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Opinion: We can still avoid an Afghanistan hostage crisis, but only if Biden wants to

In his haste to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 deadline, President Joe Biden may have set the stage for a national tragedy

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In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a U.S. Marine escorts a child during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai Airport, Afghanistan.

In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a U.S. Marine with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command escorts a child during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla, U.S. Marine Corps via Associated Press

In his haste to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 deadline — presumably to declare the Afghan war over by Sept. 11 — President Joe Biden may have set the stage for a national tragedy: a repeat of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

On steroids. 

In an Aug. 19, interview with NBC, Jake Sullivan, the administration’s national security adviser, conceded as much. 

“We right now have established contact with the Taliban to allow for the safe passage of people to the airport, and that is working at the moment to get Americans and Afghans at risk to the airport,” Sullivan told NBC. “That being said, we can’t count on anything.”

Since Aug. 14, the day before the fall of Kabul, the Pentagon has evacuated more than 37,000 people from Afghanistan. Twenty-eight military aircraft ferried 10,400 people in the 24 hours from Sunday to Monday. Yet with tens of thousands of American, Afghan and foreign nationals trapped in Kabul and others stranded all over Afghanistan, Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline is no longer a deadline. For many, it will be a death sentence. 

Britain and France, as part the Group of 7, have called on Biden to extend his deadline. Biden has resisted, citing the terrorist risk.

“It’s a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News. “If the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations — the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.”  

The Taliban have now blocked the roads to the Hamid Karzai Airport. Thousands of evacuees could now become the Taliban’s hostages. The Hamid Karzai Airport itself could become an open air prison, if not a killing field. Already countless Afghans have gone into hiding rather than risk capture. No one’s passage is safe.

It is not just Afghans who are trapped in this schizophrenic nightmare. We are all catching a glimpse of the breakdown of time, the tyranny of process, the insanity of chaos in the Kabul airport, a crush of faces with no documents, of identities with no reflection.

The very idea of flight to a promised land, of a conference of birds, lies expired and extinguished as so many flap their broken wings on the tarmac of the airport, feathers scorched, faith seared.

The image of an American marine hoisting an Afghan child through barbed wire provided a pause in time, an exit out of a tragedy that has become home to so many. As with such miracles, the rescued child was the answer to all our prayers, a sign of the presence of all our prophets. So many have been lost and buried in Afghanistan’s wars but the promise of redemption and deliverance remains, our eyes transfixed by the hearts that hold and hands that lift children sinking in the abyss of time.

The evacuation is far from over. The stakes extend beyond a single child. There is life pulsing in the body of the Afghan people, and it is possible to put a price on the extension of life quantified in terms of time.  

We know the price of every day — 10,400 people have been rescued in 24 hours. That’s roughly 430 people per hour. 

We know the capacity of the planes. With 15 C-17 flights airlifting 6,660 people in 12 hours, each C-15 averages 444 people. At the higher end, more than 640 Afghans were scooped out in a C-17 Globemaster.

These are extraordinary numbers; they command respect, not contempt.

To put the rescue operation in perspective, the total number of passengers killed in the sinking of the Titanic was 1,517 people. That number has been and is being airlifted with 4 C-15s in less than four hours.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed a total of 2,996 people. That number has been and can be airlifted in less than seven hours.

According to the Watson Institute, the total number of United States troops who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past almost 20 years stands at 7,057. That number can be airlifted in less than 24 hours.

The sum total of all the people killed in the Afghanistan war is estimated to be 172,390 (66,000 Afghan national military and police, 47,245 Afghan civilians, and 51,191 Taliban and other fighters). That number can be airlifted in 17 days — less than a month.  

If these numbers do nothing else, they show all of us, including the Taliban, a way to save face by honoring the dead. We can redeem the price of each and every life lost in Afghanistan — an entire war fought over at the past two decades — as a function of how we negotiate the price of time.

In Afghanistan, the graveyard of so many tribes and nations, time is more than a quicksand of money and power. It is the face of all that is holy — a call for peace, patience and prayer.

Let us count on grace: The presence of the divine manifest in the image of soldier and child. 

Amir Soltani is a human rights activist, the author of “Zahra’s Paradise” and an advisor to PEN America’s Freedom of Expression Program.