Correction: After I posted this, a colleague corrected my references below to a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) from South Sudan. Apparently, what happened was not technically classified as a NEO, since ALL personnel depart in a NEO (as opposed to South Sudan where the Embassy still has essential staff), and it usually has more military involvement.
Yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan started evacuating American citizens from South Sudan.The Juba airport had been closed on Monday after fighting broke out in the capital city on Sunday night, so evacuation by air was not possible until the government of South Sudan announced that the airport would reopen by Wednesday. Since the Embassy announced an ordered departure of non-emergency U.S. Embassy personnel from Juba and that it would assist other U.S. citizens in their evacuation, I’ve been asked several times what I think this indicates. And let me clarify here: what I’m about to write is my own opinion on what did – or did not – influence this decision.
I believe the decision to order the evacuation of non-essential personnel from South Sudan needs to be disaggregated from what’s actually going on in South Sudan. It should be understood purely as the United States trying to get AmCits out of harm’s way, and not an indication that the situation is necessarily going to get worse. There are other operational – and political – issues at play in making a decision like this.
On the African continent, South Sudan is probably one of the toughest Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) to pull off. It’s landlocked, has poor infrastructure, and hundreds of AmCits are scattered throughout the country. On top of a crisis on steroids that deteriorated rather quickly, there were firefights near the (closed) airport for much of Monday and Tuesday, raising serious force protection concerns for anyone trying to access that area. Once the decision was announced to open the airport, it only made sense for a NEO to be ordered then because of how near-impossible flying AmCits out would be without a significant risk of casualties. And since there was a window of opportunity in which the airport was open and violence subsided, it only made sense to seize that window before it closed again.
To put things in perspective, since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, there has been much debate in the U.S. about why the military was unable to respond in time. Benghazi is a coastal city and is proximate to Europe, from which U.S. military assets and personnel would most likely deploy. If somewhere as proximate as Libya would have been a tough operation to pull off, imagine South Sudan.
A related, and very important issue is that U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has very few, if any, assigned assets. The NEO that occurred in South Sudan involved two C-130s and a chartered aircraft. (See a Flikr photostream of the U.S. military forces involved in this operation, brought to my attention by @RomanDeckert.) The team that supported this mission was the East Africa Response Force (EARF) based at Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa in Djibouti. But while this joint team was based on the continent, the C-130s were probably chopped from other Combatant Commands (COCOMs). Yes, the U.S. military has various levels of presence on the African continent, but I doubt they just have 2 C-130s sitting around in Africa. So the point is, on top of South Sudan being a tough NEO and an impermanent window of opportunity that opened up, it takes significant time and planning to get the personnel and the assets to get in and out of these situations.
I hate to say it, but Benghazi may have been a political variable that the U.S. considered. As a frame of reference, there were 25 NEOs on the African continent between 1990 and 2011, but I don’t think there were any from 2003 to 2012. In 2013 alone, there have been four situations (Algeria, Mali, Central African Republic, and now South Sudan) in which there’s either been a NEO or ordered departure of some sort. (I’ll admit I haven’t determined if Algeria and Mali were actually NEOs, but it appears that CAR and South Sudan were.) In particular, the case of the Central African Republic – another challenging NEO – was telling. The U.S. Embassy in Bangui ordered the departure of Embassy personnel in December 2012 – three months before Bangui fell to the seleka rebels, and while the rebels were still hundreds of miles from the capital. I saw that decision the same way I see the decision to evacuate South Sudan – it’s a hard operation, and we’re not going to wait around to see if it gets harder. And considering the political wrangling that has gone on in the United States after the unfortunate events in Benghazi, you can see why the government would want to be proactive in getting its citizens out of harm’s way.
So that, in a nutshell, is how you should understand the U.S. decision to evacuate its citizens from South Sudan.