Afghanistan has been described as the “graveyard of empires” as attempts to assert external authority over the region have failed throughout the centuries. Powers ranging from the Safavids to the British Empire and the Soviet Union have succumbed to geographic and political factors favouring the influence of decentralised guerilla forces resisting occupation.
This year, the United States of America will join the list of state actors who have failed to exercise control over the region. This follows a paradigm shift across the American electorate away from supporting military intervention abroad. However, the imminent departure of US troops has not been without controversy as legislation has not moved to adapt to the change in foreign policy. Nowhere is this disconnect better illustrated than the ongoing challenges faced by military contracted Afghan translators currently seeking visas to live in the US.
History of US War in Afghanistan
Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States and a coalition of allies, including the United Kingdom, invaded Afghanistan. The country was then controlled by the Taliban - a conservative, Islamist military group providing aid to the al-Qaeda terrorists who had perpetrated the attacks. The stability of the US-backed government in Kabul had been fragile at best and now faces an uncertain future as the Taliban have retaken large swathes of territory in Afghanistan following a protracted insurgency. Nonetheless, US politicians have prioritised responding to the electorate’s growing aversion to the “nation building” and interventionism that had dominated the foreign policy of the Bush and Obama administrations. While the Biden administration’s domestic policy agenda has often been a vehement repudiation of his predecessor’s, Biden’s foreign policy goals concerning the end of the Afghanistan War have instead continued the work of the Trump administration.
President Biden’s April 14 pledge to fully withdraw US troops from the region by September 2021 forms a coda to the ceasefire agreement the Trump administration had made with the Taliban militants in Doha, Qatar. Biden recently asserted that it is the “right and responsibility” of Afghanistan to rule itself, despite US intelligence reports warning that the government in Kabul could collapse to the Taliban within six months of US withdrawal. The abrupt abandonment of Bagram Air Base indicates that military withdrawal is proceeding as planned.
However, while the transport of US personnel and equipment has been rapid, the legal landscape governing the fate of US allies in Afghanistan has adapted to the new strategy at a glacial pace. Thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to aid the US campaign against the Taliban across the last two decades now find themselves trapped between US immigration bureaucracy and a resurgent threat from the militia group they once helped fight.
Following the invasion in 2001, the US Army and Non-Governmental Organisations aiding the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan hired thousands of Afghan translators to help communicate in the local Dari and Pashto dialects. While they have faced constant harassment for their cooperation with foreign forces, the changing political landscape has raised the stakes for these individuals considerably. A Taliban takeover would be disastrous for the interpreters and contractors currently in hiding and facing death threats for their roles in aiding the US, yet few concrete provisions have been made to circumvent this brewing humanitarian crisis, More than 16,000 individuals, both contractors and family members, await evacuation while their visas are processed.
A harrowing account published by National Public Radio (NPR) describes contractors watching over their homes through the night after finding improvised explosive devices planted on their doorsteps. ABC News also reported that at least 300 translators have been murdered since 2014 and many fear the situation will worsen with the Taliban resurgence in the region. Yet despite the situation’s urgency, the US’ processing of visa applications has slowed in recent months - in part due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Kabul where the US embassy is located - prompting widespread criticism for the Biden administration’s response to the unfolding crisis.
Legal Framework for US Immigration Policy
United States’ immigration policy is governed by the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act and various related additions to the United States Code (USC) in the years since. The process of immigration is facilitated by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) - part of the Department of Homeland Security, which is an agency of the federal government administered as a part of its Executive Branch.
The immigration process involves a fixed number of visas which can be issued annually and there are extensive background check protocols involved with all visa applications. The process has been criticised for its slow speed and, despite general calls for reform and specific concern over the plight of the Afghan translators seeking residency in the US, their move to the United States has had to take place within this sclerotic bureaucratic framework.
Initially, a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program was enacted by Congress in 2009 with the Afghan Allies Protection Act forming the framework in which Afghan interpreters could immigrate to the US; thousands of visas have been issued through the SIV program. However, this legal framework did not develop and adapt alongside the changing military strategies of the post-Obama administrations and is currently unequipped to handle the looming crisis. Reports indicate significant backlogs challenge the system, leaving the application of approximately 18,000 individuals in doubt, with less than two months remaining before the complete withdrawal of US military forces. In response to this crisis, the State Department has increased staffing as part of an attempt to process applications more quickly. However, many in Congress fear that such measures will not be enough.
US Reactions to the Changing Situation in Afghanistan
The current visa protocol is contingent upon a certain degree of stability in Afghanistan as well as US diplomatic presence to facilitate it. However, the rapidly changing situation and growing power of the Taliban indicates that the current protocols are inadequate. To best ensure the safety of US contractors, any new plans ought to reflect the fact that the circumstances require an extraordinary evacuation process, not merely a modified immigration process. A bipartisan congressional group of Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives has introduced legislation to increase the total number of visas available to be issued as well as granting SIV eligibility to the families of interpreters who had been murdered. The legislators also issued a letter to the Biden administration, proposing evacuating translators to a US territory such as Guam while the existing visa backlog is processed.
Despite the rare display of bipartisan problem-solving in Congress, the Biden administration is directing the military and USCIS to approach the matter less urgently and has suggested using third-party countries as evacuation grounds for translators waiting for visa processing as well as chartered civilian aircraft instead of US Air Force transport vehicles. Biden’s promises to help the translators leave Afghanistan are undercut by his administration’s uncertainty over the precise details of this process.
Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts has recently criticised the administration’s lack of direct action on the matter, urging the President to develop more thorough evacuation plans. He has also suggested expedited transfer to a US territory under the rule of humanitarian parole which can circumvent travel and migration restrictions in sufficiently grave or urgent circumstances. The average time for SIV processing is 800 days - far longer than the US withdrawal plan or Taliban advance will allow for and there is still a limit on the total number of visas that can be issued.
An Uncertain Future
It is clear that the current immigration protocols are inadequate for dealing with a rapidly changing and unstable situation in Afghanistan. The potential for violent reprisals against US contractors by the Taliban is hardly hypothetical and is already a matter of life and death for many in the region right now.
The inglorious end to the Afghanistan War must serve as a warning to future leaders of the dangers of engaging in conflicts without a defined exit strategy. That the US did not plan ahead for the safety of its most vulnerable allies during a two-decade-long conflict is a harsh indictment of the nation’s abilities to promote its interests abroad in an increasingly unstable world.
While the policy shift away from military intervention can be justified on ethical and logistical grounds, the mechanics of this policy transformation under the Trump and Biden administrations have been irresponsible and incoherent. If President Biden truly seeks to reverse the most damaging aspects of his predecessor’s policy decisions, not abandoning US allies abroad would be an excellent way to differentiate his legacy from that of Trump.