As the United States winds down the complicated process of withdrawing from a 20-year war, there seems to be a clear consensus, at this stage, that the evacuation of interpreters and local allies is critical. Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced it would begin the process of evacuating at least a portion of interpreters and their family members, acknowledging the truth of what a broad coalition of advocates had been pushing for since the withdrawal was announced in April.
In Afghanistan, and in other places around the globe, U.S. efforts have only been possible because local allies helped do the job. They patrolled with American forces on missions, worked beside diplomats on bases, and saved American lives in firefights. The three of us — two veterans with combat tours overseas and an immigration attorney, all advocates — have worked closely within this coalition that has spent the last few months convincing the White House to make the evacuation happen. We applaud the administration’s recognition of the United States’ responsibility toward these Afghan allies who’ve risked so much, but also know that to effectively and efficiently carry out this goal fully, a more robust governmental structure must be implemented immediately to oversee the efforts.
While many, though not all, Afghan interpreters qualify for a complicated and years-long process known as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), the process was hopelessly backlogged prior to 2016 and has been brought to a grinding halt since. At the time of writing, nearly 18,000 Afghans are in the pipeline and, already, stories are emerging of SIV applicants being murdered at the Taliban’s hands.
Civil society here in the United States, in the form of our coalition and others, has shown it is ready to welcome and work with arriving SIVs. The U.S. territory of Guam has stated it is willing to house the SIVs until their immigration processes are completed. With U.S. troops all but gone from Afghanistan, however, the U.S. government must act quickly, decisively, and in a coordinated manner to remove SIV applicants before it is too late. With time dwindling — indeed, with the closing of Bagram Airfield, few options remain to operationalize a mass evacuation — a coordinating body, is necessary to effectively and expeditiously achieve this goal and allow the United States to withdraw with a measure of dignity.
The safe evacuation of Afghan interpreters and their families will require logistics across multiple agencies and departments at the federal, state, and local levels. The complexities include, but are not limited to: identifying temporary staging areas, vetting and moving large groups of individuals out of Afghanistan, housing them at least in the short term, managing diplomatic relationships of both allies and partners, ensuring immigration rules are respected, processing the pending SIV applications, and ensuring long-term resettlement and integration in their receiving communities. An Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) is the vehicle that’s been historically used in previous evacuations.
When the United States evacuated 140,000 Vietnamese, the Ford administration designated an IATF that included elements from 18 federal departments and agencies, 14 voluntary agencies (resettlement agencies), and 10 state and local agencies. The Clinton administration did it twice in the 1990s, with Kurds fleeing Iraq and Kosovo refugees evacuating the Balkans. These examples highlight how the government can quickly organize capabilities and resources from disparate departments and agencies under one leader who has the backing and authority of the commander in chief to cut through bureaucratic obstacles. An IATF is a temporary entity with authorities and appropriations for a specific mission. It should appeal to proponents of smaller government as the IATF dissolves after mission completion.
An IATF is the most efficient way to effectively marshal government expertise and resources. Its structure allows for departments and agencies to send senior leadership with authority to commit resources to manage a crisis as it unfolds.
That allows the White House and Congress to set the stage for the IATF to manage the crisis without having to run it from inside the National Security Council (NSC). History has shown that giving operational control of a complex mission to one department can lead to catastrophe. This was all too evident in the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra when the NSC intentionally ignored congress and avoided oversight leading to serious negative consequences.
An IATF would have oversight from Congress and the NSC, allowing for transparency and accountability while also be able to mobilize public support in veteran communities and from nonprofits to marshal sponsors and receive families. Another key role the IATF leadership would play is working with Congress to ensure adequate appropriations are allocated to fund the effort.
An IATF also gives the administration flexibility to bring the appropriate leadership to the forefront as the phases of the operation evolve. For example, the Defense Department may lead the evacuation from Afghanistan while State and other departments take the lead in Guam or a third country location for vetting to occur in safety. The Department of Health and Human Services historically has become the lead agency in the United States at reception centers, which may be housed at military bases. Other agencies involved include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veteran Affairs (given the significance in the veteran community), USAID for linguist support, and the Intelligence Community.
The Biden administration has already used an IATF for another critical and sensitive program. On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden announced the creation of an IATF to work on the reunification of parents and children separated at the border over the last four years. While that task force has challenging downstream policy options given the political implications and history of child separation, an Afghan evacuation task force has much cleaner solutions. Veterans and nonprofits are prepared to complement resettlement agencies to integrate families upon arrival in the United States. Veterans organizations have played key roles in previous evacuations and have indicated they plan to step up this time, honoring their ethos of “leave no one behind” and welcoming Afghan brothers and sisters to the United States.
To achieve the U.S. goal of withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. government must take an important step and announce the creation of an IATF to manage the Afghan refugee crisis. Biden announced on June 24 his decision to evacuate Afghan interpreters, who risked their lives and their families lives to work for the U.S. government. He reinforced that commitment on July 8. The United States must continue this momentum before a deeper crisis unfolds. Already, a sizable element of the 18,000 SIV applicants may be beyond reach, as Taliban gains preclude them from reaching safety. No good comes from waiting. U.S. veterans and their Afghan partners deserve nothing less.
Note: The authors represent a coalition of nonprofits including Human Rights First (Veterans For American ideals), the Truman Center for National Policy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Association of Wartime Allies, International Refugee Assistance Project, the Pacific Council on International Policy (Strategically Protecting Soft Networks), and others.