We must get our Afghan allies out and onto U.S. soil. As many as possible, as quickly as possible, in however little time is left.
For most of the two decades the United States has been in Afghanistan, we have failed our Afghan allies. We promised, repeatedly, to take care of those who aided our efforts to build a free, democratic state. We created special categories of visas to help Afghans who put targets on their backs by working as interpreters, cultural advisers, drivers and engineers, as well as in other critical support jobs.
But these visas have taken years and years to process, mired in red tape. Backlogs piled up, and thousands of designated annual slots went unfilled. Problems persisted across four presidential administrations, as none ever apparently had the political will to make the system work.
The incentives were instead aligned in favor of adding yet more layers of screening, and more impossible-to-obtain documents, in the name of safeguarding our national security — even though these visa applicants had more than proved their dedication to U.S. security interests. Some even had security clearances.
Our bureaucratic delays have proved deadly. More than 300 interpreters and their family members have been murdered since 2014 because of their association with the United States, according to the nonprofit No One Left Behind; some were killed while waiting in that interminable visa queue.
As soon as President Biden announced a full military withdrawal, resettling Afghan allies became even more urgent. Around the time of Biden’s declaration this spring, roughly 18,000 people who had assisted the U.S. government — and 53,000 family members — were still in the backlog for Afghan special immigrant visas. That doesn’t count the thousands more Afghan journalists, human rights activists and others at risk.
Groups that assist refugees and other immigrants urged the Biden administration to begin humanitarian evacuations right away, while U.S. troops could assist in the effort. One advocate coalition even gift-wrapped a ready-made evacuation plan.
Their proposals included airlifting allies to Guam. On this isolated U.S. territory in the Pacific, vulnerable Afghans could wait — out of harm’s way and in a controlled environment — to be screened and processed for eventual relocation. This strategy has precedent: After the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government sent Vietnamese refugees to Guam for initial processing; it did so again in the 1990s with Iraqi Kurds targeted by Saddam Hussein. Guam officials said they were ready and waiting to accept Afghan evacuees.
But the White House dragged its feet. It took until mid-July to announce plans to send a mere 2,500 Afghan interpreters and other allies to Fort Lee, Va.; and it sought to dump the rest of our Afghan allies onto a “third country” while they await screening.
“We trusted these people enough to put the lives of troops in their hands but apparently not enough to send them to Guam,” said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This is a historically unprecedented type of political cowardice to not bring them to U.S. soil.”
In a speech Monday, Biden gave two excuses for why his administration didn’t start evacuating more people sooner: that “some” people didn’t want to leave (how many?); and that the Afghan government “discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.” (What does Biden think happened this past week?)
And so tens of thousands of our friends were effectively left to die.
On Sunday, Afghan “special immigrants” who had been scheduled for relocation were told that all remaining official (military) relocation flights had been canceled. Commercial flights from Kabul were also suspended..
The window to help those in trouble is rapidly closing. Refugee advocates have already begun advising stranded Afghans to burn documents that could lead to retaliation from the Taliban. But there might still be a few hours left to save more of these people who deserve U.S. help.
The Defense Department said Monday that it was preparing to temporarily house up to 22,000 more vulnerable Afghan allies and their family members at two more U.S. bases. This is significant progress. But even before that happens, U.S. troops must ensure vulnerable Afghans can actually get out. This requires securing the Kabul airport, so that both military and commercial flights can leave — and more Afghans can get safely to U.S. soil. Sort out the paperwork afterward.
“The very last hours of a very long war can be the defining image,” said Mike Breen, a retired U.S. Army officer who is now president and chief executive of Human Rights First. “That’s what lingers for a generation.”
After 20 years of humanitarian failures, we still have time for one last honorable act.
This column has been updated to reflect President Biden’s speech Monday afternoon.