After two decades of conflict, U.S. defense officials expected Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, to fall in around six to 12 months. The nation watched in shock as it took a mere 10 days. President Biden announced Tuesday that the withdrawal of all American citizens and military will be completed by Aug. 31.
But what about our Afghan allies?
Some 300,000 Afghan civilians have aided U.S. forces at some point in the 20-year war. Despite this, the U.S. has made only paltry attempts at creating pathways for those who now face retaliation from the Taliban. The U.S. should not hesitate to grant protection to those who aided us.
It’s not that the U.S. provided no pathways for Afghans before the current snafu. It’s that once it created them, it put a maze of red tape between them and their refuge. Congress directed the staff processing visas that an application should take only nine months. Unfortunately, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program, as of January 2021, has been taking 996 days, or about 2.7 years, to process applications. Only 15,641 Afghanistan nationals have been granted a visa out of the 26,500 authorized visas.
With the U.S. embassy in Kabul now in Taliban hands, securing visas will be considerably more daunting. As one applicant recently told the Deseret News, “I passed both of my interviews. But I never got anything else from the U.S. Embassy, and now it is closed. We will die. This is our future now.”
The good news is that there is a clear opportunity to resolve the current chaos and help those who have aided us in our time of need.
One story lost in the focus on Afghanistan’s fall is the huge number of remaining refugee spots this year. The U.S. has about 56,000 refugee spots remaining for this fiscal year out of 62,500 total. Those remaining spots expire when September ends and the new fiscal year begins. Immigration advocates have criticized the administration for the low resettlement numbers, but those numbers now present an opportunity. The U.S. should fill them with its Afghan allies. The president has the authority to issue Afghans humanitarian parole into the country. Biden can even add a condition that they complete formal applications later.
The U.S. is the safest and most practical place for applications to be finalized and vetted. Holding onto documentation puts our allies at grave risk from the Taliban. Getting to the airport requires multiple Taliban-controlled security checks. As the centrist National Immigration Forum pointed out, when passing through those checkpoints, documentation can either “get them to safety in the U.S. or get them killed by the Taliban.”
Applications for both special immigrant visas and refugee status will also go more smoothly if done in America. The U.S. has an existing network of volunteer attorneys and translators who can best help applicants once they are here in the country. Immigration lawyers and advocates told Congress long ago that applying for a special immigrant visa was difficult before the U.S. withdrawal. These applications only became more complex when done under the nose of the Taliban.
Some critics have raised security concerns, but they are easily answered. We can use existing identity databases as a screen against abuse. For example, the Department of Homeland Security credits its Automated Biometric Identification System with stopping thousands of unauthorized people from entering the country.
In addition to those expedited security screenings, taking in thousands of Afghans will be easier than it might sound. Many have already gone through interviews and met the necessary requirements.
The U.S. has historically been adept at evacuating thousands of people. In Operation Babylift during the Vietnam conflict, President Ford evacuated thousands of Vietnamese to Guam after the fall of Saigon. Almost 112,000 refugees were rescued and sent to Guam on their way to the United States, with the island sheltering as many as 50,430 at a time. Temporarily allowing Afghans into America meets the demands of an extraordinary time.
Those refugee spots expire a little over a month from now. Our primary focus should be admitting Afghan allies to the U.S. as refugees. That provides a safe haven where they can be duly processed out of harm’s way. By acting quickly, President Biden can ensure that otherwise expiring refugee spots go to people who laid their lives on the line for the U.S. military.
Josh Smith is a research manager at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, where Tahra Jirari is a communications associate.