Failing The U.S. Military’s Closest Allies Threatens National Security


US Army soldiers question an Afghani man through an interpreter attached to 2nd platoon, C-Coy. 1-23 … [+] Infantry at Naja-bien village, Panjwai district during an operation to destroy bomb traps made from IED’s on September 23, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages)

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The media has been full of stories of service members and veterans trying to help their translators to leave Afghanistan before the United States withdraws from the country entirely. Stories abound of how Afghans who worked with the United States are now being threatened by the advancing Taliban. The media is largely missing is a broader context. Failure to bring these Afghans to the United States is a threat to our national security. Local interpreters, contractors, and others will not work with the United States in future conflicts if we cannot fulfill our promise to protect them. The United States’ moral reputation is also at stake.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, it faced a severe shortage of linguists who could interpret the local languages. The U.S. military relied heavily on local translators to support their missions. Proper interpretation was a matter of life or death for U.S. forces. Later, U.S. nation-building efforts relied heavily on the employment of local contractors to support the Afghan and Iraqi economies. These contractors supported U.S. military strategy, provided basic services on military bases, and worked to rebuild their nations. These translators and contractors faced great risk for working with American forces. Just being seen talking to U.S. forces could lead to kidnappings or death threats against them and their family members. The U.S. military managed to recruit translators and contractors nonetheless. Many joined for the salary and because they had a strong desire to help the U.S. cause and support their growing nations. But many also joined because of the promise that the American military would protect them and bring them and their families to the United States if they faced danger.

The military has struggled to keep these promises. In 2006, Congress created two Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs for individuals who worked as translators, interpreters, or were otherwise employed by or on behalf the U.S. government in Afghanistan or Iraq. Congress allots only 50 visas annually for translators and interpreters, and 26,000 for other employees. The House recently voted to increase this cap, but the bill faces hurdles in the Senate.

These numbers are misleading. Due to an onerous application process, the average processing time to receive the visas is three years. Waiting times already ranged from 18 months to almost 3 years before the Trump administration. Former President Trump’s “Muslim Ban” further hindered processing by increasing stringent processing requirements for these close allies of the United States. Processing times increased and grants of SIVs dwindled. Only 19 Afghan translators and interpreters and only 364 Afghan employees of the U.S. government received SIVs in 2020. The current backlog of applicants exceeds 18,000, plus approximately 70,000 family members who would also be eligible for visas. According to the International Refugee Assistance Project, perhaps the most prominent advocate for these Afghans, over 1,000 translators, interpreters, employees, and their family members have been killed while waiting for a visa. The number of murders and kidnappings is sure to increase as the Taliban gains power.

The U.S. military strongly supports the SIV programs. Advocacy by veterans was crucial to the creation of the programs in 2006. As Secretary of Defense, James Mattis strongly opposed President Trump’s Muslim Ban and overall reduction of the cap on refugee admissions due to their national security implications. Mattis wrote a memorandum to the President arguing that the United States owed much of its success and the safety of U.S. troops to the Afghans and Iraqis who risked their lives to fight alongside U.S. forces, and that their knowledge of local conditions helped guide U.S. strategy.  His attitude is reflective of the strong commitment of U.S. troops to protecting those who served as closely alongside them as their own brothers, as well as the locals that enabled their efforts.

Current plans to assist Afghans who helped the United States war efforts before U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are insufficient. The highest number reported that the Pentagon has plans to evacuate is 100,000, although it is unclear whether the Biden administration will support this. Most of them are reportedly being sent to a third country to await processing to the United States. At a current cap of 26,500 visas, most of these Afghans may be waiting in a third country for years. Even if the House’s increase on the cap were enacted, it would still be woefully insufficient.

If Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort are not evacuated, they may be killed. Many have already been threatened. The United States has a moral obligation to save the lives of those who fought alongside them and enabled their goals over the last 20 years. But the ramifications of keeping our promises to these Afghans go far beyond the lives at stake. The world will remember the United States’ failure to keep its promises. Locals will not partner with or assist U.S. forces during the next war, hindering their efforts and all but ensuring their failure. The United States will never win hearts and minds without the support of committed locals. U.S. nation-building efforts (which the United States purports it will not do, but which are the inevitable consequence of our wars) will be nearly impossible without the engagement of locals. The United States’ diplomatic power after a conflict will be reduced. Farther down the line, U.S. military recruiting efforts will be harmed. War refugees often rank among our most committed service members. And the U.S. military’s failure to act morally hinders recruiting as well.

The Biden administration must act to protect the lives of Afghan interpreters, translators, and others who enabled U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan. To do otherwise would be tragic for the lives of the Afghans who helped us, threaten national security, and be a permanent stain on the United States’ moral image in the world.

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