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Did the US government abandon its private citizens in Sudan?

May 12, 2023

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The fighting in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. The East African country is facing a humanitarian crisis and is on the brink of a civil war. With the increasing violence, the U.S. shuttered its embassy indefinitely and evacuated staff using elite special operations forces.

But what about the private American citizens initially stranded in Sudan? Should they have received the same level of assistance as United States Embassy personnel?

Straight Arrow News contributor Katherine Zimmerman argues the U.S. military should not be responsible for rescuing civilians who were aware of the risks.

The initial message from the embassy, even after the U.S. military aided an evacuation, was for Americans to shelter in place, and that it would provide guidance to help Americans who desire to leave about which routes appeared to be safe.

Meanwhile, many European and regional partners were actively facilitating the departure of their own citizens and Americans —space-permitting — by airlift from two airstrips outside the capital or other means such as convoys. The U.S. government kept repeating the conditions did not support such an organized effort. Ultimately, a week after U.S. personnel had fled the country, the United States government organized three convoys to take Americans to Port Sudan from where they could travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The scramble to get American personnel out of the country, combined with a chaotic effort to respond to demands to help American citizens still in the country, revealed how unprepared the United States government was for this crisis. It also shows how low the tolerance for risk remains at the State Department, a hangover from what happened over a decade ago in Benghazi, Libya.

Experts who follow Sudan closely have noted that all the warnings that war was coming were there. In terms of what Americans should expect from their government, it fell short this time. But the insistence that the U.S. military should have conducted an operation to evacuate private citizens from Sudan is misplaced. Unlike Americans staffing the U.S. Embassy on official government business in Sudan, these citizens were in the country in a private capacity. The support they received should have been better coordinated, certainly. But American soldiers should not be placed in harm’s way to rescue private citizens who had ample warning of the risks they were taking.

The recent outbreak of conflict in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and the harrowing tales from Americans of their escape raises the question, what does the United States are with citizens trapped in conflict zones? For the 16,000 or so Americans left behind in Sudan after US embassy personnel were evacuated on April 23. The answer was much more than the unlimited support they received, and at least two Americans have already been killed in the fighting. Legally, the US government has no requirement to evacuate citizens caught in dangerous situations abroad, but it is obligated to have plans in place for potential scenarios. And the State Department has improved its travel warning system and has a Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive embassy alerts. These resources are to aid Americans in making informed decisions about their own travel plans, including the US government security recommendations. The Biden administration has emphasized that it is quote, not standard practice for the United States to send in the US military into war zones to extract all American citizens. According to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the United States didn’t do it in Libya, Syria, Yemen, or more recently in Ukraine, Afghanistan, said Sullivan was a unique case. But that doesn’t mean that the US government has not conducted noncombatant evacuation operations in the past. In fact, US Marines have conducted such operations multiple times in the last few decades. And the US State Department organized evacuation efforts from Lebanon in 2006. When war broke out, still, the State Department had signaled the risks associated with remaining in Sudan for years. It issued a do not travel warning to Americans in August 2021. Unauthorized the departure of non emergency US personnel in October of that year, downsizing the embassy. Additionally, President Biden said in February 2022, that Americans should not expect the United States government to conduct the same sort of evacuations from places like Ukraine or Ethiopia, as it did from Afghanistan. Many of the Americans in Sudan were not tourists or businessmen, but dual nationals with Sudanese family members who live in the country, or aid workers delivering much needed assistance. Family Ties do not disappear when the security situation worsens, and the need for humanitarian aid actually increases during this time. Most of these private citizens were left to their own devices to find their way out of Sudan. As a security situation deteriorated, and violence became much more unpredictable. The initial message from the embassy even after the US military aided an evacuation was for Americans to shelter in place, and that it would provide guidance to help Americans who desire to leave about which routes appeared to be safe. Meanwhile, many European and regional partners were actively facilitating the departure of their own citizens and Americans space permitting by airlift from to airstrips outside the capital or other means such as convoys. The US government kept repeating the conditions did not support such an organized effort. Ultimately, a week after US personnel had fled the country. The United States government organized three convoys to take Americans to port Sudan from where they could travel to Jeddah Saudi Arabia. The scramble to get American personnel out of the country, combined with a chaotic effort to respond to demands to help American citizens still in the country, revealed how unprepared the United States government was for this crisis. It also shows how low the tolerance for risk remains at the State Department, a hangover from what happened over a decade ago in Benghazi Libya. Experts who follow Sudan closely have noted that all the warnings that were was coming were there in terms of what Americans should expect to their government. It fell short this time. But the insistence that the US military should have conducted an operation to evacuate private citizens from Sudan is misplaced. Unlike American staffing, the US Embassy and on official government business in Sudan, these citizens were in the country in a private capacity. The support they received should have been better coordinated, certainly. But American soldiers should not be placed in harm’s way to rescue private citizens who had ample warning of the risks they were taking

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