The United States is transferring major military installations to the Afghan security forces and withdrawing the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan at a pace that may well surpass President Biden’s own September deadline.
While this extraction plan is focused on the secure passage of American troops and assets, for Washington, there lies another dilemma: how to protect the local Afghans who risked their lives alongside U.S. troops? The only clear solution is to evacuate Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their dependents along with U.S. troops as soon as possible.
Afghans, particularly translators, who served alongside U.S. troops but outside of the Afghan military, played a critical role in the war effort. Aside from providing invaluable intelligence due to their command of languages like Dari and Pashto, and cultural knowledge, Afghan contractors also served as a bridge between U.S. troops and the communities they patrolled. These Afghans now find themselves in a precarious position as the Afghan government is unable to protect them and the Taliban labels them as traitors. A recent Taliban statement claims that former interpreters are not in danger but also calls on them to show “remorse” and is a far cry from reconciliation. SIV applicants should not be left to potentially be targeted by the Taliban. But in seeking to migrate to the United States, they face a series of byzantine bureaucratic processes that could take years — time they no longer have.
A report by Brown University’s Costs of War project highlights the plight of SIV applicants. Processing can take up to 658 days, excluding the time it takes to assemble the individual application. That process requires an expensive health examination at an authorized clinic in Kabul, and letters of recommendation from employers who may or may not be in the same position and can be next-to-impossible to track down. For some, making multiple trips to Kabul is extremely difficult, not just because of costs, but because they must journey through hostile territories with checkposts manned by the Taliban.
Once someone is known to have applied to the SIV program, they can become subject to extortion or extra scrutiny from the militias. According to the Costs of War project, one SIV recipient from Ghazni had to skip his mother’s funeral because the Taliban was on the lookout for him. Some of the reasons behind the failure to efficiently process these vulnerable individuals are nothing short of negligent. For example, the State Department’s senior coordinating official position for the Afghan SIV program was vacant since January 2017.
The good news for SIV applicants is that there is strong bipartisan support in Congress and among veterans for evacuating them to a safer location for further processing. One letter to President Biden calling for this action was signed by 16 veteran-led organizations. Another letter sent on June 4 by a bipartisan group of 21 members of Congress, calls on the Biden administration to expedite the process. There are also recent reports that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has requested options for such an evacuation. But this broad support will be for naught unless rapid action is taken.
During President Biden’s speech to the nation in which he announced a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he reiterated that America’s “diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue” in Afghanistan despite the troop’s homecoming. Washington can begin by evacuating those Afghans who most have a target on their back due to their direct assistance of U.S. troops. “In together, out together” must apply to these individuals too.