Where is the plan?
Less than a month before all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan, there is still no administration plan to rescue around 18,000 translators who worked for the U.S. military and are prime targets for Taliban revenge.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose department is in charge of issuing special immigrant visas (known as SIVs) for the translators, a program authorized by Congress, has told legislators he’s increased the number of staff in Washington and Kabul dedicated to issuing the visas and is streamlining the process.
That’s fine, since State Department personnel were gutted by the last administration, and U.S. Embassies were further downsized due to COVID-19. But, as Rep. Michael McCaul told Blinken, “There’s no way special immigrant visas can be processed that quickly [before the pullout].”
Blinken has shown intense interest in the SIVs issue in the past, as it applied to Iraqi translators, but in this case, his moves are too little, too late.
Indeed, the process averages more than 800 days for a visa, and most, if not all, U.S. troops will be out in less than 30 days, probably by mid-July. And last week, the consular section of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul suspended issuing any visas due to a COVID-19 outbreak. So there won’t be more than a fraction of the 18,000 visas issued by mid-July, or even before the official pullout date on 9/11.
“People [translators] have a bull’s-eye on their back,” said McCaul. “If we abandon them, we are signing their death warrants.”
Bipartisan groups of senators and House members (many of them combat veterans) have sent letters to the White House urging President Joe Biden to authorize an airlift to evacuate the translators, as we did in 1975 with 130,000 Vietnamese people who had helped Americans. The idea would be to move them first to another locale, perhaps Guam, where their applications could be vetted, before continuing on to the United States.
Yet, despite talk from administration officials and top military brass of “extensive planning” for a potential evacuation, the Defense Department has been given no official role, as of yet, on the issue of saving translators.
“I don’t see any movement whatsoever from the Pentagon on an evacuation,” I was told by military veteran James Miervaldis, the board chairman of No One Left Behind, a volunteer group lobbying for action on SIVs applicants. And once U.S. troops quit every last Afghan air base, the chances of an airlift become nearly nil.
So why has the administration been so hesitant to move on an issue of both moral and strategic importance with the swiftness it deserves?
To be fair, the White House was left with former President Donald Trump’s deeply flawed U.S. “peace” with the Taliban that required U.S. troops to exit Afghanistan by May 1, with no provision for translators.
Once this deal was inked in February, the Taliban virtually abandoned any peace talks and have been making rapid advances in Afghan provinces, perhaps faster than the Biden White House expected. The exit of U.S. troops, and contractors, is having a dire impact on the small Afghan air force, which needs U.S. help and maintenance support to help their beleaguered troops.
But clearly, President Biden was eager to clear the decks, so he dealt with COVID-19 and the slew of other pressing domestic and foreign issues.
“The priority of the president obviously was to get out, not just our military but to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan,” I was told by former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, on an Inquirer LIVE virtual event on Friday. (You can watch at inquirer.com/trudyrubinlive. In addition to talking about translators, we also discussed the fate of Afghan women.)
“The signal Biden is sending as president,” Crocker continued, ”is that he does not want to think of Afghanistan. Close it out, close the book, and get on with other issues. Given that mindset, the future is now.”
The message we are sending to the Afghan people who helped us, and would-be helpers in future conflicts, says Crocker, is “you can’t count on us.”
Yet, Crocker and Miervaldis won’t give up their efforts to press the White House to focus attention on rescuing Afghans who risked their lives to help our troops.
Right now, says Miervaldis, “We are in a situation where no one person or office is in charge of the SIV process. We need an SIV tsar with authority to work across interagency lines and get this done.” And such a SIVs tsar would finally bring the Defense Department into the official loop.
Adds Crocker, ”An administration that has made such an issue out of human rights globally” must be pressured to confront the “horrific denial of human rights” that will occur if we abandon those who served with us to Taliban violence.
Only the commander in chief, President Biden, can task his administration to produce a serious plan — now — to save Afghan translators. Before it is too late.