Stuck in Khartoum
The State Department can take steps to protect Americans amid Sudan’s collapse.
The American Embassy in Sudan is closed. Fierce fighting between two warring generals led to the swift deterioration of conditions in the capital and the U.S. evacuated seventy-two American embassy staff, alongside six Canadian diplomats and a few others, by military air. Some days later a convoy of 300 private American citizens was organized. What happens when an embassy is evacuated? What happens to private Americans in-country?
The decision to close an embassy rises to the Secretary of State for approval. An embassy evacuation really is a virtual chess match that some State Department critics say is as much about political signals as it is about the safety of America's diplomats. In cases where the United States supports the host government or in the case of Sudan, perhaps one day one faction, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting.
In the event of a coup, an evacuation can trigger the fall of the host government based on the perceived loss of American confidence, or may encourage rebels to attack private American citizens now seen as less-protected. Having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a symbolically political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.
The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with usually only the timeline varying.
All embassies have standing evacuation procedures, called the Emergency Action Plan, that are updated regularly. A key component is the highly-classified “trip wires,” designated decision points. If the rebels advance past the river, take steps A–C. If the host government military is deserting, implement steps D and E, and so forth. These trip wires are subject to much discussion at post and with Washington in the peaceful times before an evacuation is even considered.
As local conditions deteriorate, early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights in an Authorized Departure. The embassy in Sudan was designated a partially accompanied post. This means that, while some family members were permitted to accompany U.S. government employees to the post, there were restrictions on who could accompany and for how long. In addition, incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short to lower head count ahead of a crisis. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attache, who won't be doing much business in the midst of a coup) are flown out under Ordered Departure.
A “Do Not Travel” public advisory (note item 8, “prepare a will”) is issued by the State Department to private American citizens under the “No Double Standard” rule. This grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight, where inside threat info was made available to embassy families but kept from the general public.
These embassy draw-down steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation and because they usually attract minimal public attention both inside and outside the host country.
The next steps typically involve the destruction of classified materials. The flood of sensitive documents stolen from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 remains a sore point inside State even today. Classified materials include mountains of paper that need to be shredded, pulped, or burnt, as well as electronics, weapons, encryption gear, and hard drives that must be physically destroyed. Embassies estimate how many linear feet of classified paper they have on hand and the destruction process begins in time (one hopes) to destroy it all.
Somewhere in the midst of all this the military comes into the picture. Embassies are guarded only by a small, lightly armed detachment of Marines. As part of their standard Special Operation Capable (SOC) designation, larger Marine units as well as Army Special Forces train with SEAL components for the reinforcement and evacuation of embassies. They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped troops can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off.
Long experience keeps military evacuation assets handy to the Middle East and Africa. The military air evacuation out of Sudan flowed through the large U.S. military facility nearby in Djibouti, and so the Pentagon moved more troops to the African nation to prepare for the evacuation of staff in Sudan. The U.S. will often coordinate its evacuation with other nations', with friendlies such as Canada in the case of Sudan, and in places where another nation's influence is strong, such as in Francophone Africa.
What is done to support private American citizens varies considerably (there are some 16,000–19,000 in Sudan.) Americans are not required to register with the U.S. Embassy when they arrive in a foreign country, and do not unregister when they leave. In a place like Sudan, the number of Americans is more of an estimate or even a guess; many are dual-national Sudanese-Americans, children born while a Sudanese parent was studying in the U.S., or Americans married to Sudanese who consider the place their permanent home. They are less likely to evacuate than a tourist might be, for example. Americans cannot be ordered to evacuate.
The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must use it in lieu of military transportation, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized as in the case of Sudan, and so forth. In cases where the major airlines refuse to fly but the airport is still usable, the State Department can arrange charters. Right now the international airport in Khartoum is the target of heavy shelling, with destroyed planes on the tarmac. Sudan’s commercial air space is closed. Buses are the only viable commercial way out.
In extreme cases only the Marines or Army conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull private citizens out of the country using military assets. However, most times Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis. State will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after them to the extent possible if our own embassy closes.
The problem in Sudan is one of numbers and safety. Most NEOs involve a couple of hundred Americans at best, not tens of thousands. The Japanese, for example, have only eighty-five private citizens in all of Sudan; the Italians and Dutch under 200 each. So far, for all affected nations only 3,000 people from various countries have been evacuated by sea (via bus out of Khartoum) from Port Sudan to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Other groups of non-government persons may make their own plans, such as UN workers convoying out, that arduous nineteen-hour drive to Port Sudan on the Red Sea repeated days later by private American citizens. Providing overflight surveillance and security to such convoys, U.S. or ally, is another American military option. The key is providing help without raising the profile to “target” level.
The numbers will remain small. With the airport closed, it is unlikely a suitable facility exists to assemble and process out all of these people. Collecting thousands of Americans in one place in an only semi-permissible environment like Khartoum also creates a target for any bad guys. It simply is not practical. The botched evacuation out of Kabul and subsequent chaos shows what can go wrong when a NEO is attempted under poor conditions. Several smaller outflows can be expected.
“Shelter in place” advice—essentially a recommendation to stay home—such as that issued in Sudan keeps those Americans dispersed and among friends and neighbors. It also avoids calling attention to a Sudanese-American child, for example, as an American and thus perhaps a high value target for kidnapping.
One of the last pieces of guidance issued to private Americans in Sudan before the diplomats were evacuated was dire: “U.S. citizens are strongly advised to remain indoors, shelter in place until further notice, and avoid travel to the U.S. embassy. There continues to be ongoing fighting, gunfire, and security forces activity. There have also been reports of assaults, home invasions, and looting. The U.S. embassy remains under a shelter in place order and cannot provide emergency consular services. Due to the uncertain security situation in Khartoum and closure of the airport, it is not currently safe to undertake a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of private U.S. citizens.”
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The bottom line: Unless conditions dramatically change, there are no evacuation plans for all Americans in Sudan, even as small groups like the recent 300 private American citizens move out. “It’s absolutely imperative that U.S. citizens in Sudan make their own arrangements to stay safe in these difficult circumstances. Americans should have no expectation of a U.S. government coordinated evacuation at this time. And we expect that that’s going to remain the case,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in Washington.
Almost always left out of the mix are the embassy local staff, the cooks, drivers, and translators. Rarely are they evacuated, and are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Some have compared this to the poor treatment military translators from Iraq and Afghanistan received trying to secure visas to the United States.
Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media. The pieces are in place in Sudan, waiting for the situation on the ground to dictate what happens next.