America must relearn the art of making “hard war,” forcing an opponent to say “yes” to a proposal by simultaneously offering a favorable outcome and by holding a knife to their throat. If the Taliban agree, recovery operations should proceed as swiftly and thoroughly as possible. If they refuse that ultimatum, the United States must be prepared to deliver on its threat of force and ignore all considerations other than the safe recovery of coalition personnel, including the inevitable civilian casualties inherent in major combat in an urban center. In either case, the center for evacuation should be transferred from HKIAP to Bagram Airbase as soon as is feasible.
The Taliban cannot be trusted to turn over all coalition personnel. Coalition forces must therefore have the capability to determine to their own satisfaction that all trapped nationals have been located and secured. Once this is accomplished, the United States, and other coalition units, can safely withdraw to Bagram Airbase to complete their evacuation as should have been done in the first place.
Once all coalition personnel has been safely extracted to Bagram Airbase, the United States will have a decision to make. It can leave, it can remain in the country to support the remnants of the Afghan government still fighting from Bagram Airbase, or it can leave while conducting strikes to destroy things like major captured equipment stockpiles (assuming they have not already been destroyed at this stage) and decapitate Taliban leadership. This should not be glossed over as a foregone conclusion or downplayed as unworthy of serious consideration. In light of the current disaster, all three options are viable and can garner significant public support by polling.
Whatever the final disposition of coalition forces in Afghanistan, personnel trapped in Taliban-controlled territory must be secured and evacuated. To accomplish this the United States will need to deploy sufficient combat power and secure sufficient negotiating leverage to force the issue in the face of Taliban opposition. The entire reason for the Government of the United States is the protection of its citizens. If it openly fails in this paramount duty to such a degree that thousands of Americans are betrayed and left to the tender mercies of the Taliban, it will face an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy internally and internationally.
Patrick Fox is an Iraq War veteran who served with the United States Air Force from 2005-2013. He holds a BS in Political Science from Tennessee State University and a Masters in Security from the University College of London.