediterranean.

The first to evacuate were the State Department’s nonessential personnel and their families. These were clerks, advisors, political attaches, agriculture advisors, consulate officers, and others. Practically everyone except the ambassador, Deputy chief of mission, and the State Department Regional Security Officer (RSO) and his security personnel. Next, American civilians and immigrant “green card” holders were evacuated. The next group to evacuate were those Lebanese citizens who had worked at the embassy or perhaps were in the process of applying for an immigrant visa. There were other diplomats from Japan, South Korea, and others. The British and Italians were also evacuating. The fighting in war-torn Beirut had spread like today’s pandemic. The time to evacuate had come.

“With only a few hours’ notice, over 400 Americans were evacuated without incident… According to the flight manifests, there were 410 Americans, Lebanese, and Diplomats from Egypt, Japan, and South Korea, airlifted out of West Beirut via marine helicopters. Another group of 110 American citizens and others from “friendly nations” left by ship from Jounieh Harbor, North of East Beirut.” — The New York Times

The Beirut evacuation was substantially smaller in numbers compared to Afghanistan. However, the success of the Beirut evacuation was attributed to successfully applying the 7 P’s. A stark contrast to the evacuation from Afghanistan! In Beirut, there were no prior media reporting our departure, and due to this, chaos and panic did not occur and therefore allowed time for the State Department to reach out to our allies in and around Beirut, to include them in the evacuation. The most valuable lesson in comparison to this point? The enemy did not know what our plans were. “Loose lips do sink ships!”

In 2001, when the United States went into Afghanistan, the U.S. solicited help from the local nationals to assist us in our operations as interpreters and translators. The Afghans who stepped up to help did so at great personal risk of death from the Taliban. In appreciation for their help, the U.S. government promised assistance in obtaining Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), to migrate to the United States.

To all appearances, the Afghanistan evacuation seemed to be a rolling snowball of chaos and mismanagement. The Beirut evacuation had an organized process to prioritize the evacuees and maintained identifying passenger manifests. This did not appear to be the case in the Afghanistan evacuation. In Afghanistan, the Biden administration ordered the evacuation of military personnel and Afghan refugees first, ahead of American citizens and ahead of the Afghans who helped us, despite the promises from our government. The Biden administration failed on so many levels in timely planning and execution. They began flying refugees who were unvetted and undocumented, many of whom did not stand up and assist us with the war effort. But when the collapse of the elected Afghan government was imminent and the takeover by the Taliban inevitable, they wanted to be the first ones out. It is obvious there was little to no planning in the Afghanistan evacuation until the last minute. President Biden and top military personnel knew the evacuation would be leaving Americans behind.

The decisions made to announce our departure created media buzz and told the enemy what our plans were. By all military sense, this is perhaps the biggest breach of Operation Security (OPSEC) there is. The decision to vacate and surrender Bagram Air Base eliminated our ability to maintain a secure operating base for any operation, including the final evacuation. Strategically, this eliminated an operating airbase with a decent proximity to the entire region. This also provided access to stockpiles of weapons, equipment, aircraft, and vehicles to the Taliban. Finally, to recognize the hostile overthrow of the Afghan Government by the Taliban, and to negotiate with, let alone trust, the Taliban, reveals the absolute worst decision-making from the United States government and our military. The decisions made by President Biden and his administration, and the chaos and panic it created, provided the perfect cover and opportunity for a terrorist to detonate a bomb at the Kabul Airport, killing thirteen American military personnel and hundreds of civilians, and wounding many others, with zero accountability from the decision-makers. But then again, this is nothing new.

Following the successful evacuations from West Beirut, U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew’s insistence to open the Annex before the completion of the facility, (i.e., unfinished security safeguards being in place), provided an opportunity for a Muslim extremist to drive a car bomb into the Annex, killing dozens of people and wounding many others. Again, like the bad decisions that fed the war in Afghanistan for twenty years, there has been no accountability for the deadly decisions made. In my opinion, the Beirut evacuation was well thought out, orderly, and successful. Quite the contrary to the evacuation of Afghanistan. Of my lessons learned, I would conclude that “Good leaders and good planning are crucial.” It is going to be dangerous times for the Americans and our allies left behind in Afghanistan. All things considered, I am thankful the War on Terror seems to be coming to an end in Afghanistan; Or has it?

Larry Gill | Columnist

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