The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As the U.S. approaches withdrawal, our Afghan allies’ lives must be prioritized

Naseri, formerly an interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, poses for a portrait near the home of his father-in-law in Kabul. Naseri moved there because his work with Americans was well known and frowned upon by residents of his village. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)
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Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the president and chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She previously served as a senior adviser at the State Department and as a policy director in the Obama administration.

Since 2001, the U.S. government has employed citizens of Afghanistan to serve alongside U.S. troops, diplomats and government employees there as interpreters, cultural advisers, drivers, security guards and other vitally important support staff. Through their allegiance and faithful service, these wartime allies and their families have long been the targets of anti-American violence and persecution. The omnipresent threat of retribution, tragically, has only grown in the face of imminent U.S. withdrawal.

Our nation’s promise to those who have risked their lives, and their families, was that we would not turn our back on them; that we would not leave them behind. That promise was meant to be kept, in part, through the special immigrant visa (SIV) program, which allows U.S. allies in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to apply for protection and resettlement in the United States.

Recent reporting indicates that 18,000 of our Afghan allies and their estimated 53,000 family members are still working their way through the onerous application pipeline. The process to secure this protection is burdensome and time-consuming — by law, processing must be completed within nine months, but actual visa issuance has averaged closer to three years. This inefficiency is further demonstrated by lackluster resettlement figures: As The Post reported, while the total SIV program cap is currently 26,500 principal applicants, as of December, 10,933 had gone unused, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project. For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the United States has only resettled a little more than 2,200.

Given the U.S. withdrawal slated for September, or, by some accounts, as soon as July 4, we have at most only a few months to clear a years-long backlog. The simple and urgent truth is that we must implement emergency evacuation measures well ahead of withdrawal.

To spearhead this effort, the United States should appoint a respected, high-level figure with interagency experience to manage it and ramp up processing capacity. As we swiftly and securely move allies to safety, we must increase the SIV admissions cap and ensure that approved applicants are expeditiously resettled — a goal that has support on both sides of the aisle. Finally, Congress must seek appropriations to support these recommendations — which would ultimately amount to a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $2 trillion that the United States has spent on the war in Afghanistan.

Such an emergency evacuation is well within historical precedent. Between May and December 1975, the Ford administration evacuated approximately 130,000 Vietnamese refugees to Guam for initial screening before departure to reception centers in the United States. In 1996, Operation Pacific Haven similarly airlifted 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to the U.S. island territory; their cases were processed, on average, in less than 120 days. Finally, in 1999, the United States airlifted 20,000 Kosovar Albanians to Fort Dix, N.J., where their eligibility for refugee status was determined.

Welcoming our Afghan allies to the United States is the right and moral course of action, but the benefits of doing so extend well beyond humanitarian leadership — as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has seen throughout its eight decades of resettling and supporting hundreds of thousands of new arrivals. Like those courageous and resilient individuals, our Afghan allies will undoubtedly go on to become essential workers, business owners, community leaders and cherished neighbors. We stand ready to extend a warm welcome befitting the tremendous sacrifices they have made on our behalf.

An emergency evacuation would also serve an important foreign policy role, demonstrating to current and potential allies the United States’ steadfast commitment to keeping its word and protecting its friends. The United States can’t fight the threats of the 21st century all by itself. And when our nation is unable or unwilling to meet those commitments, it becomes extremely difficult to recruit and retain the strategic and operational support we need.

The United States will undoubtedly be remembered for the last things we do as we leave Afghanistan. We have the opportunity to bookend our nation’s longest war with the world’s boldest humanitarian evacuation in modern history. It is critical that President Biden heed the growing calls of thousands of veterans, human rights groups and legislators. As the clock on withdrawal winds down, the stakes could not be clearer: Our Afghan allies’ lives, as well as our nation’s legacy, are on the line.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: How we leave Afghanistan could restore America’s reputation

Madiha Afzal: What the Biden administration’s narrative on Afghanistan gets wrong

Henry Olsen: Withdrawing from Afghanistan is hindering U.S. military readiness. That proves why it’s the right move.

The Post’s View: Biden takes the easy way out of Afghanistan. The likely result is disaster.

Max Boot: Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal could be the first step to a Taliban takeover

Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna: Withdrawing from Afghanistan is a courageous step. Here’s what must come next.