The Moral Catastrophe Unfolding in Afghanistan

If no action is taken, we are, in effect, sentencing our interpreters to death at the hands of the Taliban.   

Interpreters being addressed by two soldiers in Afghanistan
Pier Paolo Cito / Associated Press

One of the last times I saw my interpreter Ali, we were driving through a valley in southeastern Afghanistan when a vehicle in our convoy struck an IED. An ambush followed. Muzzle flashes lit up the rocky hillside as we pried the bodies of four Afghan soldiers out of their mangled vehicle, including Mortaza, a friend of Ali’s. I remember the two of us putting pieces of him in a vinyl body bag. Afghan or American, the person’s nationality didn’t matter—you never leave a man behind.

Ali wasn’t my interpreter’s real name, but it’s what everyone called him. We worked in special operations, and to protect his family, he hid his identity. After I returned to the U.S., Ali and I lost touch. But about 18 months ago, I received an email from an unfamiliar name with the subject “This is Ali!” He told me that, after several years of navigating the exhausting Special Immigrant Visa program, he’d settled with his wife and children in Texas. He was happy. He was worried, however, about his siblings and parents still in Afghanistan. They had received death threats from the Taliban because of Ali’s work and that of his younger brother, also an interpreter who has been trying for years to get his SIV. We kept in touch after that. In April, when the Biden administration announced its planned withdrawal of all American troops from the country by September 11, Ali wrote to plead for help in getting his family to safety.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan is under way and currently proceeding ahead of schedule: The Pentagon announced that, as of last week, it was 30 to 44 percent complete. U.S. troops will likely be out of Afghanistan before the end of the summer. But Americans aren’t the only ones who have fought for America. Interpreters like Ali and his brother wore our uniforms, used our weapons, and watched our backs. They deserve asylum in the United States. If no action is taken, we are, in effect, sentencing them—as well as their families and others who worked with the U.S. government—to death at the hands of the Taliban.

What the U.S. must do is clear: We need to evacuate our interpreters, as well as other key Afghan partners and family members threatened by the Taliban. And if we can’t do that by our September 11 withdrawal deadline, then our withdrawal will not be complete.

Ali spent three years trying to get his U.S. visa. He had to gather letters of recommendation from past supervisors, submit to interviews, and undergo a medical evaluation. Currently, the State Department has more than 18,000 unprocessed applications for such visas, far too many to complete in the next three months. “There is clearly no way to get this done under SIV,” Representative Seth Moulton told me. He is a co-chair of a working group comprising 21 members of Congress, many of whom are veterans. On June 4, the group delivered a letter to the Biden administration calling for an evacuation plan.

The U.S. has managed such evacuations before. As the Vietnam War was ending, the U.S. evacuated 111,000 Vietnamese to Guam in Operation New Life. America also evacuated Iraqi Kurds to Guam in the 1990s. Once the evacuees were there, the State Department vetted their applications for asylum in the U.S. The Afghans deserve a similar process. This would require extensive airlifts out of Afghanistan as well as temporary housing on the military base at Guam. Michael San Nicolas, the current delegate from Guam, has committed to such an effort, despite concerns among his constituents about an influx of refugees fueling the spread of COVID-19. He is among the signatories of the White House letter.

Yet no evacuation can happen without a formal directive from the White House. Thus far, that directive has proved elusive. The Biden administration has, as of yet, not made evacuation a priority. As Representative Jason Crow, a former U.S. Army Ranger and the other co-chair of the group, told me, “Our interpreters lived with us, fought with us, and some died with us. Without them, many of us also would not have come home.” Leaving those who worked with us behind would not just be a moral catastrophe; it would certainly undermine American credibility abroad, a point the signatories of the June 4 letter addressed explicitly. “If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan,” they wrote, “it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation, which will then be a great detriment to our troops and the future of our national security.”

The administration still has time to act. When I asked Crow whether he thought the Departments of Defense and State could logistically conduct an evacuation to Guam or another U.S. territory on short notice, he was unequivocal: “If the military is given the order by the White House, the military is prepared to accomplish that. That’s not conjecture by me; that’s what the military has said.”

And if the timeline does prove to be too short for such an effort, then the answer is simple: Move the deadline. The September 11 deadline has, since its inception, been arbitrary, of arguably no military significance, a gimmicky way to add symmetry to an asymmetrical conflict. This anniversary should not dictate the timing of our withdrawal, especially if our rush does not allow us to evacuate our partners and allies.

When I mentioned the possibility of an evacuation to Ali on the phone, he didn’t say much. For the past three years, his younger brother has been trying to secure a visa. His brother is now in Kandahar; American troops pulled out of the city in mid-May, leaving him and other partners behind. Ali told me that his brother had recently sent him a statement by the Taliban, in which the group announced its plan to offer clemency to interpreters and others who worked for the Americans. “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “So long as the interpreters repent and admit that they betrayed the Afghan people.” When I asked what he thought of the Taliban offer, he laughed and said, “These days, I’d hesitate to take anyone at their word.”