Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
The United States is withdrawing, messily, from its longest war. The last U.S. and NATO troops are expected to depart by the end of the month – though recent developments may accelerate this timeline. With the pullout of the remaining soldiers and evacuation of the U.S. embassy comes renewed assessments about the costs and consequences of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. The toll of the last two decades – an estimated $2 trillion and tens of thousands of lives lost – does not capture the full costs of this 20-year war. Costs will continue to accrue to the millions of civilians who will be uprooted by further instability and increased violence that will ensue, perhaps most acutely to thousands of Afghans who have aided U.S. and NATO troops. U.S. policymakers are now grappling with how to evacuate some Afghans who served alongside NATO troops. But the emergency evacuation of the few allies who can qualify for this assistance will not be enough to avert catastrophe. Indeed, the fate of those Afghans who worked with and for U.S. forces in Afghanistan must be assessed in the wider context of their role in supporting an illegitimate U.S. invasion and long-term troop presence in their country.
This article examines the failures of U.S. refugee assistance programs so far in the context of the long U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The origins of the current refugee crisis should not be lost in the urgency of the moment: the United States is directly responsible for much of the current chaos and many of its past actions placed Afghans in jeopardy during decades of war dating back to the 1970s, in addition to the specific threats to those who are targeted for having aided U.S. forces. If the United States is to avoid adding yet another chapter to its shameful history in Afghanistan, it must massively expand programs to bring Afghans to safety.
Short History of U.S. Intervention and Invasion of Afghanistan
Without a doubt, Afghans have already paid the heaviest price in what for them has not been a 20 but a 40-year conflict – Afghanistan has essentially been at war since 1979. The first U.S. intervention in Afghanistan began then, too, following a coup that brought a Marxist-leaning government to power in 1978. In July 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized a joint CIA operation with Pakistani intelligence services (ISI) to fund the mujahideen, Afghan fundamentalist militants, in their fight against the newly installed Afghan Marxist government. Although it is widely claimed that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan followed and was aimed at stopping the Russian invasion, the Russians entered Afghanistan in December 1979 – over five months after U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan had already begun. U.S. military and economic assistance to the mujahideen and Pakistani military and intelligence forces between 1979 and the 1990s amounted to approximately $20 billion, initially through the Carter-Brzezinski covert funding program code-named Operation Cyclone, and later through years of U.S. assistance to Pakistan to support Afghan militants. Eventually, the United States’ stated goal of forcing the Russians out of Afghanistan succeeded; in 1989 the Russians withdrew, ushering in a long, multi-phased civil war between mujahideen factions that ended with the most extreme group taking over Afghanistan in 1996: the Taliban.
Among the beneficiaries – indirectly if not directly – of the massive U.S. assistance through Operation Cyclone were al Qaeda and the most radical faction of the mujahideen, the Taliban. During their brutal rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban allowed the militant organization al Qaeda and its Saudi leader, Osama bin Laden, to establish its base of operations in Afghanistan, where both the Taliban and al Qaeda purchased or acquired U.S.-supplied weaponry from Pakistan. Throughout the 1990s, Al Qaeda cultivated its grievances with the West to draw recruits from across the world to organize, train, and carry out terrorist attacks against the United States. Their operations in Afghanistan culminated, of course, with the hijacking and crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 causing the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans. This attack led to the U.S. decision to attack and invade Afghanistan a month later.
Seeking Refuge from Invasion and Occupation
The Bush administration publicly justified its Oct. 7, 2001 air strikes and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan as self-defense. However, it is contested whether the use of armed force by the United States and its allies against Afghanistan for a terrorist attack carried out by al Qaeda rested on a valid claim of self-defense consistent with the U.N. Charter. The subsequent U.S.-led air strikes and bombings led to the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians – at least as many as the number of Americans killed on Sept. 11. Following the invasion, the Bush administration initiated a massive detention, torture and extraordinary rendition policy, with Afghans becoming victims of torture and suffering years of detention without charge or trial, including those who were subject to long-term detention at Guantanamo.
The invasion led to a formal occupation, followed by an extended, large-scale troop presence in Afghanistan. During the Obama administration, both U.S. and NATO troop levels were massively increased – and both U.S. and Afghan casualties doubled. The Obama administration’s expansion of the drone program led to the tracking of thousands of individuals and by the end of his term, Obama had authorized a program that led to the killing of “at least 3,000 suspected militants and hundreds of civilians.” The expanded drone program also authorized the CIA to use drones to kill suspected militants through signature strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries. Meanwhile, countless civilians and detainees were subjected to abuse, and in some cases war crimes, by U.S. forces, CIA units, allies, warlords, and corrupt Afghan officials.
The Brown-Boston University Costs of War Project and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among other researchers, have tracked civilian casualties from air and drone attacks in Afghanistan over the course of the conflict. The Costs of War Project found that in 2019 alone about 700 Afghan civilians were killed by airstrikes (at least 546 of those attributed to international forces) while Save the Children provided data that between 2005-2019 26,025 Afghan children were maimed or killed by airstrikes, shelling, and bombings by all parties to the conflict. The U.N. annual reports found anti-government forces responsible for the majority of civilian casualties over the years (noting, inter alia, those forces’ deliberate targeting of civilians), the Afghan national security forces responsible for a majority of the remainder of civilian casualties, and the international forces led by the United States accounting for a significant share as well.
This short summary barely scrapes the surface of the complicated history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the countable and uncountable consequences of it. But this account helps to explain that the costs of this conflict must be placed in a longer and wider historical context.
Massive Forced Displacement of Afghans
The mass displacement and exodus of Afghans over the past few decades must also be put in this context. From 1979 onwards, Afghan refugees have constituted one of the largest refugee populations in the world, and one of the most protracted. During the 1980s and 1990s, over six million Afghan refugees fled the country, primarily hosted by Iran and Pakistan for about two decades. After the Soviet withdrawal, some returned, but renewed displacement followed the Taliban takeover and by the end of 2019, Afghans comprised the third-largest population of forcibly displaced persons in the world. Currently, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran are hosting the vast majority of Afghan refugees, as Europe and the United States maintain restrictive policies to prevent Afghan and other refugees from arriving to their shores and seeking asylum.
Despite being one of the main drivers of Afghan displacement and of the loss of Afghan lives over the last four decades, the United States has taken very little responsibility for either. Between 1987 and 2015, for example, only 16,400 Afghan refugees were granted resettlement slots to the United States. Compared to Iran and Pakistan’s hosting of over 3 million Afghan refugees each for decades, the United States’ welcome towards Afghans fleeing a conflict the United States has helped to both initiate and exacerbate hardly bears mention.
Most recently, Afghans were only one among the global refugee populations that suffered significantly from Trump administration decisions that placed new and extreme restrictions on refugee resettlement and immigration to the United States. Although Afghans were not categorically barred entry under the Trump administration’s 2017 Executive Order 13769 (the so-called Muslim ban), the order suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and then lowered the admissions numbers yearly until the historically unprecedented low of 18,000 in 2020. Even then, fewer than 12,000 were admitted. Despite promises to rebuild the refugee admissions program by the Biden administration, fiscal year 2021 will again see shockingly low refugee admissions: as of July 31, the United States had welcomed only 6,246 refugees since Oct. 2020. Since January 2021, only 460 Afghans have been admitted as refugees.
The U.S. Afghan SIV Program
Aside from the (anemic) refugee admissions process, the U.S. government has established two separate special visa programs for Afghan nationals who have worked for U.S. forces or allies in Afghanistan, one temporary and one permanent. The first was created in 2006 under Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act, authorizing Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked as translators or interpreters for U.S. Armed forces for at least one year. This permanent program has been amended several times, including to extend eligibility to Afghan translators and interpreters working with U.S. Chief of Mission (U.S. embassy and diplomatic missions), but the program retains a 50 per year cap for Afghan translators.
In belated recognition that many more Afghans than just translators and interpreters have become particularly vulnerable because of their work with U.S. entities in Afghanistan, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act in 2009 to resettle Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government or its allied forces and whose lives were at risk, regardless of their position with the coalition. The Act initially required at least one year of employment with the U.S. government in Afghanistan on or after October 7, 2001. Visas under this program were capped at 1,500 annually, but the numbers have been increased several times to the current cap of 26,500. Unused numbers can be carried over from one year to the next, and the program terminates when all allocated visa numbers are used. The deadline for all applications under this temporary program is December 31, 2022.
Essentially, both programs authorize Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan nationals who were employed in Afghanistan by or on behalf of the U.S. government, or by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whether as interpreters or in performing sensitive activities for any U.S. personnel. The programs require at least one year of the requisite employment between October 2001 and December 2022, or a minimum of two years of eligible employment for petitions filed after September 30, 2015. In addition, individuals must provide evidence of ongoing serious threats “as a consequence” of this U.S. employment.
The Flaws of the SIV Programs
These two programs have been amended several times, supposedly to make the visa issuance process more efficient. However, a number of credible assessments of the program have concluded that the process offers too few visas, includes onerous requirements that most of those eligible cannot satisfy, is rife with corruption, places applicants at greater risk, and has so many built-in delays and hurdles that the most of those at greatest risk cannot apply.
First, the visa numbers allocated have been low, and, like overall refugee admissions quotas, the Afghan SIV ceilings have never been met. From FY 2009 to FY 2019, 18,471 visas were available annually, but according to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, by September 2019, 18,864 of those visas (including those unused ‘rolled over’ from prior years), remained “in process.” The latest renewals and amendments of both programs were in December 2020, when another 4,000 visas were approved for Afghan applicants, for the current total of 26,500. However, this number was insufficient even for those whose applications were in the pipeline. The current backlog of pending applications is over 19,000, and there is inadequate staffing throughout the offices that process them to come close to dealing with the backlog.
Moreover, the visa numbers fail to even approach the numbers of Afghan translators and other contractors who have worked closely with U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. U.S. military statistics show the dramatic rise in the use of contractors working with the U.S. military – at the height of the surge in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, one contractor was hired for every U.S. military member. As the drawdown has reduced troop levels, there have been as many as five contractors for every service member. Although contractors of many nationalities are hired, the vast majority in Afghanistan have been Afghan. These ratios illustrate that for many thousands of Afghans who have worked for the United States and who could qualify, there will be no visas available.
The low numbers are a serious enough problem, but the onerous requirements and delays are even more problematic to the success of the program. Completing the application requires documentation to prove both “faithful and valuable service” to the U.S. government or allied forces and an “ongoing serious threat” due to that service. To prove the service aspect, the individual must obtain a positive letter of recommendation from a senior supervisor. To prove the threat aspect, the individual has to produce hard credible evidence that his or her life or safety has been threatened and there is an ongoing and urgent risk of harm. But throughout the program’s history there have been systematic barriers to securing the documentation needed to prove each of these elements.
One of the few studies based on direct interviews with Afghans eligible for or who have applied for the SIV Program details the serious problems applicants have with obtaining the required documentation. Interviewees pointed out that there has been such rapid turnover of military deployed in Afghanistan that most Afghans have trouble tracking down supervisors once they have left Afghanistan. They have problems identifying a supervisor who has known them well enough to provide the recommendation, or even getting responses to their recommendation requests. Another complicated requirement is the definition of who is a “contractor,” which is often applied to exclude a wide range of sub-contractor and affiliate employment relationships. Meanwhile, the requirement to prove an ongoing and serious threat is skewed towards those who receive actual written threats from the Taliban – as opposed to the many verbal, telephone, and “community threats” Afghans who have worked with the United States and their family members encounter that cannot be reduced to written documentation. These documentation requirements have been so difficult to fulfill that an entire industry has sprung up to manufacture “threat letters” and assist applicants in preparing for interviews.
Ongoing Risks, U.S. Responsibility
On July 15, the White House announced that 20,000 Afghans have applied for SIVs so far, although there may be as many as 100,000 Afghans eligible for them. In an effort to expedite evacuations, in addition to the 2,500 SIV-holders who will be able to travel directly to the U.S., the White House has signaled that about 10,000 Afghans applicants with pending background checks will be flown to other countries or to U.S. military bases elsewhere while their visas are processed. Congress has proposed measures, including the HOPE for Afghan SIVs Act that would postpone the requirement for a medical exam until the individuals arrive Stateside; the bill passed the House but is stalled in the Senate. These are steps in the right direction, but should have been contemplated long before the imminent withdrawal of all U.S. troops.
The risks faced by Afghans who have worked in any capacity with the U.S. government or military in Afghanistan are real. The organization No One Left Behind has documented at least 300 Afghan interpreters or their family members killed, while another NGO, Red T, claimed that over 1,000 interpreters had been killed (in both Iraq and Afghanistan) by 2015. As the events of the last few days have shown, thousands more lives will be in greater danger once U.S. forces completely withdraw.
In many ways, the U.S. has left Afghanistan and the Afghan people in as bad or worse condition than when the 2001 conflict began. Nevertheless, in the absence of a stable, democratic government with territorial control over all of Afghanistan, the United States must do more to ensure that more Afghans do not become victims of its longest war. In the short term, the United States must at a minimum accept far more Afghan refugees who are awaiting resettlement, increase the visa numbers for all those who have worked alongside U.S. forces, and expedite processing for all who are eligible under these programs.