The World

This Isn’t the Fall of Saigon

The Biden administration is belatedly taking action to evacuate Afghans who helped the U.S. military. But it’s far short of what America has done in the past.

A group of Vietnamese boat people on board of their nautical vessel visibly happy to be rescued.
A group of Vietnamese “boat people” in September 1978. Fred Ihrt/LightRocket via Getty Images

Despite President Joe Biden’s public optimism on Afghanistan’s stability in the aftermath of the full U.S. troop withdrawal—he somewhat bafflingly stated that its leaders “clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place” in a recent briefing—most well-informed observers and the United States’ own intelligence services are in agreement that the real question isn’t if but how long the country’s internationally backed government will endure before it is crushed by a Taliban advance. The prognosis isn’t looking great; Kabul might hold for longer, but in other cities, the delta could be a few months or even weeks. For the first time since the withdrawal, last week, the Taliban overran a provincial capital—Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz.

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The question of what will happen to anyone viewed as even tangentially tied to the coalition troop presence or disloyal to the Taliban’s greater governing vision and philosophy is no big mystery; already, the United Nations has reported a staggering uptick in civilian deaths, flying past 5,000 in the first six months of 2021, an almost 50 percent increase over the same period last year. While a wide swath of Afghan society is at risk, the first to suffer are likely to be the translators and military personnel who directly assisted foreign troops, a population that became a domestic political flashpoint as the administration waffled on the issue of their evacuation, at times seeming to teeter toward leaving them to the wolves.

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In July, after weeks of acrimonious back and forth, with Afghan refugee supporters and many  applicants themselves accusing the administration of having turned its back on long-standing commitments to the very group of people that actively prevented more Americans from returning inside flag-draped boxes, Biden’s team relented and began prioritizing their evacuation. It was mostly framed as a national security decision, driven by a desire to signal that the U.S. will ensure the safety of the local population in whatever our next forever war occupation target happens to be.

The mechanism at play is the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, a custom-made immigration program designed to process U.S. military helpers in Iraq and Afghanistan for refugee resettlement. The administration has announced that around 18,000 such SIVs are currently in progress, and around 2,500 of those closest to completion will be flown out to the Fort Lee military base in Virginia, while the rest might be temporarily relocated to third countries. Congress recently approved an additional 8,000 SIVs for this year, and this week, the State Department announced that it was opening up a refugee resettlement program known as Priority 2 to Afghans who had U.S. affiliations as government contractors, employees of certain U.S.-funded programs, or through work with nongovernmental organizations and media but didn’t meet the full eligibility criteria for SIV. It’s unclear how many people would qualify for the new program, but it is again limited to populations at risk specifically due to their direct association with the U.S. occupation.

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Halting as they’ve been, these efforts could be a potential lifesaver to tens of thousands of Afghans—both direct applicants and their families—who are facing the near certainty of a gruesome death at the hands of the Taliban. Yet, while they might be first on the hit list, they are far from the only Afghans who will be in danger. Hundreds of thousands will be left facing the prospect of a violent theocratic government which will roll back the meager gains for women, ethnic and religious minorities, the LGBTQ population, and others.

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As the generals and policymakers carry on about different approaches’ perceived benefits to national security, there has been precious little dialogue on what an unashamedly humanitarian refugee approach to the Afghan withdrawal might look like. What if policymakers viewed the prospect of resettlement not as a calculus around how discretely beneficial or risky each potential applicant might be to the always-under-threat homeland, but as an opportunity to give refuge to the thousands of people who will otherwise be left behind in the wreckage of a disastrous forever war?

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It’s an approach with some real history behind it, as the U.S. spent well over a decade on an unprecedented project of resettlement in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Beginning with the passage of the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, the U.S. government undertook a concerted and bipartisan effort utilizing an array of legal and procedural tools to ultimately move hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese (and to lesser extents Cambodian and Laotian) refugees to the United States, the vast majority of them permanently. “We were resettling Vietnamese until the 1990s,” said Yael Schacher, an immigration historian and senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International. “In retrospect, it’s actually quite amazing that the U.S. did this for so long because this wasn’t an issue of national security anymore.”

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The initial effort focused on those who had direct ties to the U.S. war effort and were at the greatest risk but quickly pivoted to anyone under threat of persecution and, eventually, to would-be Vietnamese immigrants not in any immediate peril. At the forefront of these initiatives was James Purcell, who helped create the State Department’s Bureau of Refugee Programs and served as its director from 1983 to 1986. “Our job was to help save what we thought would be millions after the war,” Purcell told me. “We didn’t have time to look at individual cases.”

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Instead, for the first waves of people, the government made liberal use of humanitarian parole, a discretionary executive designation that allowed the State Department to quickly bring tens of thousands of people to the U.S. without undergoing full, onerous refugee processes. “You didn’t have to establish bona fides. In each case, you just had to prove that you were a Vietnamese person who was forced out by the arrival of enemy forces,” said Purcell. Estimates vary, but experts agree that U.S. authorities managed to bring over 120,000 Vietnamese immigrants to the country like this in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. The methodology was significant because a standard refugee program admission can take years of applications, background and medical checks, and general bureaucratic minutiae.

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In response to a growing crisis of so-called Vietnamese boat people—migrants who were leaving by sea in often dangerous journeys to other Southeast Asian countries—the U.S. in 1979 established the Orderly Departure Program, an initiative to streamline both standard immigration petitions, such as through family or employment, and refugee admissions of people both in Vietnam and third countries. More than 450,000 Vietnamese immigrants would eventually arrive in the U.S. via ODP, with the presence of strong regional partners proving determinative. “I set up, in the Philippines, the Bataan refugee processing center, where we provided six months of English language training, vocational training, and medical care. Every refugee who came to the U.S. had been through a regional preparation camp,” said Purcell.

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The Vietnam experience highlights one of the main logistical hurdles for a potential wide-ranging Afghan refugee program, which is that there’s a pretty narrow window of time to process refugees on the ground there before that becomes largely untenable, and there isn’t a wealth of obvious regional allies to lean on. “Turkey already is home to many, many Afghans who they don’t treat very well at all,” said Schacher, adding that “there are millions of Afghans who have been living in Pakistan and Iran mostly since the 1980s,” when they fled the Soviet occupation. Relations with both Turkey and Pakistan are complex and often strained, and Iran is obviously off the table as far as bilateral planning is concerned. Any such program would also have to deal with the question of these refugees from an earlier era, and whether they would qualify for U.S. resettlement or not.

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None of it is impossible but would require laying some serious groundwork that so far just doesn’t seem to be a priority. “​​It took many, many years, 10 years or so, for [ODP] really to take root,” said Purcell. “Somebody’s got to be working on that right now, and if there’s anybody [in the Biden administration] working on that kind of thing, I certainly don’t know about it. As you know, the refugee program in the State Department was virtually decimated during the Trump years.” So far, Biden has displayed an ambivalent attitude toward the refugee program, reneging on a campaign promise to expand the fiscal year 2021 refugee cap before being pressured by advocates into reversing course, too late in the year for it to really matter much.

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Schacher and other advocates believe the unused refugee visas should be used to offer protections to Afghan civil servants, journalists, women, ethnic and religious minorities, and others who would be at general risk under a Taliban regime. That would entail an extremely sped up approval timeline to be effective before the fiscal year ends and takes the currently available visas with it on Sept. 30. Purcell is skeptical that the U.S. public would have much of an appetite for a sudden surge in Afghan resettlements perceived as rushed or unvetted. “We have overlapping reviews, three or four different sets of reviews to look and make sure we’re not bringing in bad elements,” he said.

In a press briefing about the Priority 2 program this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken all but said that that would be it, and other would-be refugees would just have to go through the standard, long-winded refugee program, starting with a referral from the United Nations. “Some Afghans who are not—don’t fit into any of those categories but may feel particularly at risk, we also have the principal refugee program available for them,” he said, before dodging a question about how Afghans were supposed to get to third countries to apply: “It’s hard to get yourself to a place where you can take advantage of what opportunities exist to seek to apply for refugee status. And we recognize that. This is, alas, the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations.”

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Ultimately, the administration seems hesitant to even consider something of similar ambition to the Vietnam resettlement for the same reason that it’s gone all in on a “root causes” strategy of preventing humanitarian migration from Central America—it sees its preeminent responsibility as helping from afar and the calamities the U.S. set in motion as fundamentally other people’s problem now.

“I doubt that there would be as great an interest in a large-scale program for Afghans as there was for Indochina. America had lost the war in Indochina, in Vietnam, and we had a quite special responsibility to see to its end,” said Purcell. We’re arguably leaving Afghanistan even worse off and less stable than Vietnam, but it’s the sense of duty that’s changed.

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