What a still vibrant superpower and its friends can do
The United States is engaged in an intense and ongoing debate about who lost Afghanistan. While Congress presses the nation’s generals, pundits and veterans of America’s longest war search for answers.
As a reasonably well-informed foreign observer with a vested interest in this country’s continued commitment to principled leadership on the world stage, I am struck by what this debate misses. Much of the prevailing narrative focuses on the loss of U.S. credibility abroad and the shaken faith of allies and prospective partners in America’s willingness to stand by them in future conflicts.
Largely absent from this discussion is how, in a seminal moment of need, the United States was able to call upon those same allies to effect the largest airlift in history and save tens of thousands of lives. When asked if evacuating 124,000 Afghans, Americans and other foreign nationals out of Kabul could have succeeded without the support provided by its friends in the region, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said: “The short answer is no. We wouldn’t have had the legs. The aircraft could not have reached the United States. ... Our allies and partners have enabled us to do things that have never been done before.”
Bahrain’s role in this effort is illustrative of the vital contribution of America’s partners to its global power projection capabilities. Facing an overwhelming surge of evacuees at Kabul’s airport, the looming deadline of the total withdrawal of American forces and deteriorating security conditions on the ground, Washington quickly turned to its Gulf allies. U.S. officials called their counterparts in Bahrain and urgently requested that we receive, house and process for onward travel the maximum possible number of evacuees. Our response was an immediate and unequivocal “yes.”
Within a mere 72 hours, the Bahraini defense forces, medical personnel and immigration authorities uprooted infrastructure to set up the facilities required for receiving thousands of Afghans. It soon became evident to U.S. officials that they needed to increase the pace of evacuations from Kabul, and at their request, Bahrain agreed to double its intake of refugees. Bahrain provided blanket clearance for the arrival of an unlimited number of U.S. customs and immigration officials to vet the Afghans for onward travel to the United States. In response to a global shortage of commercial aircraft for this mission, Bahrain offered up its national flag carrier, Gulf Air.
On Aug. 23, I had the pleasure of greeting the Gulf Air Boeing 787 crew that arrived into Dulles International Airport outside Washington from Bahrain, becoming the first commercial company in the world to fly Afghan refugees to the United States. Five more such flights followed.
Bahrain also played a critical role in helping the United States to protect American citizens and others in Kabul. Bahrain-based U.S. Marines were the first forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Their quick and decisive deployment secured the U.S. Embassy and the airport, thereby saving thousands of lives.
That all these movements went off without a hitch should not diminish the magnitude of their complexity or the significance of their impact. The logistical, diplomatic and security challenges were daunting for even a global superpower, such as America, let alone a nation the size of Bahrain. Nevertheless, working together, we succeeded in pulling off an accomplishment of historic proportions — flawlessly.
America’s civilian and military personnel who executed this unprecedented operation are a credit to their nation. Their dedication, professionalism and fundamental goodness explain why America’s friends in the region continue to view the United States as their indispensable ally and are willing to go to great lengths to support her. This has certainly been the position of Bahrain for over a century.
Looking ahead, the future of our region is replete with trials that will test the will and staying power of those committed to upholding a rules-based international order. Reversing the disastrous effects of climate change; meeting citizens’ expectations for economic growth and political inclusion; producing lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians; and containing an aggressive and expansionist Iran are but the most obvious and pressing. A salient lesson to draw from recent events in Afghanistan is that America is still able to rally friends to her side when the chips are down, and there are few signs, at least from where I sit, that the future will be any different.
Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa is the ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United States.