Our closest Afghan allies deserve better than what we’ve given them
The 2022 Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA), introduced in the 117th congressional session, is functionally dead, taking with it the prospect of a direct pathway to citizenship for the roughly 72,500 Afghan parolees in the U.S.
At the same time, initial resettlement financial and social service aid has ended for most Afghan newcomers, even though inter-NGO discussions estimate less than 50 percent are self-sufficient and fewer still are thriving. The U.S. has used parole to resettle fleeing populations from many other countries, but those evacuations were followed by adjustment acts that granted some form of permanent status and, thus, integration into American communities.
The 2023 outlook for this crisis is a steep climb that has wearied the U.S. veteran community, the Afghan diaspora and volunteers over the past 18 months. Historians will either write of an initially bungled foreign policy strategy from which we quickly adapted and succeeded, or of a country that dug into failed policy and bore the consequences.
The AAA was the policy needed to fix an immigration nightmare, but in today’s political climate — with immigration already a hot-button issue — key Republicans, including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), blamed the Biden administration for failing to properly vet Afghans arriving in the fall of 2021, claiming it created a national security risk. It soon became impossible to gain unanimous legislative backing.
While there are compelling reasons to provide pathways for the entire Afghan immigrant population, our former military allies — Afghan special operations forces (SOF) — lack a long-term visa despite being highly trained and culturally adaptable. This population must be central to a new, focused strategy that ultimately opens doors for further evacuation and resettlement.
Afghan SOF worked closely with U.S. military and civilian contractors; many of them bled not only for their now-unrecognizable country but for U.S. special forces too. While some Afghans who escaped in the chaos of mass evacuation were not necessarily proven allies, Afghan SOF went through a multi-step vetting process during the war, and many U.S. veterans are alive because of them.
These approximately 8,000 Afghan evacuees were highly trained special operations individuals, and they are poised to lead the other 80,000 Afghan newcomers in their integration here.
Special Operations Association of America (SOAA) and REACT DC are leading a 2023 initiative to focus on fulfilling our promise to these allies. Ours is a diverse coalition that includes Afghan SOF, civilian resettlement professionals and volunteers and the veteran-led Moral Compass Federation, consisting of 21 organizations. Our coalition is working to reallocate resources from the focus on evacuation to the resettlement and integration of our Afghan SOF allies.
To be clear, we are not suggesting that U.S. veterans abandon evacuation efforts; they will not stop being engaged despite the toll on their jobs, families and mental health. Instead, we are suggesting that they join resettlement experts to finish the mission. Evacuation and resettlement have been siloed in every possible way, but both are parts of the same whole requiring the same strategic prowess and operational excellence. The largest draw of veterans into both evacuation and resettlement efforts has come from members of the U.S. Special Operations community who spent significant time in Afghanistan.
The federal government took unprecedented steps to extend Afghan evacuees’ access to resources normally reserved for refugees and special immigrant visa-holders (SIVs), including access to 90 days of initial resettlement agency support, expedited work permits and social support like food stamps and Medicaid. But Afghans entered a resettlement system whose funding had been decimated in the previous eight years, and into a hastily written, poorly understood policy exception.
Worse yet, Afghan SOFs are struggling to integrate into a system not designed for them or their unique experiences. They are not eligible for SIV status because they were not employed by a U.S. entity; the U.S. merely granted them a two-year right to remain here through humanitarian parole. They arrived with no permanent status, no pathway to citizenship outside of the affirmative-asylum process, but asylum was not meant to be used as an alternative to sound policy, and it is riddled with perverse incentives and pitfalls. If we fail to advocate for durable pathways for our most trusted allies, many may be less than a year from deportation.
SOAA’s policy discussions with legislators indicate Congress wants to support policies for Afghan SOF, but it lacks quantitative data on the political and economic implications of change. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has signaled through grant RPFs that abundant funding exists for smart policy initiatives that fill service gaps or break from the traditional resettlement paradigm — in short, “Give us a plan and we have the money.” Millions of dollars and resources are available specifically for resettlement plans that solve these problems, and HHS-ORR is hungry for diversity of thought.
Yet Washington’s message is clear– without the data and focused, actionable advocacy efforts, mass policy change and program restructuring plans are dead on arrival.
The U.S. has welcomed allies of conflicts and extended a pathway to citizenship for 70 years, and it will continue to do so in the future. We face a future of displaced migrations whether due to war, climate change or other instabilities.
Just six months after the fall of Afghanistan, America pledged to accept 100,000 displaced Ukrainians — and they won’t be the last. A veterans’ surge for resettlement support provides an opportunity to advocate for new, nimble policies addressing the needs of current and future allies. Resettlement infrastructure is on the verge of a positive evolution to a more adaptable, inclusive machine. We are in a historic moment of rewriting processes that will impact U.S. immigration policy in the next generation.
If Congress adopts a policy to support Afghan SOF, it will signal to the world that the U.S. honors its commitments to allies. If veterans engage heavily in resettlement, they can help to fill service gaps and make smarter use of government resources. The combined success of this strategy shift would create space for additional policy supporting future evacuations and broader policy reforms for our Afghan comrades who remain in Afghanistan.
If there isn’t a strategy shift to support Afghan SOF, other allies will see that their “alliance” only holds while a conflict rages. This isn’t the message or the intent of the U.S. military, and it’s an unacceptable outcome for U.S. and Afghan veterans who fought, bled and died for democratic ideals. Failure to organize resources to ensure their success will lead to catastrophe for many Afghan evacuees.
If we can’t ensure the self-sufficiency of our closest Afghan allies, we can’t ensure the self-sufficiency of any Afghan newcomer — and mass disenfranchisement and disillusionment of the broader Afghan population will occur.
The Global War on Terrorism generation — every single American who came of age during this 20-year war — has been shaped by bloody realities when our nation fails to give a voice to disillusioned, disenfranchised and segregated populations. We should not repeat this failure at home.
Amy Marden is the CEO of REACT DC https://www.reactdc.org/, which works nationally to resettle Afghan refugees.
Timothy “Tito” Torres is the Senior Advisor on Strategy and External Relations for Special Operations Association of America (SOAA) https://soaa.org/about/.
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