The US must help Afghans who have helped us
The clock is ticking ever louder for our Afghan allies.
The United States’ withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is well under way and now may be complete by July, well ahead of the original Sept. 11 target date. As we withdraw, Afghan nationals who risked their lives alongside U.S. military and government officials as translators, interpreters, embassy staff, security personnel, and more, will be left exposed to retribution by terrorist groups like the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Due to bureaucratic delays, an estimated 18,000 Afghans are waiting in a visa backlog, a number that does not include tens of thousands of family members or additional people in the process of submitting applications. In testimony before the U.S. Congress this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised to expedite thousands of Special Immigrant Visas for many of our Afghan allies, which is welcome news. What is still urgently needed, however, is an immediate plan to safely evacuate Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and their families, whose lives are in grave danger. We have both a strategic and moral imperative to ensure we protect them and provide them a path to safety. We must act immediately: Lives are at stake.
As a retired Navy officer and a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, I witnessed firsthand the role Afghan nationals had in our efforts in the fight against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America. Their continued efforts on the ground today — even as increased personal threat looms — speak volumes about their character, resilience, and sacrifice for America, Afghanistan, and their families. Their service, and now their safety, should be important to not only the president and Congress but also to the American people.
Historic efforts to rescue our allies in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Kosovo serve as good precedents for evacuating individuals who’ve sacrificed their safety and lives for the United States. An evacuation will not be easy, but we owe it to those who have served with our troops on the ground in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Our Afghan allies shouldn’t have to wait for years while the Taliban torments them — or worse.
Once Afghans are evacuated to safety, then their SIVs can be processed. There’s work to do around that next step as well. Congress should allocate additional SIV visas to address any increase in applications resulting from our full withdrawal from Afghanistan — and the bipartisan reintroduction of the Afghan Allies Protection Act is a good start. We also need a plan to vet and process Afghan SIVs more efficiently. If necessary to expedite an evacuation, the administration could consider employing the refugee program or parole via the Department of Defense.
This is also of national security interest to the United States. The lack of quick action directly impacts and endangers our military service members and government officials abroad, making it more difficult for them to build local relationships that help them carry out their missions.
Moreover, the world is watching how we respond as leaders of the free world. Our allies must know the U.S. honors its promises, relationships, and friends. If we do not ensure the safety of our Afghan allies, we discourage others from joining into alliances, perhaps when we need our allies most. We also undermine our current ones.
Last month and, separately, last week, bipartisan members of Congress sent letters to President Biden, asking him to prioritize SIVs. Veterans groups also have weighed in. My colleagues and I on the Council on National Security and Immigration have urged the president to consider the national security consequences if we fail to act. The message is clear: Action from the administration is urgent.
Resolving these issues is not just the right or moral thing to do. If Congress and especially the Biden administration do not act now, the humanitarian and national security implications will be significant. We must do right by our Afghan allies who put their lives on the line for us. And we must start now.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot with over 20 years of operational and intelligence experience, including assignments at the Office of Combating Terrorism, National Security Council staff of President George W. Bush; the National Counterterrorism Center; and the Joint Special Operations Command. He is one of the leaders on the Council on National Security and Immigration (CNSI).