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America Has a Moral Obligation to Get Our Translators Out of Afghanistan

August 15, 2021
America Has a Moral Obligation to Get Our Translators Out of Afghanistan
Hamid Karzai International Airport, August 16, 2021. (Screenshot

We promised we would get them out. We promised we would stand by the thousands of Afghan translators and their families as they stood by our troops and American government personnel and contractors for almost 20 years. But, now those promises are in grave danger of being broken.

As the American flag has been lowered at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the Taliban swept into the capital city over the weekend in the wake of U.S. troop withdrawal and the fleeing of the country by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, thousands of Afghan translators and their families are running, or hiding, for their lives. The Taliban has declared them to be enemies and traitors. It is a moral imperative that the American government and people fulfill our promises and rescue the 80,000 to 90,000 Afghan translators and family members who are enrolled in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application process (around 18,000 interpreters). We have only rescued around 2,000 at this point.

The promises of protection and asylum for those who risked their lives to serve and protect our troops and American government personnel have been numerous. President Biden said on July 8 of this year, “Our message to those men and women is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose and we will stand with you, as you stood with us.”

Now, as Afghanistan crumbles, does that promise still hold? Or, is it too late? What we should do with the Afghan translators and their families was settled years ago when Congress passed legislation in 2006 establishing a program to allow Iraqi and Afghan translators and their families to apply for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) because of their service to our country and because their lives would be in danger in Afghanistan from the Taliban. But, the program has never worked well: applicants have spent years languishing in bureaucratic limbo and even despite a new executive order from President Biden shortly after taking office, not much has happened. Now that the crisis is upon us, it is perhaps too late.

That executive order from February 4 was explicit:

The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs for Iraqi and Afghan allies provide humanitarian protection to nationals of Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing an ongoing, serious threat because they provided faithful and valuable service to the United States, including its troops serving in those countries. The Federal Government should ensure that these important programs are administered without undue delay.

Yet, there has been one delay after another. For months. For years. As Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service said in late July, “The sad truth is that our nation should have acted months ago when we had the resources and personnel on the ground to respond to this humanitarian imperative. The next best time for bold leadership is now.”

So, what will we do now? As the news deteriorated over the past week, I corresponded with my friend, Andre Mann, a businessman from North Carolina who lived in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2011 working alongside Afghans committed to building an Afghanistan free of the Taliban. I asked him to help me better understand the significant role the Afghan translators played in his own experience there. Andre wrote back,

One of our contracts was funded by the U.S. government to develop media products that promoted respect for the work of local firemen and policemen. As our operation grew, we moved into larger offices in a different area of town. The day after our move, some Islamic extremists from a powerful local militia barged past our perimeter security, entered our office building and found my office. Their leader, waving a gun at me, threatened to kill me if we had not vacated the offices by the next morning. After he left, one of our trusted staff, Khaled [not his real name], invited a large number of prominent Islamic and military leaders over to lunch at our office the next day and asked for their protection. This action, part of the local honor code of Pushtunwali, changed the dynamic completely.

When Khaled put his name on the line on my behalf, he exchanged his reputation for mine. If anything were to be done against me, he was honor-bound to die protecting me. Khaled did this on numerous other occasions for me and other Americans.

Andre went on to tell me that the sacrifice of the Afghan translators was total. They were all-in, with nowhere to go if things went badly. They were completely dependent upon the United States fulfilling their promises to them.

When translators and other trusted staff came alongside U.S. troops and contractors, they did not sign up for a 9-to-5 job. They didn’t even sign up for a 9-month tour of duty. In Afghanistan, the Taliban drew a line in the sand, and they declared any Afghan who works with foreigners the enemy.

These translators and trusted staff picked a side, and they put their whole existence on our side of that line. It’s a one-way street to the American side of things in Afghanistan—there is no turning back, and these friends picked us. How can we leave them behind to be murdered by the Taliban, when they have put themselves at risk for us, when they have fought side-by-side with our troops, when they have placed their family networks, reputations, and honor at our service?

In 2006 the SIV program was started to provide visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. in our war on terror in Afghanistan. The implicit promise of “if you take care of me, I’ll take care of you” was made explicit. Khaled qualified for and submitted his complete application for the Special Immigrant Visa for himself and his family in 2018. After more than a decade of putting his life on the line on behalf of Americans, this was well-deserved.

However, three years later, his application has not yet been approved by the U.S. government. He’s stuck in limbo. His experience is shared by thousands, possibly tens of thousands of other Afghans whose lives are at risk because they worked with the U.S., and who are still waiting for approval for their applications. . . .

Are we really going to leave Khaled behind? After he saved my life on multiple occasions, are we just going to turn our backs on him and his family?

I’m not making an appeal to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. I don’t have policy solutions or know what should happen militarily. All of that is outside my lane. But, I do know that we promised these people we would protect them. We said we’d protect their families.

Those who served with the translators have been advocating for them for years.

There are myriad stories of how American lives were saved by these brave people. Now, that we have withdrawn and the country is being overtaken by the Taliban, will we leave them behind? Will we break our promise to them? If we do, we have every reason to believe we are helping them along to their death.

I’m not writing to make a foreign policy case or an economic argument here. I’m not interested in the political ramifications of what happens and who is to blame for this colossal failure. What I’m interested in the moral obligation we have to vulnerable people who trusted us. This is wrong. This should not be. We should go get these people, not because of some great perceived benefit to our national interest, but because we promised them, because it is the right thing to do, and because their lives are hanging in the balance.

As a Christian and a pastor, I believe that God has a special concern for the vulnerable and the sojourner. The Scriptures are filled from beginning to end with the sentiment of care for those in danger that is close to the heart of God. I also believe that when we, as a people, make vows to protect those who endanger themselves for us, that we must make every effort to fulfill those vows. We have an obligation to help Afghan translators and their families because they helped us. Because we promised we would. And because the only reason they are now in danger is precisely because they helped us.

Any plans to withdraw U.S. troops should have included from the beginning plans to withdraw these people to safety. All plans going forward must regard their rescue as a top priority.

Over the past few years, America has struggled to have compassion for the vulnerable and the refugee. Our hearts have hardened when it comes to how we see and treat those in need around us. That part of America’s character now faces a test. What we do for the Afghan translators in the next week will tell us what kind of character we have.

Who will we be as a people in the coming years? The answer will be found, in part, in how we treat the translators of Afghanistan and it will be decided in the streets. In the airport of Kabul. And in the hearts and minds in each of us here in America.

Alan Cross with André Mann

Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014).
André Mann is a businessman, refugee advocate, and church leader from Raleigh, North Carolina. He lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2005-2011 and worked with Afghan interpreters, one of whom saved his life and the life of his family. He is currently feverishly trying to help his friends escape the Taliban as Afghanistan collapses.