By Stephen Kochuba
Like many American embassies and consulates around the world during the late days of summer 2021, Embassy Kuwait was working creatively to advance U.S. diplomatic engagement despite the persistent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, Embassy Kuwait welcomed Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his first visit to Kuwait as secretary, amid a summer of heavy staff turnover. Just as the embassy was catching its collective breath near the end of an intense summer of diplomatic work, it became clear that Embassy Kuwait would soon play a key role in what would become one of the largest humanitarian airlifts in history—Operation Allies Refuge.
It was nearly midnight, Aug.15, when the Amir of Kuwait issued a humanitarian directive to support the safe transit of a limited number of evacuees from Afghanistan through Kuwait. Knowing that thousands of evacuees were waiting to urgently get to safety, Team Kuwait was ready. Beginning in early August, Embassy Kuwait began coordinating with interagency partners from across the U.S. government to ensure Team Kuwait would be ready to leverage the full potential of U.S. efforts in support of colleagues in Afghanistan. Within 12 hours of the Amir’s directive to facilitate the safe transit of evacuees through Kuwait, the first aircraft with evacuees touched down. Team Kuwait personnel were at the airport, waiting and ready to move everyone on to the United States. Consular officers quickly determined that most of the evacuees were American citizens or lawful permanent residents able to travel directly to the United States. Working with their Kuwaiti partners, Team Kuwait facilitated security checks and then boarded the passengers directly onto Kuwaiti-chartered Kuwait Airways flights safely back to the United States within hours.
Later in August, the Kuwaiti government approved the transit of up to 5,000 at-risk Afghans. Almost overnight, the harsh and arid Kuwaiti desert had a new village. Team Kuwait’s U.S. military colleagues created a facility for nearly 5,000 evacuees, “Freedom Village” as it was informally known to Team Kuwait. Again, working with Kuwaiti interlocutors, U.S. military hosts provided evacuees with clean beds, medical and food facilities, prayer spaces, and even play areas for the many children arriving on the evacuation flights. Members of the embassy’s local guard force who were fluent in Dari and Pashto were asked to serve as translators, and helped guide and reassure evacuees arriving from Kabul. Other Team Kuwait U.S. military colleagues demonstrated the value of their many years of training and coordination with Kuwaiti partners by managing sensitive flight clearances with the Kuwaiti military and aviation authorities. By the end of the evacuation effort, with the generous help from Kuwaiti partners, more than 40,000 meals were served to the evacuees transiting Freedom Village.
The evacuees included more than 2,000 Afghan children. Despite the sudden departure from Afghanistan and the uncertainties of the situation, the children soon found creative ways to play and entertain themselves with the donated toys and art supplies. One wall of the evacuation area was filled with colorful artwork drawn by many of the young evacuees. Some of the best art pieces made by the children now hang proudly in Embassy Kuwait.
Most of the evacuees arrived with very few belongings. Team Kuwait coordinated a donation drive to be sure the first arrivals were welcomed with clothes, hygiene kits and snacks, even boxes of American Girl Scout cookies. Soon, the Kuwaiti Red Crescent and Ministry of Defense joined the effort, delivering hundreds of boxes of diapers, toys, and hygiene products.
The evacuation was an intense around-the-clock effort that required the concerted efforts of many interagency volunteers from posts worldwide and cities across the United States. Within Team Kuwait, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), Department of Defense, and Diplomatic Security partners modeled the best of interagency cooperation, setting up mobile units to ensure that all evacuee travelers were carefully documented and vetted before they boarded flights to the United States and other evacuation destinations. At its peak, Team Kuwait included colleagues on temporary assignment to Kuwait from seven U.S. embassies and consulates, including support from locally employed (LE) staff from Embassy Kabul, CBP, TSA, FBI, the Department of State’s Bureau of Administration, the Bureau of Medical Services, Office of Employee Consultation Services, and Diplomatic Security officers from field offices in Houston and Chicago.
In addition to Americans and at-risk Afghans, Team Kuwait was also able to assist hundreds of third-country nationals. With the generous support of the Kuwaiti government and coordination with Embassy Nepal, nearly 500 Nepalese security guards from Embassy Kabul made it home safely to Kathmandu via Kuwait. In coordination with the Finnish government and Embassy Helsinki, Team Kuwait was able to assist Afghan staff and family members from the Embassy of Finland in Kabul in traveling to Helsinki.
For Team Kuwait, 2021 marks a significant year in U.S.-Kuwait relations. It marks the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait, and the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Kuwait diplomatic relations. It now marks another historic achievement, the year that the U.S. and Kuwait jointly contributed to the success of such a massive military, diplomatic, security, and humanitarian undertaking. After the last plane of evacuees transiting Kuwait safely departed, President Joe Biden called the Amir of Kuwait, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with the crown prince of Kuwait, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kuwait to meet with the Amir and senior Kuwaiti leadership to express gratitude for Kuwait’s support of Operation Allies Refuge.
The success of the evacuations through Kuwait is a testament to the strength of the United States-Kuwait partnership, and highlights the dedication and professionalism of those United States government personnel and LE staff from across the interagency who serve proudly at Embassy Kuwait and all U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.
Stephen Kochuba is counselor for public affairs at Embassy Kuwait.