Steven V. Roberts: A moral imperative

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 9, 2021

When President Biden was asked about his decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, he could not hide his discomfort.

“I want to talk about happy things, man,” the president snapped. “I’m not going to answer any more questions on Afghanistan. Look, it’s the Fourth of July.”

Biden did not create the mess in Afghanistan, but he has to own the consequences of his actions. In particular, he has to protect thousands of Afghans and their families who served the American mission as translators, fixers and guides. With Taliban fighters already occupying about a third of the country, and intelligence analysts saying the government in Kabul could fall within six months, lawmakers from both parties are urging the president to act quickly.

“Every Afghan ally — every man and woman serving for the United States government under whatever capacity, whatever their title — they are in peril,” warned Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Marine officer.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, added on Fox, “We can’t turn our backs and leave them to die. They will be slaughtered by the Taliban.”

Biden is saying the right things: “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” he vowed.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was even more emphatic. “I consider it a moral imperative to take care of those that have served along our side,” he told a Congressional hearing.

But words are the easy part. At least so far, the administration seems uncertain and unprepared in dealing with those Afghan allies. The jeopardy they face was totally predictable, once Biden decided to pull out. So why isn’t there a better plan — any plan, really — in place already?

All we have are vague hints from the White House. Maybe the endangered employees will be airlifted to Guam, an American territory in the Western Pacific, where they can be processed under a program called Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) that would permit them to move to the U.S. Or perhaps they will be trucked to neighboring Tajikistan, where refugees are already pouring across the border.

Either option presents a logistical nightmare, since about 18,000 Afghans, with 53,000 family members, worked for the Americans. But even if they were all somehow brought to safety, the administration’s problems would just be starting.

Under the SIV program, which was created in 2008, only 11,000 visas remain available. Moreover, the qualifications for this program are very strict, requiring all sorts of work documents, recommendations and medical clearances. Navigating the process can take two years, and even then, success is not guaranteed. Many former employees are turned down. One such person, Abdul Rashid Shirzad, was recently profiled by The Washington Post.

“The letters from his American military superiors glowed with superlatives,” wrote the Post. “They called him a ‘true hero’ and a man of ‘great character and integrity’ who had acted courageously under fire to save American lives during more than two years as a battlefield interpreter.” But his application was denied and his appeal rebuffed.

“It has been mind-numbing: the foot-dragging, the lack of coordination,” fumed Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat. “It’s been incredibly frustrating. As a country, we have not fulfilled our responsibilities.”

A bipartisan coalition in Congress is trying desperately to improve the situation by pushing a package of bills that would increase the number of visas available under the SIV system while loosening the requirements to permit more former employees to qualify.

But what happens to those who go to Guam or Tajikistan or somewhere else and eventually get rejected for an SIV? And for those who are accepted, what about their extended families, who don’t qualify at all under the special visa system but could still be targeted by the Taliban?

They would have to seek safety under the regular program that admits refugees into the U.S. But that process was demolished under the Trump regime, which permitted fewer than 12,000 refugees from the entire world in the last fiscal year — the lowest total since the current refugee system was established in 1980. And while the Biden administration talks a good game, they have moved slowly to regenerate the system that could provide an alternative for Afghans who fail to qualify for SIVs. That failure could amount to a death sentence.

Biden might not want to talk about Afghanistan, but he has no choice. Faithful employees like Abdul Shirzad are his responsibility. Their survival rests in his hands.

Steven Roberts teaches  politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at