When I was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, our embassy in Kabul relied on hundreds of Afghan staffers working in myriad roles. They risked their lives every day to work for the betterment of their country and ours. Likewise, U.S. forces and humanitarian workers relied on local staff who served as linguists, cultural advisers, security guards and maintenance staff. Because of their service to the U.S. mission, these trusted allies regularly faced and continue to face threats from anti-American forces, particularly by the Taliban, who have hunted and executed many Afghan partners and their families.
These Afghan partners have the opportunity to apply for special immigrant visas (SIVs), which were specifically designed to protect our allies on the ground. Most who do so wait for the processing of their visas from within Afghanistan, remaining in dangerous conditions, while others have fled for their lives to neighboring countries and are waiting in exile.
The proposed U.S. troop withdrawals would mean that some Afghan partners awaiting visa processing would lose their jobs and therefore lose the right to live on a protected U.S. base. The Taliban cannot be trusted to protect civilians, let alone the Afghan interpreters whom they have targeted as traitors.
As part of any planning for a reduction in forces, the U.S. government has a responsibility to protect those who served the United States and who worked tirelessly at great personal risk to protect U.S. personnel and advance the U.S. mission.
Further, as the United States draws down its presence, the expected reduction in staffing at the U.S. Embassy will likely diminish the embassy’s ability to process visas — a process that already can take four years for many applicants. Congress has mandated that government processing of applications must be processed within nine months. The State Department must comply with this requirement.
Let us not repeat the mistakes of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. The United States, eager to end a prolonged conflict, signed the Paris Peace Accords, an ineffectual document gesture that did not result in peace. U.S. officials who had served shoulder to shoulder with Vietnamese partners watched in horror as their associates fled the country by sea or were executed or jailed for their service to the United States. Who can forget the horrifying image of desperate Vietnamese allies reaching for a helicopter leaving Saigon?
The State Department and vetting agencies must ensure that our Afghan partners can reach safety before the already poor security situation deteriorates further. The Defense Department, too, must demand this of the State Department in light of the mission-critical services that tens of thousands of Afghans have provided to U.S. troops since 2001.
Our Afghan partners have risked — and sometimes lost — their lives and those of their families to support the U.S. mission. As the United States is contemplating its exit strategy, the least we can do is ensure that our closest allies are part of the plan.