Immediate U.S. action is essential to save our endangered Afghan friends

Originally published in The Hill, May 19, 2021

https://thehill.com/opinion/international/554438-immediate-us-action-essential-to-save-endangered-afghans

With each day that ticks by until September 11, the deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the danger of death will increase for Afghans who supported the American presence in their country. Much has been said of late about the debt we owe these endangered souls, but now is the time for quick, decisive action to save them. Otherwise, they will likely fall victim to Taliban assassins.

The first order of business must be to energize two special immigrant visa (SIV) programs for Afghans who put themselves at risk for helping Americans–one specifically for interpreters and one for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. Many of those Afghans, and their families, have been marked for death by the Taliban.

The SIV programs have languished, bogged down by bureaucratic red tape. There are 12,000 authorized, but unused, slots for the last two years and an inexcusable backlog of nearly 19,000 SIV applicants and 50,000 family members. This is a travesty. To his credit, President Biden has called for a speed-up in processing SIV applications and a review of SIV programs, with a report due in six months. The speed-up is long overdue but the six-month review is completely unacceptable. Taliban killings are on the increase and many SIV applicants and their family members will be murdered during the delay.

Many, if not most, SIV application files contain adequate information upon which to make a determination. The main criterion should be whether an American soldier or employer has furnished credible verification of an applicant’s fidelity to the U.S. and Afghan governments. I lived and served with South Vietnamese soldiers and translators for over six months in a combat setting and got to know over a dozen well enough to have vouched for them. The decision on an application can and should be done in weeks, not years.

If the Administration or Congress considers it absolutely essential to conduct more vetting, the applicants and family members should be extracted from Afghanistan so that further processing can be conducted in a safe environment. Many thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia were successfully processed at U.S. military bases in the late 1980s. The International Refugee Assistance Project has suggested a mass evacuation of at-risk Afghans to Guam for processing.

Congress needs to substantially increase the number of slots available for SIV applicants and their families. There simply aren’t enough now and it is likely the demand will increase significantly as September 11 approaches.

The U.S. should also provide for resettlement of a wide range of Afghans who do not qualify for the SIV programs, but who are likely targets of Taliban reprisal–uncorrupted government and military officials, women’s rights advocates, reporters, educators and the like.

Military personnel like Major Naiem Asadi, a legendary Afghan pilot who is credited with saving American lives, certainly deserves sanctuary in the U.S. He was granted approval, but then had the approval revoked. Because of numerous death threats, he and his family were forced to go into hiding. He has reapplied for admission and clearly has earned it.

Journalists like Farahnaz Forotan, who learned last November that she was on a Taliban death list, should also be granted sanctuary. There are thousands more like these two–good people who placed their trust in ill-considered U.S. promises of democracy and peace in Afghanistan.

There is one more critical problem that gets little coverage in the media–the wretched condition of America’s refugee infrastructure. In order to resettle any number of these immigrants in the U.S., massive and immediate investment must be made to beef up the capability of resettlement agencies.

The last four years saw a precipitous drop in refugee admissions, which has had a devastating effect on resettlement agencies. The agencies have been gutted and will have to be restored to health quickly in order to handle an influx of Afghan immigrants. It will take a significant infusion of federal dollars to get the job done.

Many Vietnam veterans were devastated when South Vietnam fell in April of 1975. I am still haunted by the horrific fate that befell my South Vietnamese friends–my interpreter and many soldiers who trusted ill-advised U.S. promises to bring peace and freedom to their country. We did not make a concerted effort to extract our South Vietnamese friends from harm’s way, to our great dishonor. Let’s not shame our country again. We have a short amount of time to save our Afghan friends who risked their lives to help our troops, but speed is essential. The Administration and Congress must act now!

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran, who served as Idaho Attorney General for 8 years and as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years (2005-2017).

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