Time is running out. Dozens of districts have fallen to the Taliban in recent weeks. Previously, our hope for these Afghan allies was a congressionally approved visa path to enter the United States. But the special immigrant visas (SIV) have been plagued by delays and carry strict requirements that have left applicants waiting years for approval. According to the International Refugee Assistance Project, about 18,000 Afghan interpreters and others are in the pipeline. The total SIV program cap is currently 26,500 visas, of which, as of December, 15,507 had been issued and 10,993 remained. If families are included at an estimated rate of four per visa, the total number of people needing processing could be closer to 70,000.
While Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked Congress to raise the visa ceiling by 8,000 and has pledged to surge staff into visa processing, that is no longer enough. Waiting for visas in country will put people at risk. Moreover, the pandemic has made the situation worse; the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has suspended visa operations because of a wave of coronavirus infections in the country and among embassy staff.
Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) and others have called on the administration to actively plan for an evacuation to Guam, where the Afghans could then continue to be processed for visas without fear for their lives. Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has written to Mr. Biden expressing a willingness to be part of the planning. In the final days of the Vietnam War, more than 111,000 South Vietnamese were evacuated on ships and planes by the United States to Guam, where they were housed in tent cities while being processed for resettlement.
A law passed by Congress in 2009 requires Mr. Blinken to make a “reasonable effort” to offer protection or to remove Afghan special visa applicants from the country if they are facing “imminent danger.” We think this condition for removal has been fulfilled. The president has pledged to pull out the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops by Sept. 11, and the situation on the ground is fluid and volatile. Taliban fighters took control of a key district in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province on Monday and encircled the provincial capital, adding to a string of recent victories.
In planning an evacuation now, the United States can strive for an orderly departure, although the risks of chaos are always present. The United States has a profound obligation to take care of those who risked their lives to serve alongside its troops. It cannot leave their fate to chance or ill-prepared afterthought.