The World

There’s No Good Exit Plan for Afghans Who Supported American Forces

U.S. troops leave in a few months, but the visa program for Afghans takes years.

An American troops and two Afghan soldiers point ahead into the distance.
U.S. Army Cpt. Andre Sison, 34, left, discusses a route plan with an Afghanistan National Army commander, center, through Afghan translator Ulfat Baheer, on Oct. 11, 2006. Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In his speech last week announcing the imminent withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden spoke about the “bravery” and “resolve” shown by troops who’ve paid a “tremendous price on our behalf,” including the 2,448 who died. Biden notably did not mention the more than 100,00 Afghans who have died in the conflict or even the specific case of those who’ve worked directly with U.S. troops.

Ismail Khan, who worked as a translator with the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2011, described the withdrawal announcement as “heartbreaking,” saying he was worried the Taliban would target Afghans like himself who had assisted the U.S. military. “The Americans are out. So who are they going to take revenge on? Those who helped Americans,” he said.

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Khan was forced to leave Afghanistan after his photo was published in a Pakistani newspaper in 2011. He’s been living in the Seattle area since 2014 on what’s called a special immigrant visa and works with the group No One Left Behind, which assists other Afghans on SIVs. The SIV program for Afghanistan was launched in 2009—based on a similar one for Iraq—to grant visas to Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, as translators or in other roles, and whose lives are in danger as a result. As of 2020, more than 18,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and more than 45,000 of their family members have received visas under the program, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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But this hasn’t even come close to meeting the demand for these visas. As of 2019, there was a backlog of 18,800 applications. Because of staffing issues and the lengthy security check involved, the application processing time is 658 days, which doesn’t count the amount of time it takes for applicants to compile the documents they need. Khan credits the support of his American supervisor with the fact that his application was processed in a relatively brisk two-and-a-half years. He says he knows Afghans who began their applications before he arrived in the U.S., more than seven years ago, and are still waiting.

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As noted in a recent assessment of the program by Brown University’s Costs of War project, the long waiting time means the program is particularly unsuited to the people it is designed to help: those whose lives are in imminent danger. More than 300 interpreters have died while waiting for their applications to be processed, according to No One Left Behind. The problem is likely to only get worse once U.S. forces leave.

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When asked about U.S. obligations to its Afghan partners last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to the program, saying, “We have a program that I think you’re all aware of that is the so-called special immigrant visa program that they would be eligible for, and I’m certainly committed, if there’s a demand for it and request for it, to move forward on that.” Biden ordered a review of the program as part of his Feb. 4 executive order on refugee resettlement, and that review is still ongoing.

A State Department spokesperson told me last week that the U.S. government is “fully aware of the contributions of our Afghan colleagues and the risks they face” and that “the Department of State is working with interagency partners, including the Department of Defense, to identify ways to strengthen, improve, and expand the special immigrant visa program.” In an emailed statement, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a longtime advocate of the program, said she would “continue [her] work to increase support for the SIV program and to pursue every opportunity available for Congress to show its support for the Afghan people who’ve served and sacrificed by our side.”

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But Noah Coburn, an anthropologist at Bennington College who studies Afghanistan and the author of the Costs of War report, says the current framework is simply inadequate. “If they’re really thinking about how do we reform the SIV program, there’s no way it will be ready in time to save many Afghans before September. It needs a complete overhaul and reformulation,” he said.

Inadequate as it may be, there is, at the very least, a system in place for helping Afghans who worked directly for the military. Translators, in particular, have received significant bipartisan support and media attention. (There’s even a new CBS sitcom on the topic.) But they may be just the tip of the iceberg if the most dire predictions about post-withdrawal Afghanistan come to pass.

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A full security collapse in Afghanistan after September is not inevitable. The U.S. will continue to provide aid to the country’s government and military, and negotiations for a cease fire and potential power sharing between the government and the Taliban are ongoing, though they are fraught. (Khan notes that even if there’s a peace agreement at the national level, Afghans who worked for the Americans and their families would still face risks, either from individual Taliban fighters or from kidnappers and extortionists who may believe they have more money.)

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But if the U.S. military’s assessments are to be believed, the worst-case scenarios are entirely plausible, and the Biden administration should be ready for them.

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“If the national government splinters and the Taliban comes in and takes power, within months we could be looking at Taliban retribution teams going door to door and neighborhood to neighborhood, cleansing anyone who was affiliated with the U.S. government,” said Coburn. This could include not only contractors for foreign militaries but employees of the U.S.-backed government and national military, whom the Taliban view as “puppets.” Members of ethnic minority groups like the Hazaras, who have faced massacres at the hands of the Taliban in the past, could also be forced to flee, as could those who have participated in women’s education or other practices the Taliban abhors.

Afghans are already the third-largest refugee population in the world. If either the Taliban’s return to power or a complete security breakdown following the troop withdrawal triggers a new exodus, will the U.S. feel any obligation to help?

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There’s precedent for such a rescue. In 1975, about 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the U.S. as part of a sponsored evacuation program following the fall of Saigon. Many of them were first flown to Guam for processing, which Coburn’s report cites as a model for how SIV holders could be removed from danger while going through the lengthy application process.

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Coburn says the post-Vietnam experience shows that “to say that we can’t do that logistically now is just false. The resources it would take would be small compared to the resources we’ve invested militarily in Afghanistan over the years.”

Now, as in the 1970s, the issue is less logistics than politics. The Vietnam evacuation faced some opposition at the time, including from freshman Sen. Joe Biden. Biden is a very different politician than he was then, though recent events don’t provide much reason to think he’ll be too ambitious on this issue. After Biden promised a major expansion of U.S. refugee resettlement on the campaign trail, the White House last week announced that it would be keeping the Trump administration’s historically low refugee cap in place—though it backtracked after major backlash a few hours later and promised an unspecified expansion next month. The president’s current determination allots just 1,500 refugee slots for all of the Middle East and South Asia, the region that includes Afghanistan. (This does not include SIVs.)

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It’s probably true that U.S. military power was never going to bring stability to Afghanistan, and it may be true that international troops were only delaying an inevitable collapse. But you don’t have to support the U.S. mission to believe that it created certain obligations on behalf of the Afghans who participated in it. The Americans’ most lasting legacy in Afghanistan may be, Khan warns, that “they betrayed those that helped them the most. They left them there.”

In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer

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