As U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan, they are leaving tens of thousands of Afghan helpers behind.
Military interpreters, aid workers, female activists, human rights workers, whose assistance we once touted, are now being left to the mercy of the Taliban — who will show none. And make no mistake, once the U.S. pulls out air and intelligence support for the Afghan military, we can expect civil war and major Taliban gains.
Yet, despite some bipartisan voices in Congress, the Biden administration is doing virtually nothing to save those Afghans who helped us.
A congressionally mandated program to provide Special Immigrant visas (SIVs) for military interpreters is understaffed, uncoordinated, working with outdated technology. “The SIV program lacks any leadership and is in complete chaos,” says James Miervaldis, a board member of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps SIV applicants. (A former staff sergeant in Kabul, he spent three years getting his interpreter a visa.)
Adds former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, “Those who supported us are being left to die.”
There is still a possibility of saving many of these Afghans, but action must be taken before the final Sept. 11 exit. There must be serious bipartisan Congressional pressure on the Biden team — beginning right now.
There are around 18,000 applicants for SIVs in the pipeline, and they are in acute danger. So are their immediate family, who are entitled to visas, too.
They are young men like Kahn, who worked with the U.S. military for six years, applied for an SIV three years ago and only received first stage embassy approval in January. He could wait years longer for his visa, although the process is supposed to take only nine months.
Meantime, Taliban members showed up at the engagement ceremony of his brother-in-law Mohammed, who also worked with U.S. forces, and killed three family members. Mohammed had waited 11 years for first stage visa approval and finally received it in January but was murdered by the Taliban a month later — on his way to work.
A note was left on Kahn’s father’s gate last month saying the Taliban will kill Kahn and his family when the Americans leave — after they celebrate their victory over the United States. “I have many cases like this,” says Julie Kornfeld, senior staff attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), who is trying to help Kahn.
The State Department has sent a few more staff to Kabul to deal with visas, but the number won’t put a dent in the backlog. “You can literally put a rover on Mars before you can get someone screened [for an SIV] in Kabul, and that’s if the process goes smoothly,” I was told by Gen. David Petraeus. Along with Crocker, he is pushing hard to save Afghans who helped Americans.
But, warns Petraeus, “You have to do something before we leave and before we lose the capacity to do this. If you have to screen all applicants fully at the embassy, very few will make it out. “
That’s because, when U.S. troops fully withdraw in around 110 days, allied troops will leave also, along with thousands of U.S. contractors and State Department personnel. “As U.S. troops leave, security around the embassy will rise, and applicants won’t even be able to get in,” says Miervaldis.
So yes, it is important to reorganize and expand the SIV process — and permit it to proceed virtually rather than require embassy access — but this is insufficient. And it will probably be too little too late.
So organizations such as IRAP are now proposing that the White House task the Department of Defense with evacuating vulnerable Afghan employees — before the final U.S. withdrawal, when U.S. forces still control major airports. The evacuees could also include Afghan aid workers, who worked closely with U.S. officials and are at dire risk.
They could be given temporary shelter into third countries for visa processing, or it could be done in the United States.
If this sounds impossible, in a time when refugee admissions are a hot-button issue, consider this:
As the United States evacuated Vietnam in 1975, U.S. planes took with them nearly 120,000 Vietnamese who worked with the Americans. And in 1996, as Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded their region, thousands of Iraqi Kurds were evacuated to Guam for visa processing and then permitted to enter the United States.
So the historic models are there, but the White House will is lacking, so far.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a passionate human-rights supporter, has decried China’s alleged “genocide” of Uighurs, to whom we owe no moral debt. Is he willing to abandon Afghans who helped us to the Taliban’s mercy?
There is potential bipartisan support in Congress. A letter to Biden last week from 20 senators — half of them Republican — suggested considering an evacuation for SIV applicants. I’d add that non-SIV candidates, including female activists, should also be permitted to enter under Biden’s expanded numbers for refugee admissions.
But bipartisan pressure must be more forceful and more urgent.
If we wait until Sept. 11, it may already be too late.