For many of us who served in America’s longest war in Afghanistan, this Veterans Day is a difficult and conflicted holiday. This is a day to recognize honor, service, and sacrifice on behalf of something larger than oneself. There is much to honor in these past 20 years of service and sacrifice, not least the countless acts of courage and compassion in the final days of the Kabul Airlift. There is also much to regret, and to mourn. But for many of us, there is above all a sense of awful schism, the rending apart of a brotherhood and sisterhood that was once whole.
We are safe at home, no matter what our challenges, while far too many of the Afghans who walked alongside us are in desperate hiding and uncertain flight from the enemy we fought together. Our Afghan allies were often the difference between a successful patrol and a body bag. Between us, there are bonds of memory and honor, promises made and hardships shared. And now, we are bound together by a searing electronic stream of constant pleas on every platform: Please help my children escape. Please take care of my family when I no longer can. Please remember me. Please know that this is not your fault, my brother.
Thousands of American veterans awoke to those messages this morning, as they have every day for months. In their homes, supposedly at peace, they now bear the burden of a promise our nation made in war but has so far failed to fully honor. For them, this promise is inescapably and brutally personal. It is not a matter of policy, but of moral identity. It is a promise they themselves cannot and will not forsake, no matter what their government might do or how deeply it burns them to hold.
If we claim to honor their service, we must not leave our veterans to hold the weight of our collective national commitment on their own.
This Veterans Day, let us make our nation’s promise to our Afghan allies a mission we all share, as Americans from all walks of life. That mission will not be complete until all our allies and at-risk Afghans have found lasting safety.
To that end, my colleagues at Human Rights First and our partners in veterans’ organizations, refugee advocacy groups, and resettlement agencies have been working to help evacuate and resettle our Afghan friends with dignity in the United States. Now that coalition — Evacuate Our Allies — is a strong network of 130 organizations that continues to push for the evacuation and resettlement of at-risk Afghans.
Even before the crisis in Afghanistan, Human Rights First has long engaged the veterans community through our Veterans for American Ideals program, advocating for years on issues like Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans who worked with us there.
But from the president’s announcement of a deadline for military withdrawal, we recognized the challenges our Afghan allies would face. Through the spring and summer of 2021, we worked with veterans, Members of Congress, faith leaders, immigration experts, and many others to draft a plan of action that would put human rights at the center of American efforts.
Our plan called for the immediate evacuation of all persons who qualified for the Special Immigrant Visa program to United States territory, estimated to be around 80,000 individuals. Our plan pointed to historical examples of similar efforts to evacuate Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Kosovars following those conflicts as precedent for what could be done.
Then, when the government in Kabul rapidly collapsed, Human Rights First worked directly with the administration to create pathways for evacuees, provided necessary digital security tools to Afghans fleeing persecution, coordinated with congressional offices to draft legislation, and built a legal assistance project.
As veterans, many of us have deep personal connections to these Afghans and took very personally our work to evacuate those who had been so vital to our efforts in Afghanistan. As well as considering the threat the Taliban takeover meant for Afghans, we were also concerned about the moral injury faced by veterans who served in Afghanistan. For both these reasons, we simply could not countenance abandoning at-risk Afghans when we have, in fact, the means to help.
In support of evacuation efforts, we put out resources for Afghans searching for help, including four toolkits on erasing digital footprints, avoiding online surveillance, preparing for internet blockages, and countermeasures to evade Taliban use of biometric technology. We published them in English, Dari, and Pashto so they would be most effective, and they remain so — generating over a million unique impressions on Twitter alone.
Although the media spotlight has moved on from issues around Afghanistan, we have continued to press our government for action and legislation. We are working assiduously with our allies to move the administration to continue the evacuation of at-risk Afghans from that country, loosen bottlenecks in third-country “lily pads,” and provide new routes out of danger.
In the continuing resolution passed this fall, we successfully worked to include authorization for Afghan parolees to receive resettlement benefits and services and appropriations to be allocated to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR); the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM); and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to quickly and efficiently process these Afghans.
Now one of our coalition’s highest priorities is passing the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill to allow Afghans who have reached the United States to adjust from a temporary immigration status to lawful permanent residence without the looming threat of being sent back to Afghanistan.
After the harrowing and life-threatening experience saving themselves and their families from violence, we believe that Afghans deserve an opportunity to rebuild their lives in safety. The Afghan Adjustment Act would allow exactly that, ameliorating Afghans’ trauma of navigating an immigration system that is not adequately prepared for their arrival and dispelling their fear and limitations that come with the uncertain, temporary immigration status that is humanitarian parole.
In sum, the Act will put our new Afghan neighbors on the same legal footing they would have enjoyed had they been admitted through the U.S. resettlement or SIV programs, rather than via the chaotic Kabul evacuation, when many were urged to destroy the documents that link them to their service to the United States.
Passage of this legislation is critically important, but with the current uncertain legal status Afghans face, Human Rights First has repurposed our expertise in asylum and refugee law to stand up Project: Afghan Legal Assistance (PALA), which has quickly grown to more than 1200 pro bono attorneys from across the country and across the legal profession who, with our help, are assisting and advising Afghans through the byzantine legal paperwork that comes with resettlement in the United States.
We have set up a network of legal service providers, local refugee resettlement agencies, and other stakeholders to coordinate legal representation efforts for Afghans across the country, to gain a holistic view of the needs for representation, and to assess any gaps in coverage we may find.
All of these efforts and others take capacity, organizational flexibility, coordination, and commitment. But they are the least we can do to help honor our nation’s promise. Whatever the American government does or fails to do, now and in the future, American society will not abandon our Afghan allies.
We honor service to this country when we keep our promise to leave no one behind. We honor it, too, when we put our nation’s highest ideals on display by welcoming those who are in danger of persecution. Finally, by working to provide safety and care for Afghans who are fleeing the Taliban, we honor the underlying aim of every veteran’s service: providing a safe place for us all to live in peace.