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Too Little, Too Late: The Botching of the Afghan Refugee Evacuation

And what the Biden administration must do now.
August 15, 2021
Too Little, Too Late: The Botching of the Afghan Refugee Evacuation
Afghans who are desperate to apply for the Special Immigrant Visa program show documents for their applications while gathering in a city park after a small protest on August 4, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States government during its nearly 20-year war here now fear for their safety as the US withdraws its troops from the country. Many of these Afghans, who worked as interpreters and translators for US intelligence agencies and military branches, have applied to come to the US as part of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, with the first such group arriving in the US last month. But, for most SIV candidates, the timeline for relocation remains unknown. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

“You don’t need to tell me sorry brother,” the text thread began. “You did a lot and this is not your fault but it is my fate.”

In this case, an exchange between a military officer who served in Afghanistan and his former interpreter, fate could have been avoided.

But the Biden administration’s lack of urgency has made fate, well, fatal. And the atrocities have only begun.

Ever since April, when President Biden set a deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the likelihood the Taliban would regain control of the country grew day by day. It was clear to all observers that once our military packed up, the lives of the Afghan nationals and their families who helped our troops, and our civilian efforts, would be at grave risk.

Once the Taliban began their advance, the stories of murders followed.

Congressional efforts to advance Afghan Special Immigrant Visa reforms were stalled by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “I would encourage them rather to stay and fight,” Paul said as he blocked unanimous consent to expedite legislation. “I think it would be good to have many English speakers in Afghanistan.”

After weeks of haggling, Congress finally passed legislation to increase the number of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas, expedite the application process, and allocate over a billion dollars to fund Pentagon and State Department efforts.

A few days later, as July came to an end, the first planeload of some 200 interpreters and their families arrived at Fort Lee, Virginia.

Now, as Kabul falls and administration officials tell senators it will be impossible to evacuate all those who are eligible, it’s clear that the focus from the administration was too little, too late.

A few days ago, a friend texted me, “I have a cousin who previously volunteered in Afghanistan and became close with two Afghan nationals who interpreted for the U.S. Army. They have applied for interpreter visas but with US forces leaving, the Taliban is apparently close to [taking] over their city (Herat) and they are at imminent risk.”

“SIV was applied for 8 June but is still pending,” was the note on my local listserv. “Family trapped in Kabul and evacuation is only realistic option. Father worked for us for 15 years and is on a hit list and will almost certainly face execution if we leave him. His oldest daughter was whipped by Taliban and thankfully escaped to America.”

Over the weekend, as the chaos grew, Reuters tweeted, “Situation has deteriorated so badly in Afghanistan that State Department has reached out to advocates to request names of Afghans in Kabul who have worked with the U.S. and need to be evacuated, including journalists and human rights activists.”

This is no way to run any military operation, much less an evacuation.

What is astonishing is the utter lack of planning by the administration to develop and execute a plan to protect the tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who worked with our military and civilian efforts. Men, women, and children whose only crime was to help our troops will be killed as a result.

In the coming weeks, as the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, the stories and photos from Afghanistan will become ghoulish. Unspeakable horrors will be brought upon Afghan nationals who helped the United States. And, as President George W. Bush said, women and girls will “suffer unspeakable harm.”

In addition to the news stories sure to come from Afghanistan, the refugee flows will begin. If people are lucky enough to escape.

Already, some 1.4 million Afghans live as registered refugees in Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands more live there as undocumented immigrants. To the west, Iran, Turkey and, eventually, Europe will see increased numbers of Afghan refugees. Last year, advocates on the ground in Serbia told me they were already seeing an increased number of unaccompanied Afghan minors trying to find safety in Europe.

What we are witnessing, in real time, is a humanitarian catastrophe.

In the face of this disaster, the international community must prepare for what will likely be a massive surge of Afghan refugees. First and foremost, avoid the mistakes of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015. Do not allow authoritarians like Viktor Orbán—and their new allies, like Tucker Carlson—to weaponize the crisis.

Spend the capital, financial and political, to ensure Afghan refugees are protected. Ensure the U.S. refugee resettlement ceiling, which the Biden administration will set soon for fiscal year 2022, is high enough to meet this demand. Get people to safety, process their applications in a timely manner, and work with nongovernmental organizations around the world to welcome these families.

The Biden administration may have turned a blind eye to the plight of Afghan nationals who helped our military. We are about to see, with both eyes, the consequences of such a failure.

Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani is president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum and author of the forthcoming book, "Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants."