The impending withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan has fomented fears regarding the future of thousands of Afghan translators, interpreters, and other local allies that have worked extremely closely with the Americans since 2001 and stand a risk of retaliation from the Taliban. The Taliban recently stated that those who worked with the Americans will not be harmed, unless they engage in any such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country. But they have killed at least 300 interpreters or their family members since 2014; and their insurgents reportedly killed an interpreter as recently as in January 2021. Many former interpreters still receive death threats.
The urgency to protect women and vulnerable minorities in Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the US and other NATO countries, but narratives on Afghanistan have largely ignored these local allies. While there are procedures such as the Special Immigrant Visa Program for Afghans that was instated in 2009 to facilitate the relocation of Afghan allies to the US, the program has years-long backlogs, with more than 17,000 applications still under review. Moreover, there lie various administrative loopholes such as chronic staff shortage, lack of funding to securely settle former translators and their families, mistakes by the Department of State, decimation of refugee-intake infrastructure by the Trump administration and also the previously imposed “Muslim ban”, amongst others, that have impeded the programme. The US government track record suggests that it will take more than four years to process the backlogged applications, assuming sufficient staff are present at the US Embassy in Kabul to handle the cases. President Biden has already been facing tremendous flak for not delivering on his refugee-cap promises and instead extending Trump-era policies. Therefore, prioritising these Afghan allies’ lives could potentially salvage Biden’s flailing commitment to human rights. Failure to do so could have an impact on America’s reputation, which could be a detriment to American troops that are stationed across the globe; its security interests in post-US Afghanistan; and also hamper future partnerships, jeopardising America’s security objectives.
The urgency to protect women and vulnerable minorities in Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the US and other NATO countries, but narratives on Afghanistan have largely ignored these local allies
Even though the US military’s use of local interpreters and other contractors has a long history, this practice peaked during the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the height of the US troop surge in Afghanistan, there was one local contractor for every member of the US military. The Americans heavily relied on these thousands of Afghans who did a variety of tasks such as interpretation; elections monitoring; construction work; provision of private security; and, sometimes, even performing skilled tasks in legal services, information technology, and human resources. American military commanders have admitted that the US could not have accomplished its missions in either Iraq or Afghanistan without the help of these indigenous allies.
Acknowledging the need to protect these allies that were instrumental in Afghanistan, the Biden administration called for a “review of the Iraqi and Afghan SIV programs”, including a “report to the President with recommendations to address any concerns identified”. However, there lie herculean administrative and procedural flaws that threaten to nullify this review.
Firstly, the Visa involves an elaborate 14-step application process that the applicants have to navigate. The applicants also must produce proof of employment and a letter of recommendation from a former US military supervisor who may have left Afghanistan years ago, which seems reasonable but has resulted in the deaths of many applicants, according to the applicants themselves. Additionally, endless security checks and a lack of trained personnel to process the visas lengthens the waiting period. While the Congress mandates that the application process be completed within nine months, the current processing period takes approximately 966 days on average. This has led to severe backlogs. Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer, said that if the US Department of State actually devoted resources efficiently to the processing, each case would ideally take only a couple of months. Sometimes, even after the applications are finally processed, government errors have wrongly led to visa denials. These mistakes include “a bad translator at the visa interview” misunderstanding something important, confusion on the State Department’s part, and also “revenge cases”, when an interpreter’s enemy plants malicious information to get the visa denied. Additionally, many applicants go through this strenuous process, only to find themselves ineligible due to some trivial reasons such as falling days short of the two-years required service for eligibility, failing a polygraph test, or being categorised “security ineligible” for undisclosed reasons. Lastly, despite the administration’s favourable rhetoric, the US government does not provide adequate funding to securely resettle these allies and their families.
Multiple shortcomings on administrative and procedural fronts that have led to severe backlogs, coupled with the shortly-arriving withdrawal date and the Taliban’s prospects of regaining power, necessitate instant action from the Biden administration to secure Afghan lives
Multiple shortcomings on administrative and procedural fronts that have led to severe backlogs, coupled with the shortly-arriving withdrawal date and the Taliban’s prospects of regaining power, necessitate instant action from the Biden administration to secure Afghan lives. But, since this would be impractical, given the enormous number of applications left to be scrutinised, the alternative would be to identify and mass airlift those whose lives are in danger, while their applications are under review. Historically, the US has successfully done this on multiple occasions. In 1975, about 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were flown to Guam after the Vietnam War. The U.S military even evacuated 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to Guam in 1996-97 after Saddam Hussein launched attacks into Iraq’s Kurdish region. Apart from Guam, there are other safe locations such as military bases in Qatar or the UAE where US officials could vet them and assesses possibilities of resettlement. Reportedly, the military has said that if orders come from the White House, then this mass airlift could be accomplished—Jason Crow, a former U.S Army Ranger, told the Atlantic. However, a directive from the White House has proven to be elusive so far and the Biden administration does not seem to be prioritising this option, which has triggered apprehensions on its commitment to human rights.
Despite the US forces’ withdrawal from its longest war in Afghanistan, the American military has a global footprint that still continues to be the largest in the world. Speculatively, America has close to 800 military bases across the world in Honduras, Australia, Japan, Iraq, Qatar, Germany, amongst others—covering all continents. US troop numbers vary periodically, depending on policies and the classified nature of military data, but Washington reportedly maintains roughly 200,000 troops in more than 150 countries. Failing to honour its commitments to its Afghan allies could send a very wrong message regarding America’s untrustworthiness to local allies in all these countries that the US has a military presence in. This is even more relevant because the Biden administration recently released an Interim National Security Strategy, which emphasised the importance of local partners, along with international partners, whenever America needs to employ force in the future. Therefore, America needs to maintain its credibility in the current Afghan scenario. Otherwise, it might find it increasingly tougher to find local allies willing to support its security objectives in any ensuing conflicts.
America needs to maintain its credibility in the current Afghan scenario. Otherwise, it might find it increasingly tougher to find local allies willing to support its security objectives in any ensuing conflicts.
Even in Afghanistan, America still might need allies, considering that the country might become a safe haven for terrorists again. The CIA is grappling with the possibility of using a former base in Pakistan that was used until 2011, or regaining access to bases in former Soviet Republics, to gather intelligence and conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after withdrawal. Nevertheless, the chances of fruition are bleak. Douglas London, former head of the CIA for counterterrorism options in Pakistan and Afghanistan, said that the agency was likely to rely on a “stay behind” network of informants that would collect intelligence for counterterrorism efforts. While nothing has been explicitly said about the usage of local allies, it is plausible that America might want to use them, owing to their significant contributions to security efforts throughout the Afghan War. Consequently, a failure to protect former allies might even entail security implications in post-US Afghanistan, with the possibility of these allies refusing to help the Americans.
Joe Biden promised a foreign policy centered around human rights. But his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, increase refugee-cap only after incessant criticism, refusal to sanction the Saudi Crown Prince over Khashoggi’s killing and to proceed with a Trump-era arms deal with the UAE, amongst other issues, has brewed discontentment and criticism amongs human rights groups. Americans have earned a bad reputation for abandoning their local allies that goes back to American Independence in 1776. Most prominently, during the Vietnam War, Americans abandoned the Hmongs of Vietnam and Laos and the indigenous people of Central Vietnam called Montagnards, and recently, the Kurdish troops (YPG) in Syria in 2019 under Trump. By departing from this usual American approach, Joe Biden has an opportunity to re-affirm his devotion to human rights in front of a skeptical international community. Furthermore, since America still continues to be embroiled in conflicts, maintains a military presence, and is open to the idea of using force in the future if required, which might warrant local allies, it must establish its dependability by fulfilling obligations to Afghan allies.
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Saaransh Mishra was a Research Assistant with the ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. His research focuses on Russia and Eurasia.Read More +