America will be judged by how we leave Afghanistan – by allies, enemies and history
In less than three months, the United States will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, ending our engagement in the longest war our country has ever fought. Over the course of nearly 20 years, the war in Afghanistan claimed the lives of thousands of Americans – but that number undoubtedly would have been higher without the support and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who served as interpreters, translators and guides for our military personnel. or provided additional assistance to the US government. These Afghan citizens have helped the United States at great personal risk and in return they relied on us for their protection. As the United States ends its military operations in Afghanistan, our moral and strategic responsibility to protect them is more important than ever.
To recognize the service of our Afghan allies, in 2006 the United States created a Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) for those who participated in the United States military efforts. The program has already issued tens of thousands of visas to Afghan nationals who have helped the United States and their families. But now, with our military presence shrinking and the Taliban waiting behind the scenes, there is a backlog of around 18,000 Afghan nationals waiting to process their SIV requests. This slowdown will not only be a disadvantage; continued delays could very well be a death sentence for those who risk their lives to help the United States.
The moral need to protect our Afghan friends from the Taliban and extremist threat is obvious: America is committed to protecting those who have worked with us, and we, as a nation, must live up to that commitment. Inaction would also create a risk to national security – for if America’s moral leadership is degraded and our word is devalued, then who the hell would stand by our side in foreign theaters in the future? There is absolutely no way we can send the signal to current and future allies and partners that when the going gets tough, the United States abandons its friends.
Unfortunately, we are running out of time. The United States is less than 90 days before the withdrawal of the last troops; In contrast, a recent report from the Departments of State and Homeland Security estimates that the average processing of an SIV request takes 996 days, roughly the difference between three months and three years. This is an emergency in its own right and the Biden administration cannot just pretend nothing has happened.
We need to reduce that wait to nearly 1,000 days, while prioritizing homeland security through a robust verification process. The most effective way to safely fulfill America’s pledge is to accelerate our existing efforts to process SIVs and increase the number of visas available to eligible applicants. To its credit, the administration is working to reduce this waiting time by drastically increasing the staff responsible for studying these requests. We can also simplify or streamline the necessary documents, given the urgent circumstances, to further speed up the process.
While a larger workforce, fewer forms and more visas would actually reduce the backlog, we know that the large number of outstanding applications and the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic make it virtually impossible to complete this. process by the time the US forces will be completely withdrawn. This poses a serious problem in a landlocked country like Afghanistan – because once American forces are out, a return rescue mission, most likely conducted by air, becomes increasingly difficult. Given the timeline and the hurdles, it is obvious that we cannot rule out a workable solution that will get our partners to safety as soon as possible.
Fortunately, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Beyond the procedural changes we might make, there are also historic precedents for contingency plans that bring our wartime allies to a safe place, while ensuring that the State Department and the Interagency have time to be diligent on each applicant. After the Vietnam War ended, Vietnamese citizens who had worked with the United States during the conflict were first resettled in Guam, before the vast majority were eventually resettled in the United States. a location in the region, or some other possibility – meets our moral obligations and national security concerns. With less than 3 months of the withdrawal, the administration should seriously consider this idea.
An extension of this approach could be to work with those NATO countries that fought alongside us to meet this challenge as well. Just as our NATO allies continue to play an important role in the war in Afghanistan and the withdrawal, they have also relied on contributions from Afghan nationals. As the administration continues to explore options, it can and should consult with NATO allies to see if those countries could temporarily house or relocate a certain percentage of these visa applicants.
The best solutions aren’t entirely clear yet, but what is clear is that time is running out to fulfill America’s duty to our friends. Nations are judged by the manner and care with which they leave the battlefield – not only by future enemies and potential allies, but also by the eyes of history. The world is watching to see what we are doing – or not doing – for our Afghan allies at this time of life and death. Inaction is unacceptable; I urge the administration to redouble their efforts before it is too late.
Senator Angus King (I-Maine) sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he chairs the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and the Special Senate Intelligence Committee. In addition to serving on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Rules Committee, King is the Co-Chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, an initiative tasked by the NDAA 2019 to shape America’s cyber defense posture in the 21st century. as hacking and attacks become a weapon of choice for rogue nations and criminals around the world.
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