The U.S. and its NATO allies are rushing to withdraw from Afghanistan by next month. This hurried retreat leaves thousands of Afghans exposed after helping U.S. and allied forces, most notably as interpreters.
Diplomatic and military personnel couldn’t have operated in Afghanistan for 20 years without local translators, who can earn visas to the U.S. after two years of service. About 30,000 families have moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan or Iraq using the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. Today some 18,000 Afghans are waiting for visas after the pandemic slowed down the already complicated process.
The State Department said Thursday that the U.S. has “a special commitment and a special responsibility” to the interpreters. A spokesman added that State is adding staff in Washington and Kabul to deal with the backlog and has requested Congress authorize funding for more visas. The U.S. says it will maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul and can continue to process applications. But the SIV program, which can take years, isn’t enough.
The 18,000 SIV applicants also have about 50,000 spouses and children under 21 that can move with them. Working with the U.S. can be dangerous even for family members. At least 300 interpreters or their family members have been killed since 2014, according to the nonprofit No One Left Behind. These women and children will become more exposed as the Taliban or Islamic State take more territory.
Secretary of State
should have better answers about how to protect these American allies when he testifies at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday. The Taliban control 91 Afghan districts, compared with 97 for the Kabul government, says the Long War Journal. Some 210 districts, with more than 15 million people, are contested. The United Nations recently warned that the Taliban has deepened ties with al Qaeda and “is likely to increase military operations” in 2021.
Gen. Mark Milley,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted that the military could evacuate translators and others who worked with the U.S. A Milley spokesman later clarified that “an evacuation is not imminent,” and the Biden Administration doesn’t seem interested. A mass evacuation wouldn’t create the optics the White House wants to see—especially as it insists the U.S. will remain committed to Afghanistan diplomatically. But it could save countless lives, and Guam could be a temporary haven as the visa process plays out.
Congress has a role to play. It likely will include legislation for more visas for the SIV program in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. But President Biden as Commander in Chief can press Congress to simplify the visa rules or order an evacuation.
“The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese,” then-Sen. Biden said in 1975 as the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. The result was the exodus of the “boat people,” many of whom died in the open ocean, that was a stain on America. Mr. Biden has an opportunity—make that an obligation—to do better by thousands of Afghans.
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