After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many Afghans who aided the United States’ 20-year war effort are looking to flee.
Some Afghan allies have been told by US authorities not to go to the Kabul airport, currently the only available exit point, and to shelter in place until instructed otherwise. Many have shown up at the airport nonetheless, desperately trying to escape, even though civilian flights were temporarily suspended, with some even clinging onto a US military aircraft as it was mid-takeoff.
As they look for viable routes to safety, these allies have also had to grapple with whether they should destroy documents proving that they worked for the US government, which could either be their golden ticket to America or a death sentence if the Taliban finds them.
So far, the US has only evacuated about 2,000 Afghan allies and their families — a fraction of the 88,000 who are estimated to have applied for US visas, not to mention the many thousands more who are not eligible for visas but who could apply for refugee status in another country, if they could somehow make their way there. Those allies left behind now face retribution from the Taliban, who have been accused of dozens of revenge killings in recent months.
It’s poor repayment for their years of service to the US government.
“The entire world is going to see what the Americans do with those who helped US forces at the time when they needed them the most,” Ismail Khan, an Afghan who worked as a US military interpreter, recently told my colleague Sean Rameswaram.
At the moment, the US is struggling to effectively help those who helped America.
The administration is trying to secure the airport to facilitate evacuations, and is accelerating the processing of Afghans eligible for what’s called a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), more than 73,000 of which have already been issued to Afghans in the past 13 years.
These aren’t bad plans, but they don’t go far enough — and are a long time coming. The reality on the ground is chaotic, and it’s a crisis of the US’s own making. Advocates have been urging the Biden administration for months to airlift out Afghan allies en masse and bring them to US soil at least temporarily so that they could be processed and apply for visas or humanitarian protections, just as the federal government did after the Vietnam War.
There is still time for the Biden administration to launch a similar evacuation to save more Afghans, but no matter what the US does at this point, the outlook is grim. Even if the US manages to retain control of the Kabul airport and continue evacuation efforts, Afghan allies will inevitably die as a result of the Biden administration’s failure to act more quickly.
“It shouldn’t have come to this,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which has represented SIV applicants waiting on their visas. “It’s going to cost people their lives, and it’s unconscionable.”
The Biden administration was caught unprepared to evacuate Afghan allies
The end of the Afghan government arrived much sooner than US intelligence officials anticipated, but was the result of troubling trends that have been clear for some time. In fact, the Biden administration being so slow to act on evacuations led to record levels of civilian casualties in the first half of 2021, months before the Taliban controlled the country.
Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at the advocacy group Human Rights First, told me the Biden administration seemed to assume that the Afghan government was going to be able to hold the Taliban at bay for a few years, or at least for long enough for the US to process people in the visa pipeline and tens of thousands of their family members.
But Purdy said he and other advocates thought that was a charitable reading of the situation on the ground, so his organization approached the administration in April with a plan to get Afghan allies out.
Human Rights First estimated that it would cost about $700 million to $800 million to evacuate Afghan allies, or about $10,000 per person — well under the budget recently allocated by Congress — and the evacuation would take about a year to complete.
They suggested sending Afghans to Guam, a US territory that hosts several military bases and has been used for past evacuations, where they would undergo initial processing for a few days before being sent to military bases throughout the mainland US for further paperwork. Those who needed extra security vetting could stay in Guam while awaiting processing, and people who were further along in their processing would get their Covid-19 shot in Guam before being transferred to other bases. Should they be found ineligible for SIV status, they could also apply for asylum, which is available to migrants who reach US soil.
The Biden administration rejected their plan.
“We were quietly told, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We’ve got this covered,’” Purdy said. “And I don’t think it was until the Taliban made significant gains in May that it dawned on them that maybe their assessment of the [Afghan] government was incorrect.”
Biden addressed concerns about his administration’s failure to organize an evacuation effort sooner during a press conference at the White House on Monday.
“Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” he claimed. “And the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
It may be true that some Afghans did not want to leave. But there were at least tens of thousands of Afghans who did, all of whom have been waiting for their SIVs to be approved but have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for months.
Many more who weren’t eligible for those visas have been flooding into neighboring countries to seek safety. And as has been reported in the Washington Post, the US had already created a crisis of confidence in pulling back its military commitment to Afghanistan — one that led many Afghan soldiers to surrender to the Taliban, believing they could not beat back the insurgents without US help. That crisis of confidence only worsened when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Ultimately, waiting to organize an evacuation was just a waste of valuable time.
The Biden administration should have been able to foresee that pulling out of Afghanistan would create a power vacuum that would change the battlefield. Something similar happened when the Obama administration withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011, only for ISIS militants to seize control of large swaths of the country thereafter. Obama sent troops back in 2014 as a result.
The US also has extensive experience carrying out similar evacuations of allies in the past, including the 1975 evacuation of Vietnam, the 1996 evacuation of Kurds from northern Iraq, and the 1999 evacuation of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Those operations were carried out in a matter of weeks or months, and Congress had not appropriated nearly as much money to get them done as it had for the Afghan extraction.
“This was all very predictable,” Purdy said. The Biden administration “should have been better prepared. And that’s something that they’re going to have to own.”
The US could still airlift Afghans to US soil
Though the situation on the ground is changing rapidly, advocates believe the Biden administration can still take steps to save the lives of more Afghan allies.
The first priority is securing the Kabul airport so that military and civilian flights can continue to take off. Then the US needs to carry out its “boldest airlift” since the end of the Vietnam War, when 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese were evacuated from what was then known as Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) over 24 hours, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.
That would also require negotiating pathways for Afghans to travel to the airport, which the Taliban has sought to block access to. It has set up checkpoints on the roads, both outside Kabul and within the city, and cordoned off the airport, firing warning shots to keep people away.
The US should also negotiate with neighboring countries to ensure that their land borders are open to those fleeing for their lives, as well as other countries that might be able to accept Afghans who can secure flights out of the country independently. That might give Afghan allies currently trapped in the outer provinces some hope of getting out, despite what would likely be a dangerous journey that they would have to undertake without help from US authorities.
In the US’s stead, individuals and groups, like Arash Azizzada, an organizer for the US-based advocacy groups Afghans for a Better Tomorrow and the Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress, have been working to evacuate as many Afghans on the ground as possible.
“‘I’ve lost contact with some of them, and so I am deeply worried about their fate,” he said. “The United States has left them in this predicament.”
Efforts like Azizzada’s are only a stopgap solution, however. “This needs to be a global effort,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.
But the US can also employ its own tools to bring Afghans to the US directly. As advocates proposed months ago, Biden could unilaterally create a parole program to bring Afghans to American soil. It wouldn’t give them any kind of permanent immigration status, but they would be allowed to stay in the US and work in the country temporarily while they apply for other kinds of status, such as an SIV or asylum. They would be vetted for criminal history before being granted parole and would be expected to leave the country when the parole period is over, unless they have attained another kind of permanent status.
That’s how the Ford administration brought more than 100,000 Vietnamese to Guam at the end of the Vietnam War. (Biden, then a US senator, notably opposed the evacuation at the time, saying the US had no moral obligation to carry it out.)
Guam would in some ways be an ideal site for accepting Afghans on parole given that it has done so before post-Vietnam and during the Kurdish evacuation. The governor of Guam has even pledged support for such an effort.
“Guam has stood ready to serve as a safe and secure route for this type of humanitarian effort throughout our history. And today, it is no different,” she wrote to Biden in June. “I assure you that my administration is prepared to assist in executing your plans on this matter should Guam be chosen.”
But it doesn’t have to be the only evacuation site. As long as Afghans can reach US soil, they will be afforded additional rights and humanitarian protections that they would not otherwise receive in a third country.
The Biden administration is recommitting to an evacuation policy that has had questionable results
Rather than creating a parole program, the Biden administration has announced that it is taking other steps to ensure that more Afghan allies can be evacuated.
It is reportedly soon increasing the US troop presence from 2,000 to 7,000 to secure the airport in Kabul. That will facilitate evacuations of thousands of American citizens; US Embassy staff and their families; and “other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals,” who might include human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, and members of the media, according to a joint State Department and Defense Department statement on Sunday night.
It also has said SIV applicants who have cleared security screening will continue to be allowed to come directly to the US, where two locations are being prepared to host 22,000 Afghans. Tajikistan is preparing to receive up to 100,000 Afghans, and between 500 and 2,000 Afghans are already arriving daily in Turkey. Other potential options include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators on Monday that the US is close to reaching an agreement with one third country to temporarily take in Afghans as the US processes their applications — what is likely to be the first among several such agreements, Bloomberg reported.
But if the US succeeds in reaching such an agreement, SIV applicants could still be stranded abroad in a third country for months, if not years. The SIV program has been plagued by eligibility issues and delays that predate Biden’s announcement of the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but that have made it all the more difficult to get people to safety.
Applicants have to submit significant documentation, including a recommendation letter from their senior US-citizen supervisor. But many Afghans who would otherwise be eligible for the program have difficulty obtaining that recommendation letter, especially in cases where they were working as contractors.
Even if an applicant can gather the required documents, they face lengthy wait times before they are ultimately approved for a visa. By law, SIVs are required to be processed within nine months, but in practice, the average processing time has always been longer than that. Last year, a federal judge ordered the government to come up with a plan to process these applications in a timely manner after thousands of SIV applicants sued. Yet it’s still taking about two years to process the applications.
The Biden administration’s focus on the SIV program — which is plagued with problems — and a third-country solution has come at the expense of Afghans whose lives are in imminent danger and who desperately need a way out.
“The fact that the administration has wasted so much time over the last few months in these negotiations to find a third country when there’s absolutely nothing preventing them from just evacuating people to the US soil — it’s unconscionable,” Bates said. “That’s still an option right now as long as that airport in Kabul is functioning. The president has the power to bring these people to safety in the US and should do it immediately.”