In less than three months, the United States will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, ending our engagement in the longest war our nation has ever fought. Over the course of nearly 20 years, war in Afghanistan cost thousands of American lives — but that number would undoubtedly have been higher without the support and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who served as interpreters, translators, and guides for our military personnel or provided additional aid to the U.S. government. These Afghan citizens helped the United States at great personal risk — and in return, relied on us for protection. As the United States winds down its military operations in Afghanistan, our moral and strategic responsibility to protect them is more important than ever.
To recognize the service of our Afghan allies, in 2006 the U.S. created a special immigrant visa (SIV) program for those who assisted in America’s military efforts. The program has already issued tens of thousands of visas to Afghan nationals who aided the U.S. and their families. But now, as our military presence draws down and with the Taliban waiting in the wings, there is a backlog of about 18,000 Afghan nationals waiting for their SIV applications to be processed. This slowdown won’t just be an inconvenience; continued delays could very well be a death sentence for those who put their lives on the line to help the United States.
The moral necessity of protecting our Afghan friends from the Taliban and extremist threat is obvious: America made a commitment to protect those who worked with us, and we, as a nation, must live up to that commitment. Inaction would also create a national security risk — because if America’s moral leadership is degraded and our word is devalued, then who on earth would stand beside us in foreign theaters in the future? We absolutely cannot send a signal to current and future allies and partners that when the going gets tough, the United States abandons its friends.
Unfortunately, we’re running out of time. The United States is less than 90 days away from withdrawing the last of our troops; in contrast, a recent report from the Departments of State and Homeland Security estimate that the average processing of an SIV application takes 996 days — roughly the difference between three months and three years. This is a full-fledged emergency, and the Biden administration cannot settle for business as usual.
We need to cut down on this nearly 1,000 day wait, while still prioritizing homeland security through a sound vetting process. The most effective way we can safely fulfill America’s commitment is by speeding up our existing efforts to process SIVs and expanding the number of visas available for eligible applicants. To its credit, the administration is working cut down on this wait time by drastically increasing the amount of staff responsible for reviewing these applications. We can also simplify or streamline the paperwork needed, given the exigent circumstances, to further expedite the process.
While a larger staff, fewer forms, and more visas would make a real dent in the outstanding backlog, we know that the large number of outstanding applications and challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic make it all but impossible to complete this process by the time U.S. forces are fully withdrawn. This poses a severe problem in a land-locked country like Afghanistan – because once American forces are out, a return rescue mission, most likely conducted by air, becomes increasingly difficult. Given the timeframe and the obstacles, it is obvious that we cannot rule out any feasible solution that gets our partners to safety sooner rather than later.
Fortunately, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Beyond the procedural changes that we could be making, there are also historical precedents for contingency plans that bring our wartime allies to a safe location, while ensuring that the State Department and interagency has time to do its diligence on each applicant. Following the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese citizens who had worked with the United States during the conflict were initially relocated to Guam, before the large majority were eventually resettled in the U.S. This sort of ‘waystation’ — whether it be a U.S. territory, a location in the region, or another possibility — meets our moral obligations and our national security concerns. With less than 3 months before withdrawal, the administration should be looking seriously at this idea.
An extension of this approach could be to work with the NATO nations who fought beside us to also address this challenge. Just as our NATO allies continue to play an important part in the War in Afghanistan and the withdrawal, they also relied upon the contributions of Afghan nationals. As the administration continues to explore options, it can and should consult with NATO allies to see if these nations could temporarily house or relocate some percentage of these visa applicants.
Senator Angus King (I-Maine) serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he Chairs the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In addition to also serving on the Energy and Natural Resources, and the Rules Committee, King is the Co-Chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, an initiative tasked by the 2019 NDAA with crafting the United States’ 21st century cyberdefense posture as hacks and attacks become a weapon of choice of rogue nations and criminals worldwide.