A Debt of Honor

An illustration of an Afghan soldier with an X over his face. Half of the X is covered in bullets; the other half is a section of a U.S. visa.
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

An Afghan I’ll call Mohammad spent most of the past 12 years working on behalf of the United States government in Afghanistan—first in the U.S. embassy in Kabul, then for a Department of Defense contractor in the violent region where he was born in 1981, at the beginning of the four-decade Afghan wars, and where he lived with his wife and six children. In 2010, Mohammad applied for admission into the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program, created by Congress in 2008 to help Iraqis and Afghans who have risked their lives working for Americans in their countries. Wrongful rejections and bureaucratic delays pushed Mohammad’s application back year after year—through three American presidencies; through strategy reviews, troop drawdowns, and peace negotiations; through several attempts on his life; and through the murder last October of three of his relatives at a wedding ceremony where the Taliban expected to find Mohammad.

“‘We thank you for your continued patience,’ is how you concluded your November 9th email,” Touro Law Center Professor Marjorie Silver, his pro bono
attorney, wrote to the U.S. “visa processing specialist” who had sent another pro forma letter in response to yet another inquiry about Mohammad’s application.

It is one thing for me to be patient, as I sit safely and comfortably in my home in New York. I imagine you enjoy safety as well. My client, however, has tried to be patient for many years as the inexplicable holdup in getting him safely to the United States drags on and on. Any day now, I fear hearing (or not hearing) that the Taliban has succeeded in their attempts to execute him. His life is unbearable, especially since his extended family now holds him accountable for the Taliban’s execution of his uncle, nephew, and cousin last month. His family is furious that he ever worked with the United States, thus putting all of them in danger.

On December 30, 2020, after 10 years of waiting, Mohammad received the news that he had finally cleared the first of many barriers to receiving a U.S. visa. “Hello and good morning,” he wrote to Silver and another lawyer, Julie Kornfeld. “Please congratulate me I got [U.S. embassy] APPROVAL 🤩🤩.”

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“Such joyous news for the New Year—my heart is bursting!” Silver wrote back.

On January 27 of this year, Mohammad was driving to work with his 10-year-old son when a Toyota Corolla with two men inside cut him off. “What kind of people are these, blocking my way?” Mohammad said aloud. Two other men, hidden behind a low concrete wall on the roadside, opened fire. One round struck Mohammad, but he managed to drive 50 feet before a stream of bullets cut him down from behind. He died in a local hospital, leaving his widow and children, including the 10-year-old boy. After a week of muteness, Mohammad’s son was able to describe what had happened, including the words that the gunmen had yelled: “Where are the American forces to save you? Where are their helicopters? Where are their airplanes? You’re an infidel, a traitor! You helped them for a decade! Where are they now?”

The United States has a record of betraying its local allies in countries where it has fought unpopular wars. This history, echoing in the taunts hurled by the Taliban fighters as they gunned down Mohammad, includes Vietnam. In the spring of 1975, as North Vietnamese divisions approached Saigon, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese with connections to the U.S.—soldiers, officials, spies, interpreters, drivers, bar girls, cooks—begged their American friends and colleagues to help them find a way out. But the embassy in Saigon and the Ford administration in Washington were slow to face the gravity of the situation and reluctant to prepare an evacuation for fear of panicking the population into chaos. In mid-April, President Gerald Ford finally realized that the government of South Vietnam might fall, and he asked Congress for $300 million in emergency aid, including money to evacuate the remaining 2,500 Americans and their dependents along with up to 175,000 South Vietnamese.

But Congress, led by Senate Democrats, had no interest in throwing away more money on a lost war that Americans wanted to forget. The prospect of sending U.S. troops to help evacuate Vietnamese along with Americans was a nonstarter. Some of the most strenuous objections came from the 32-year-old first-term senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden.

“I feel put upon in being presented an all-or-nothing number,” Biden said at a rare White House meeting between the president and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 14. “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.”

Ford countered: “We opened our door to the Hungarians. I am not saying the situation is identical, but our tradition is to welcome the oppressed. I don’t think these people should be treated any differently from any other people—the Hungarians, Cubans, Jews from the Soviet Union.”

Biden and other Democrats were unmoved. In a Senate speech on April 23, Biden argued that the president lacked the authority to rescue any Vietnamese. “I do not believe the United States has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals” other than diplomats of third countries, Biden said. “The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese.” The U.S. should leave the task of protecting them to “the organizations that are available” and “diplomatic channels,” he added. A week later, North Vietnamese tanks entered the grounds of the presidential palace in Saigon just hours after the last helicopter carried the last Americans out of Vietnam.

If you stay in politics long enough, you might find yourself standing in the same river twice. In 1975, as a senator, Biden was willing to cut America’s South Vietnamese allies loose. In 2021, as president, he faces the same dilemma in Afghanistan, at the end of a war that in many ways resembles Vietnam, and has gone on longer.

Biden is currently trying to decide whether to honor a peace agreement, signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban a year ago, to withdraw the last 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by May 1. If the troops stay longer, those Afghans who have worked for the U.S. government will go on getting killed, because they have almost no protection. If the troops leave, the killing will likely become a massacre.

Seventeen thousand Afghans like Mohammad are waiting for the machinery of the U.S. government to decide their fate. The process is so byzantine and opaque that even American lawyers representing Afghan clients have a hard time navigating it. Applications for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV—including proof of U.S. employment, a letter of recommendation from a U.S. supervisor who might have left Afghanistan years before, employee badges, and a statement of threats—go first to a building in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that houses the National Visa Center. There they disappear into a bureaucratic black hole, often for two or three years at a time. The SIV section is staffed by only a handful of people, mostly contractors. “That just shows you where the government’s priorities are,” said Kornfeld, the attorney for Mohammad who works for the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, the only organization that represents Afghan SIV applicants through the legal process. Two years ago, Kornfeld visited the National Visa Center and found that even the leader of the SIV group couldn’t describe the process to her.

The initial application, if approved by the embassy, is just the beginning of an ordeal that requires two more application forms, many more documents, an interview at the U.S. embassy and medical exams for all family members, and extreme scrutiny from up to 10 U.S. agencies that can consume months or years of additional time. All this for applicants who have already been thoroughly vetted in order to work for the U.S. in Afghanistan—who have already passed up far easier opportunities to commit acts of anti-American violence. In 2019, IRAP found that the average wait time from start to finish is more than four years—a gross violation of congressional requirements. The process puts all the burden on people who live in chaotic and violent conditions to track down numerous documents that are already in the possession of the U.S. government. Only the most dedicated and resourceful Afghans will ever reach safety in this country.

The United States issues these visas slowly and grudgingly no matter the administration, but in the past year, with the pandemic and Donald Trump’s hostility to Muslim immigrants, the machinery ground to a halt. Eleven thousand visas allocated by Congress have gone unfilled. Meanwhile, the Taliban are assassinating America’s Afghan friends, along with civil-society leaders and journalists, at a quickening pace (the U.S. government doesn’t keep track of SIV killings). Two other interpreters were killed around the same time as Mohammad. In early February, his oldest son received a written warning from “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the Taliban:

Your father was a spy, America’s puppet, and was working for them and you saw the consequences, that we killed him. You are his son, and you are all spies. If you are caught, you all will end up dying as your father. Our fight will continue as you are the apostate. Down with the spies and puppets of America. God is great God is great God is great.

I asked Carter Malkasian, a former State Department official who spent years as an adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, what would happen to U.S.-affiliated Afghans in the event of a full troop withdrawal. He predicted that, without American air strikes and other support for Afghan government forces, the Taliban could soon seize provincial capitals such as Kandahar, Kunduz, and Lashkar Gah. “As the Taliban have taken over the countryside, those cities have become sanctuaries for interpreters and people who worked with us,” Malkasian said. These Afghans would face much greater threats under Taliban control. “Some will flee to Kabul. In this scenario, when does Kabul fall?” It might take months, even years—but life would become exceedingly difficult and dangerous.

If, on the other hand, American forces stayed on, Malkasian doesn’t believe that 2,500 troops would give the U.S. or Afghan governments enough leverage to force the Taliban to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. The Taliban would attack and try to drive out the remaining American troops. The war would go on longer, but major cities would eventually fall, and Afghans with American ties would be hunted down.

During peace talks in Doha in 2019, Malkasian spoke with Taliban negotiators. “I can’t recall them ever saying they wouldn’t kill people who worked with the Americans,” he said. “Their natural bias is going to be that people who worked for the Americans, were paid by the Americans, helped the Americans go after them—their natural bias is going to be that they’re traitors or spies. And the Taliban have always been very lenient toward the killing and execution of people they consider spies. That’s been for the most part permitted by the Taliban.” As terrible as the return of the Taliban would be for women, girls, religious minorities, journalists, civil-society activists, and other Afghans who have won a margin of freedom over the past two decades, Malkasian said, those who worked directly for Americans would be at the top of the endangered list.

“The Taliban won’t pick them off one at a time,” Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, told me. “There’ll be a wholesale targeting and killing of these individuals. They will be prime targets and the retribution will be swift and vicious if we don’t act as we need to.”

Among the first cities that would fall to the Taliban is the one where Mohammad was killed, and where his brother-in-law, whom I will call Khan, still works for the same Defense Department contractor that employed Mohammad. Only an errand in Kabul prevented Khan from being in the car with Mohammad on the day of the ambush. Since the killing, he no longer goes to work. Instead, he stays up nights keeping watch to see if anyone is trying to plant a bomb around his house; his wife does the same by day while Khan sleeps. To take his son to the hospital he disguises himself in a surgical mask, glasses, and a new turban.

“I don’t know who have connection with Taliban,” Khan told me recently by phone, in broken English. “People working in bazaar, I don’t know if they have connection with Taliban or not.” When he has to shop for food, he said, “I go one day one way, another week I go another way. I don’t go same ways two times or three times. They know my house, they have full information because I have grown up here, all the people know me, all the people know my brother-in-law was targeted and killed.”

Khan, who is 31, has worked for Americans since 2015. He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2018. By then he had received three death threats and survived three suicide bombings and four armed assaults that killed scores of people. After three years, on January 20—the day of Biden’s inauguration—Khan learned that he had cleared the first step toward a U.S. visa. Seven days later Mohammad was killed.

Khan described how the Taliban would respond to the departure of American troops. “When U.S. forces completely withdraw from the cities, then Taliban will come day and night to the bazaar, they will walk with their weapons to the bazaar, they will search people’s houses night and day,” he said. “Taliban will use propaganda—they will tell people in different districts to join them because they defeated U.S. forces, the world’s superpower. Then they will control the cities more, and they will use their propaganda and they will use their force to hire people.” Afghans will have to join the winning side, and there will be nowhere for people like Khan to hide.

For the moment, Khan lives with his wife and his small son in a rented house, where they wait to hear their fate, from the Taliban or the U.S. government. Of the two, the Taliban are more committed and efficient.

Biden has inherited a set of nearly impossible choices in Afghanistan. He has a complex history there. In 2004, he told me the story of his first trip to the country, soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. He toured a new school in Kabul—bitter cold, plastic sheeting over the windows, one light bulb hanging from the ceiling—where a girl stood up at her desk and said, “You cannot leave. They will not deny me learning to read. I will read, and I will be a doctor like my mother. America must stay.” As Biden explained it, the girl was saying, in effect: “Don’t fuck with me, Jack. You got me in here. You said you were going to help me. You’d better not leave me now.” He described meeting the girl as “a catalytic event for me.” For a while he was a leading proponent of nation building in Afghanistan.

By the time Biden became vice president in 2009, the disastrous war in Iraq, the endemic corruption of the Afghan government, and the return of the Taliban had made him a deep skeptic of the American commitment. He became the Obama administration’s strongest voice for getting out of Afghanistan. In 2010, he told Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that the U.S. had to leave Afghanistan regardless of the consequences for women or anyone else. According to Holbrooke’s diary, when he asked about American obligations to Afghans like the girl in the Kabul school, Biden replied with a history lesson from the final U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1973: “Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”

In 1975, when Saigon fell to North Vietnam, Americans managed to save 130,000 South Vietnamese. Until the final days, they did it against official U.S. policy, by individual initiative, in chaotic conditions—alerting Vietnamese friends of secret pickup points around cities, evacuating them on unscheduled CIA “black flights” without passenger manifests, commandeering barely seaworthy vessels and sailing them out to the South China Sea. Thousands were left behind—think of the indelible images of Vietnamese crowds trying to fight their way past U.S. Marines into the embassy compound and onto overloaded helicopters—but the shame of the war was mitigated at its end by the conduct of Americans whose experience in Vietnam had left them with an acute sense of obligation. (The story is told in Thurston Clarke’s book Honorable Exit.) After the fall of Saigon, Congress passed a resolution welcoming the South Vietnamese refugees. This time, Senator Biden voted yes.

After two decades in Afghanistan, the United States is facing a similar defeat. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban might control most of the country. The gains of the American-led effort—the education of girls, the right of women to work and take part in public life, the modernization of cities, the ability of young Afghans to join the outside world—seem extremely fragile. The war is littered with broken promises, squandered lives and money, wasted chances, illusions and lies. But there is still something that the U.S. can redeem from the sacrifice. It can fulfill its responsibilities to Afghans who put their trust and lives in American hands.

“There’s still honor to be had here,” Crow told me. “There are no good options left, there’s been a lot of mismanagement in this, we are not in a great position—that’s not going to change. But there are still things we can do to preserve some honor.”

This isn’t an argument for keeping troops in Afghanistan, or for taking them out. It’s an argument for imagination and preparation. The Biden administration and Congress should anticipate what Crow warned could be “a very precipitous dissolution of the security environment there” after the departure of U.S. troops, which will come sooner or later. “I think it would be far quicker and more devastating than our current assessments indicate,” Crow said. Given the urgency, the administration should begin to plan now for saving Afghans who bear the target of their American affiliation. At a minimum, money and personnel should be committed to clear the backlog of SIV applications and put the program into overdrive. There is no reason why the 11,000 allocated visas can’t be filled by the end of this year. But even that might not be fast enough, and it would leave thousands more Afghans and their families stranded and waiting. For some of them it will be too late.

There is another option. Chris Purdy, an Iraq War veteran and the founder of an advocacy group called Veterans for American Ideals, calls it the “Guam option.” He is referring to Operation Pacific Haven—the American airlift to the military base on Guam of more than 6,000 Iraqis, mostly Kurds, who had worked with the United States behind the green line in northern Iraq and were imminently threatened in 1996 by the army of Saddam Hussein. On Guam they were housed, screened, processed for asylum, and assigned American sponsors in safety. Nearly all of them were admitted into the U.S. within seven months. “Our success will undoubtedly be a role model for future humanitarian efforts,” Major General John Dallager, commander of the operation, said afterward.

Purdy was among the last American troops to leave Iraq in 2011. He witnessed how quickly Iraqi militias turned their energy from attacking Americans to hunting down fellow Iraqis. “Whatever we do, May 1 or not, we have to have some long-term solution for these Afghans,” he told me. “We’ve long advocated for some type of Guam option like we did for the Kurds. Something as drastic as that. No one wants to stay in Afghanistan forever, but we can’t just abandon these people—not only from the humanitarian aspect of it, but militarily. Nobody’s ever going to want to work with us again.”

It’s easy to think of all the reasons not to plan for the Guam option, or for something equally urgent and ambitious to save America’s Afghan friends. Evacuating and screening thousands of people would require an enormous logistical effort. There’s already a migrant crisis at America’s southern border. Money and attention are focused on ending the pandemic and reviving the economy. We’re not seeing images of mass atrocities in Afghanistan on the nightly news. We have far more obvious national interests. Bureaucracy will always do its thing. Everyone is tired of the war.

There’s really only one reason to do it. I think it’s a good enough reason. If any administration has the ability and will, Biden’s does. His deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Finer, helped to found the only organization that represents these Afghans. His nominee to head the Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, sat on its board. But nothing will happen without leadership from the top. Biden has changed on so many other fronts. Why not this one?