PRESIDENT TRUMP’S address on Afghanistan this week hailed U.S. troops as “brave defenders” and those who gave their lives as “a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage and resolve is unmatched in human history.” He vowed “we will always win” and pledged that U.S. service members “will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly.” But Mr. Trump said nothing about the thousands of Afghans who have risked their lives to help U.S. and allied troops over the past decade and a half, in vital support roles such as interpreters. Not even a thank-you.
This neglect is unfortunate. Now that Mr. Trump has decided, by his own account, not to pull out of Afghanistan, and to increase the level of U.S. troops in the country for the foreseeable future, the United States must fully reward those who risk their lives to serve troops on the battlefield. A special immigrant visa program established by Congress has functioned erratically. If Mr. Trump is really serious about building up Afghan capabilities to resist the Taliban and about giving soldiers the tools they need, then he and Congress should once and for all provide enough special immigrant visas and timely processing for those Afghans who can qualify, and their families.
The interpreters, translators and support workers in Afghanistan have been indispensable to the long war, as returning U.S. service members often attest. In matters routine and life-threatening, they are the military’s link to the Afghan people, a channel that is essential if any strategy is to succeed. They not only expose themselves to combat but also face danger when they go home and are often targeted by the Taliban. The war could not be fought without them.
The promise of a new life in the United States is a worthy one for those who help U.S. troops, but realizing the dream has been difficult. As of March 31, about 14,000 applicants were pending at one of the various stages of the process, according to the State Department’s most recent public report. When it appeared the number of visas was running out in February and March, a key step in the process, the interview, was temporarily suspended, leaving many of these applicants to wait still longer. Congress rushed to approve another 2,500 visas, but that is still not enough for all those who have applied and may apply as U.S. deployments continue in the years to come. The Senate version of the fiscal 2018 defense bill includes an additional 4,000 visas for Afghan interpreters and support personnel. Simply out of decency, the House-Senate conference should adopt it.
The Afghans who serve with U.S. troops are also “brave defenders,” and they should not be neglected. Those who pass the strict vetting process should be rewarded with dignity and gratitude from the United States.