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How to Solve the Three Problems With Getting Our Afghan Allies Out

The Biden administration can fix this, if they focus on it.
January 31, 2022
How to Solve the Three Problems With Getting Our Afghan Allies Out
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

It’s been almost half a year since America pulled out of Afghanistan. Many of the Afghans who stood with us during the war are still stranded there. But there is a way to get them out.

I served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. During the fall of Kabul former Afghan defense force colleagues began reaching out to me. They are all family men with children at home. One man has 12- and 14-year-old daughters who are in the prime window to be forcibly married as a reward to a Taliban fighter. He has received several WhatsApp messages designed to lure him out of hiding in the middle of the night. Another is younger than me, with two young children. He was picked up by the Taliban recently and detained, but thankfully released. These and countless other Afghans showed up for duty conscientiously. They supported the ideals of freedom that we espoused. And now they and their families live in constant danger precisely because they helped America.

I’ve been stymied in my efforts to provide assistance. The U.S. government has programs designed to bring Afghans to safety—you’ve probably heard of both the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and P2 Refugee program. Both of these programs could be doing a lot of good, if the Biden administration had a senior executive paying attention to problems in the chain. Because these programs need help.

Problem #1: The SIV and P2 applications cover different people and have slightly different processes, but both share a common requirement: the Afghan has to reside in a different country in order to apply for them. Why? Because the United States no longer has an embassy in Afghanistan. Normally, this would be solved by setting up refugee camps in nearby nations where the applicants could wait during the 12-to-14-month process. But no neighboring country will allow more Afghan refugees in.

One solution is to take the Afghans to other countries that will accept refugees, such as Canada, Great Britain, or Germany. Which could work, if you could get people out of the country.

Solution #1: Humanitarian charter flights out of Afghanistan are spotty, expensive, and hard to arrange. I’m not arguing we should eliminate that option. But ideally Afghans could use civilian airports in neighboring countries—except that the land crossings are closed unless you can pay a black marketeer for a forged visa. Which means that the administration should be working with those countries to provide a navigable, repeatable method for Afghans to access civilian airports if they have immigration documents and proof of air tickets.

Problem #2: The second problem is directing Afghans to a physical location where they can take refuge and be processed. After the U.S. told my Afghan colleagues “you’re on your own for getting out,” I’ve tried to figure out where to physically direct them. I contacted the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) office responsible for Afghan refugee issues. The response was laughable. I received a form reply with generalized links on the topic.

Solution #2: if we’re going to take these folks in eventually and we have someone willing to vouch for them and sign an affidavit of support—perhaps akin to the Sponsor Circles—why not bring them to America so they can complete the process here?

The Biden administration recently announced that it was allowing USCIS to grant humanitarian parole for Afghans, and even waiving the fees to apply. But that hasn’t really materialized. There have been 35,000 humanitarian parole requests filed, even of people detained by the Taliban and then released. A total of 140 have been granted and another 470 have been denied.

Get this program functional.

Problem #3: Which brings us to the third problem: the sheer, unadulterated sloth with which paperwork is being processed. I submitted P2 Referrals for Afghan friends in August. I can get no status update on the packets from the State Department, except for “we’ve only gotten to 30 percent to 40 percent of the requests” and that took me sending a letter to a senator. A mere half dozen staff normally process humanitarian parole applications, which typically only hit 2,500 per year. The system is swamped.

Solution #3: Get executive sponsorship and special funding to quickly get new hires or contractors in place to deal with the flood of applications and referrals.

For now, I’m stuck in limbo – a veteran who served honorably, trying to help the people who supported us. I cannot get a status on their referrals.

Even if I got a status, they can’t start the application because they aren’t in a third country.

They can’t get to a third country, because most places won’t accept refugees.

Even if other countries accepted refugees, they can’t get there because they’re denied transit.

And even if I got these men and their families to America, humanitarian parole would be denied.

The Biden administration has failed on this debt of honor.

Yet with small policy changes and resource reallocations, we could fix it—if it was a priority for the administration.

What we need is a working group and a war chest to pressure the Biden administration. That’s what I’m trying to do. I need folks to be the prime movers on the working group, as well as fundraisers. If you’re willing to help, please contact me at [email protected].

So many of the problems in our world are abstract and intractable. This one isn’t. These are real people. They are in real danger because they helped us. And rescuing them doesn’t require anything more than making someone high up in the executive branch make it their priority.

If you’re one of the few Americans with a time horizon of more than five minutes; if you care about the shameful way in which we ended Afghanistan; if you want some way to feel like we’ve done something to make it right, get in touch and help me do it.

Joe Swartz

Joe Swartz served in the 82nd Airborne Division and deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom from 2011 to 2012. A Republican turned Democrat, he is a candidate for United States Congress in the new 1st District of North Carolina, where he lives with his husband and son.