The U.S. military is more than halfway through its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is set to be complete by no later than September. But many who fought in that war are worried about leaving behind thousands of Afghans who worked with the United States as interpreters and in other roles.
In April, several lawmakers in Congress formed the bipartisan Honoring Our Promises Working Group to expedite the process of bringing their Afghan allies to America. Last month, several veteran groups from across the political spectrum sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting an evacuation effort.
One popular solution is the so-called Guam option — airlifting the Afghans to the Pacific island territory to provide a safe location to screen applicants for resettlement across the country. U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele of Hawaii, a veteran who deployed to Afghanistan multiple times, supports the plan.
“I am deeply concerned about our Afghan partners who risked their lives to assist and support the U.S. mission in the region,” Kahele said in an email. “We must do everything we can to provide immediate assistance and ensure their personal safety.”
Afghan nationals who worked with U.S. forces are eligible to apply for a special immigrant visa in recognition of both their service and the dangers they face from feared retribution by militants. The SIV program began in 2008 after relentless lobbying by American veterans, but it has been harshly criticized.
Applicants sometimes wait years for approval and the process of bringing relatives is even more complicated. While 48,600 Afghans have made it safely to America on the visas as of 2017, the program has a backlog of about 18,000 applicants waiting for a decision. That doesn’t include spouses and children.
Some Afghans have been killed while waiting for approval. A 2014 study found that militants kill one Afghan interpreter roughly every 36 hours.
The United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban that included the withdrawal of U.S. troops. At the current rate, commanders say it’s possible that all U.S. troops could be out of Afghanistan as early as July. Meanwhile the Taliban have seized several towns in a relentless offensive against Afghan government forces.
“We need a plan to get these people out now, there’s no time,” said Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals. “We have until early July at the absolute latest to execute a plan, otherwise thousands of people are going to die,” said Purdy. “We are rapidly running out of time for a solution while we have resources in the country.”
The Taliban’s offensive has been accompanied by a wave of targeted killings against women’s rights activists, educators, artists, journalists and others. A U.N. panel called the killings “unprecedented.”
On Monday, Taliban leadership released a statement about Afghans who worked alongside Western troops and diplomats.
“Now as foreign forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, these Afghans also seek to flee the country and are fearful,” the Taliban said. “They should show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country.”
Advocates pushing for an evacuation to the U.S. territory note the military has used the option before. But the issue is complicated by the fact that Afghanistan is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, with less than 1% of the population vaccinated.
The military temporarily housed 111,919 South Vietnamese refugees on Guam as they were processed for resettlement after the 1975 Fall of Saigon. In 1996, the military airlifted 6,493 Kurdish refugees from Iraq to Guam in Operation Pacific Haven.
“If we did it then, we can do it again,” Pedro Terlaje, a senator in Guam’s Legislature and a Vietnam veteran, said in an email. But he acknowledged that the global coronavirus pandemic poses problems, saying the “federal government must properly plan for COVID and social distancing of Afghan evacuees.”
The plight of Afghan interpreters has been highly publicized to the point where it’s now even the premise of a CBS sitcom. For some veterans it’s maddening that after two decades of the U.S. relying on local Afghans there’s still no plan.
“I think it’s because some parts of our government simply don’t want one,” said Joe Kassabian, a veteran turned author on Oahu. Kassabian said he thinks for some top officials the dangers these Afghans face are an embarrassing reminder of the failures of America’s longest war. Now many seem eager to forget both the war and the Afghans.
“We still can’t confront the simple fact that after 20 years we’ve failed in our most baseline goals in Afghanistan to the point we can’t promise the safety of people who risked their lives for us,” said Kassabian.
Lawmakers who support the Guam Option say they want urgent action. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in collaboration with the Biden administration to support an immediate evacuation,” said Kahele.
Last month the U.S. military’s top officer Gen. Mark Milley told reporters that “there are plans being developed very, very rapidly” to get at-risk Afghans to safety. But a National Security Council spokesman quickly contradicted Milley, telling Fox News “I can tell you we have no plans for evacuations at this time” and that the administration intends to continue processing SIVs in Kabul.
Shortly after, a military spokesman also walked back Milley’s remarks, telling Fox that “the physical evacuation of Afghans is one option of many being considered and it is not necessarily the primary option to safeguard Afghans at risk. An evacuation is not imminent.”
Military officials did not respond when asked for comment on whether Guam is being considered. Some advocates have suggested alternatively using a Middle East country aligned with the U.S. such as Jordan or Kuwait. But there’s no indication the Biden Administration is considering them either.
“Should Guam be called on to save these people upon the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Guam will answer that call because we understand personally the toll of war,” said Terlaje. “But I am very cognizant of the fact that Guam is the option that will remain because as a territory we have no real say in the final decision.”
Afghanistan, meanwhile, is dealing with a wave of COVID-19 deaths as vaccines that were supposed to arrive in the mountainous country in April have been delayed until at least August.
Some Guam residents also worry that without careful planning, an influx of Afghan refugees could spread the disease throughout the small island. Just over 45% of Guam’s 167,230 population has received the vaccine.
But the pandemic and travel restrictions that went with it also have left the island with a glut of empty hotel rooms that could be used for the refugees.
“We used to welcome 1.6 million tourists a year, and now we virtually have none,” said Terlaje. “We have the capacity in thousands of empty hotel rooms, if the federal government can properly plan.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.