May 08, 2023

People Are Free to Travel at Their Own Risk

Originally published in Washington Examiner

Some 16,000 Americans remained in Sudan after the suspension of U.S. Embassy operations and the evacuation of embassy personnel and their families last month. Many clamored for more support from the U.S. government for these citizens, citing the uncertain security situation and the clear dangers to noncombatants across the country. To date, at least two Americans have been killed . A shaky ceasefire that has been in place since April 25 has offered a brief but still dangerous opportunity for Americans and others to try to flee, which raises the question: Should the United States be doing more for its citizens trapped in a war zone?

The U.S. is not alone in evacuating its diplomats. The rapid deterioration of the security conditions in Khartoum clearly surprised both American and foreign diplomats (though it shouldn’t have). Moreover, the fallout from the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the chaos of the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan almost certainly influenced decisions to suspend embassy operations. Fighting at the airport has precluded commercial flights, while the unpredictability of the ground fighting makes overland travel a gamble. Even the U.S. military’s operation to remove about 70 U.S. personnel on April 22 from Khartoum, which required them to fly three Chinook helicopters over 800 miles, was risky.

But the difference between the U.S. response and that of other nations is stark. Other governments used the initial 72-hour ceasefire to airlift citizens out of Sudan. The French and British operated flights from two airstrips outside the capital. Such developments raised questions as to why the U.S. hadn’t followed suit. Certainly, long-range helicopter airlifts are not scalable to rescue all Americans seeking safe passage. But the Europeans were flying transport planes in and out while the U.S. Embassy was telling Americans to shelter in place.

Americans expect the U.S. government to get them out of all sorts of scraps in foreign countries. And while the State Department makes clear that it cannot demand the release of citizens arrested abroad for breaking local laws, it does provide consular services in emergencies and generally has led evacuations of U.S. citizens when conflict breaks out. Saigon and Kabul fall on one extreme, in which the U.S. military directly evacuated U.S. Embassy personnel, citizens, and refugees. Likewise, in 2006, the State Department evacuated about 15,000 Americans from Lebanon to Cyprus when war with Israel suddenly broke out. And in 2012, the U.S. military evacuated U.S. citizens and foreign nationals from the Central African Republic’s capital when rebels encircled it and threatened to overthrow the president.

So why not Sudan?

American citizens have had to navigate the unfolding crisis largely on their own. Many had to find private transport to Port Sudan as prices skyrocketed or had to secure passage through other foreign governments. Mortar shells and random gunfire still threaten those trying to escape the capital, and the journey to the border remains perilous. The first of now three U.S. government-organized convoys left Khartoum for Port Sudan on April 29, a week after the embassy evacuation. For those yet to flee, shortages of necessities, food and water, may make sheltering in place a nonviable option.

But those who remain trapped in Sudan cannot claim they were unaware of the potential for conflict or that the U.S. government promised to get them out. Unlike the promises made to those in Afghanistan in 2021, the U.S. government made no such commitment to those in Sudan. Indeed, State Department warnings have signaled clearly the dangers of remaining in Sudan for years. In August 2021, it issued a do-not-travel warning. In October 2021, the State Department authorized the departure of nonemergency U.S. government employees and family members. Subsequent warnings have called for Americans to leave the country. Furthermore, in February 2022, President Joe Biden clearly stated that Americans should not expect the U.S. to marshal the same resources to evacuate citizens from Ukraine or Ethiopia as it did for the Afghanistan evacuation.

Yet most of the Americans remaining are dual Sudanese-American nationals living with their families or aid workers. The opening of Sudan after the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar Hassan al Bashir and the effort to end its isolation within the region created a flow of much-needed humanitarian and development assistance to the country and the return of expats. Family ties and humanitarian needs don’t disappear just because the country isn’t safe.

To be clear, the U.S. has not abandoned its citizens in Sudan. While imperfect, the State Department and Pentagon have worked to identify safe routes out of Sudan and convey that information to Americans still in the country. U.S. armed drones tracked the belated bus convoys from the capital, which took Americans, foreigners, and local hires to waiting navy ships for transit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. U.S. military forces also remain positioned outside of Sudan in Djibouti and as a maritime presence prepared to assist in the evacuation efforts.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has differentiated between Americans in Sudan as private citizens and those serving in our government as diplomats, aid workers, and service members. The latter put their lives at risk in service of the U.S. to advance American aims, staffing the embassy even though they knew the security situation was volatile. And while the State Department and USAID should, generally, assume more calculated risks in insecure environments, the randomness of the bombing in Khartoum made it a real possibility that the embassy would be struck.

The U.S. government required service members’ presence in Sudan and thus has done everything possible to keep them safe, including placing the lives of special operators at risk to evacuate them. The situation for private citizens, whose presence was voluntary though understandable, is different. Citizens should continue to look to the U.S. government for assistance, and the various networks developing to help them leave, but should not demand the White House place troops in harm’s way for them.

The message from the State Department has been consistent. Americans are free to travel, but it is at their own risk.