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America must uphold our promise to Afghan allies

1st Lt. Mark Andries/U.S. Marine Corps via AP
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, center, commander of U.S. Central Command, tours an evacuation control center at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2021, shortly before the last U.S. troops withdrew from the country.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee last week held its first hearing on the tumultuous — and massively botched — August 2021 departure from Afghanistan. Some members sought to turn the hearing into a partisan food fight, but the bulk of the hearing focused on the plight of Afghans who fought alongside us, more than 150,000 of whom were abandoned by the U.S. government and continue to be hunted by the Taliban. 

The hearing also highlighted the deep psychological traumas being suffered by American veterans as they seek to cope with our government’s failure to live up to the promises we made over the past 20+ years, and as they seek to fill the void to rescue those allies our government has left behind. Hopefully, the hearing will serve as a catalyst for Congress and the White House to take bold action now to come to their rescue.

During our military’s campaign in Afghanistan, American soldiers relied heavily on tens of thousands of brave Afghans to provide vital assistance as they worked to carry out their mission. From Kabul to forward operating bases around the country, and in firefights with the Taliban and al Qaeda, Afghans worked alongside American forces to remove the Taliban from power, fight terrorism, and rebuild that nation with a democratically elected government. They were drivers, translators, cooks and guards. They fought as brothers in arms with American servicemembers, protecting, guiding and supporting our troops on a foreign battlefield, tens of thousands of miles from home.

They stood by us, knowing that their work with U.S. troops placed them and their families in harm’s way — marked for reprisal by the Taliban for their work with the Americans. They were drawn to the prospect of a better Afghanistan and relied on the promises made to them by our troops and our national leaders that we would then — and forever — stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, not abandon them and their families.

Make no mistake: These were no passing words of encouragement or battlefield bedside manner meant to cajole reticent cooperators.This was the consistent policy of the United States for over two decades, from general officer to infantryman, from station chief to case officer: to recruit allies to the fight by promising that America would have their backs when the time came. We not only owe these allies a debt of gratitude but we also have an obligation to make good on our promises.

For a time, it seemed, the U.S. was willing to do so. Indeed, Congress in 2009 established a legal framework for these allies to flee Afghanistan and emigrate to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa program. And in July 2021, President Biden promised that the United States would “take care of the Afghan nationals who work[ed] side-by-side with U.S. forces … so their families are not exposed to danger as well.” Speaking directly to these Afghans, Biden assured them that “there is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.”

Despite these promises, as we both can attest, during the chaotic withdrawal in August 2021 and since, there was and continues to be no effective process to evacuate the tens of thousands of Afghans who served alongside our troops. Seeking to fill the void, over a thousand military veterans and other volunteers set up personal command centers in basements and living rooms around the country, coordinating private evacuation efforts and helping to hustle people to the Kabul airport and other escape routes in the country and at its borders. These same Americans, after the last official plane left the Kabul airport, continued to work the effort, ferrying hundreds of Afghan allies across the country, hiding them in safe houses for weeks on donated funds and chartering planes and cars to get them out.

This work has rescued thousands but it is not an effective substitute for the void left by government inattention and inaction. Despite government lip service to continued efforts to evacuate our Afghan allies, an estimated 100,000 or more remain in Afghanistan, nearly a year and a half after our departure. They are in hiding, in fear of being identified by the Taliban and executed, along with their families. Countless have been killed already.

The question now is whether we as a nation are prepared to right this wrong. The answer seems clear: We must uphold our promise to those left behind to make good on our moral commitment and, from a foreign policy perspective, to retain our standing as a nation whose commitments our partners can rely on.  

To that end, Congress and the administration must immediately authorize and fund a committed program to rapidly evacuate our Afghan allies from Afghanistan. This must include a streamlined process for robust security vetting and in-processing to enable the evacuees to quickly obtain refugee status and begin their new lives in the United States. Our nation’s leaders also should make clear to the Taliban that reprisals against American allies or their families will not be tolerated and will be met with force by American forces in the region.

Our nation’s leaders can look for inspiration to the decisive action of President Ford and others in 1975, who mobilized an evacuation of more than 130,000 Vietnamese in mere weeks. Their moral courage should guide and motivate us today to take similar steps to honor our national commitment to our Afghan allies. 

Jamil N. Jaffer (@jamil_n_jaffer) is the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School. He is the former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.

DJ Rosenthal (@DJRosenthal1) is an adjunct professor with the honors program at the University of Maryland. He served as director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama White House and as senior counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice.

Tags Afghan allies Afghanistan War Taliban takeover troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

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