The American Embassy in Sudan is closed. Fierce fighting between two warring generals has led to the swift deterioration of conditions in the capital and the US appears to be preparing to evacuate American staff, possibly some private American citizens. 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 decides to support the host government or in the case of Sudan, one faction, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting. 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 seen as less-protected. In that one point of having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.
The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with only the time line 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.
Early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights. The embassy in Sudan is designated a partially accompanied post. This means that while some family members may be permitted to accompany US government employees to the post, there are restrictions on who can accompany them and for how long. In addition, incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attaché, who won’t be doing much business in the midst of coup) are flown out. A “Do Not Travel” public advisory (note item 8, “prepare a will”) must be 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 Marines come 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 train with their 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 Marines 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 Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa. Any evacuation out of Sudan will flow from the large US military facility nearby in Djibouti, and so the Pentagon is moving more troops to the African nation to prepare for a possible evacuation of staff in Sudan. The US will often coordinate its evacuation with other nations’, with friendlies such as Canada, 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 19,000 in Sudan.) The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must utilize it, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized, 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 air space is also closed.
In extreme cases only (Sudan may become such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets. At 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 current guidance issued to private Americans in Sudan is dire: “US citizens are strongly advised to remain indoors, shelter in place until further notice, and avoid travel to the US embassy. There continues to be ongoing fighting, gunfire, and security forces activity. There have also been reports of assaults, home invasions, and looting. The US 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 US government-coordinated evacuation of private US citizens.”
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.
Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.