It’s Not Too Late to Avert a Historic Shame

As the U.S. military prepares to leave Afghanistan, it’s running out of time to evacuate the Afghans who have helped the United States.

Silhouettes of three people, two who appear to have soldier helmets on and one with what looks like a head wrap
Joe Raedle / Getty

About the author: George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In the past few weeks, the outlook for Afghans who helped the United States in Afghanistan has gone from worrying to critical. As U.S. and NATO troops leave the country with breathtaking speed, the Taliban are attacking districts that had long been in the Afghan government’s hands, setting up checkpoints on major roads, and threatening provincial capitals. Many of the 18,000 Afghans who, along with their families, have applied for Special Immigrant Visas will soon have nowhere to hide, no armed force standing between them and their pursuers.

The unfolding disaster has seized the attention of international organizations, American news outlets, veterans’ groups, and members of Congress. On June 4, a bipartisan coalition of House members (many of them veterans), called the Honoring Our Promises Working Group, released a passionate statement that urged the Biden administration to skip the cumbersome ordeal of reviewing thousands of visa applications and instead evacuate these Afghans and their families to the U.S. territory of Guam, where they can be processed in safety. (The governor of Guam has declared that the island is prepared to accept them.) The Association of Wartime Allies, a veterans’ group, keeps a tracker of how many flights a day will be needed to get these endangered Afghans out if all U.S. forces leave Afghanistan by September 11, as President Joe Biden has promised, or July 4, as now seems a likelier end point. Between this past Tuesday and July 4, 17 flights carrying 3,737 people would have to take off daily. With every passing day, of course, the number of flights goes up, and the logistics get harder.

Right now, there are zero daily flights to save Afghans who helped Americans. As far as I can tell, the administration does not intend to evacuate Afghans anytime soon, if ever. This week, I spoke with a senior official who asked to remain anonymous in order to describe the administration’s current thinking. “We’ve been seized with this issue,” he said, “since before the president made his decision about the future troop presence.” Cabinet officers or their deputies have held regular meetings at the White House to discuss it. In the past 60 days, the administration has doubled the number of officials working on Special Immigrant Visas in Kabul and substantially increased personnel responsible for other phases of the process. “We are comfortable saying we have reduced processing time by 50 percent or more,” the senior official said. “We were looking at previous processing of 18 months or two years or more. We have got it down to roughly on the order of nine to 12 months.” By his calculation, at the present rate, 1,000 to 1,400 applicants would have their cases decided every month through the rest of the year. To clear all 18,000 cases would take at least until next summer.

“All that said,” the senior official acknowledged, “this is still not satisfactory for a situation of dire emergency.”

I don’t want to minimize the importance of what he told me. The administration is doing a great deal within the confines of the system that Congress put in place more than a decade ago with the Special Immigrant Visa statute. The official pointed out that Congress would need to make certain changes to the law to further speed things up, such as lifting the requirement that applicants undergo a medical exam in Afghanistan before being admitted into the U.S. This week, one of the founders of the Honoring Our Promises Working Group, Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat of Colorado and an Iraq War vet, is jointly introducing a bill that would streamline the process in numerous ways. The bill, and the larger issue of the Afghan SIVs, has attracted interest among House leaders of both parties, Crow told me.

But these are improvements to an established process that will still expose thousands of our Afghan allies to execution by the Taliban. Even at its faster pace, the administration remains several steps behind reality in Afghanistan. “This is a policy decision that can only be made by the White House, of course,” Crow said. At the Pentagon and the State Department, he finds “a willingness and interest in pursuing evacuation,” but in conversations with the National Security Council, Crow said, “there remains resistance to evacuation. I’m struggling to pin down the source of that resistance, because there’s very broad-based bipartisan support for this.”

Evacuation would be practically hard and politically risky. No doubt an administration that polls poorly on immigration fears a public backlash, particularly as America approaches the bitter 20th anniversary of September 11. Evacuation would require the suspension of all kinds of standard procedures. There is always the risk of fraud, and perhaps of allowing an enemy combatant into the United States. The spectacle of evacuation might induce Afghan security forces to panic and desert in even larger numbers than they’re deserting now, causing a rush to the airports and borders and a collapse of the government of President Ashraf Ghani. The same kind of concerns delayed the Ford administration’s evacuation of our Vietnamese allies as South Vietnam collapsed in the spring of 1975, until the president finally changed course, when it was too late for most of them.

“I am intimately familiar with the historical precedent of this,” the senior administration official said. “We are intensively looking at a range of possibilities but don’t have any decisions, including recommendations that people have been making from the outside, about moving people out of country.” I suggested that the only way to prevent an immense tragedy and a historic American shame is to throw out the current approach, think past familiar limits, and take a more drastic route. The official declined to say more about the possibility of evacuation.

I might not have pressed him if I hadn’t just spoken with two Afghans whose situation makes any other approach seem inadequate, if not delusional. One is a man named Hakim. He lives in western Afghanistan, and two days before our conversation, the Taliban had raided his district. Because Hakim had worked for several years as a combat interpreter for American and NATO forces, he feared for his life. In the middle of the night, he fled with his wife and three young sons by donkey and then by car to the nearest city, where they were staying in a cheap hotel. “I am in a very bad situation right now,” Hakim told me. “I do not know exactly where to go, where to stay, where to resettle after this time.” After years of trying to apply for a visa, he is still at the start of the process, his first attempt having been denied. The U.S. contractor that had employed him no longer exists—it’s changed hands and names several times. The current incarnation, a company called Janus, can’t locate Hakim’s records and responds slowly, if at all, to his pro bono lawyer’s requests for a new employment letter.

“My problem is HR, HR,” Hakim kept saying, until HR began to seem like the initials of a malign nonstate organization that is trying to kill him by pretending he doesn’t exist.

The other conversation was with Khan, the Afghan visa applicant I first wrote about in March. His brother-in-law, Mohammad, was murdered by the Taliban in January. Just weeks earlier, Mohammad had cleared the first major hurdle to a visa, after 10 years of trying. Since the murder, Khan moves from house to house with his pregnant wife and son, and stays up at night to watch for enemies. Last month, to celebrate the end of Ramadan, he traveled with his family to his parents’ house in another district. Eid had brought a cease-fire, and Khan felt relatively safe. But someone must have noticed him, or perhaps seen his small son buying ice cream at the bazaar, because that night Khan found a death threat attached to the back door. It said: “You have been helping U.S. occupier forces, and you have been providing them with intelligence information. You are an ally and spy of infidels. We will never leave you alive and will not have mercy on your family, because they are supporting you. Your destiny will be like your brother-in-law’s.” When Khan examined the perimeter of the house, he found a live grenade wired to the front door’s dead bolt.

“The warning saved my life,” he told me. “Otherwise, if I used my first door, I might be killed.”

After my article about Mohammad and Khan was published, the U.S. government granted Mohammad’s family humanitarian parole into the United States, circumventing the rest of the SIV process. The insecurity of the region kept the family from visiting Mohammad’s grave one last time before leaving Afghanistan, as custom required. This past Saturday night, his widow and six children arrived in Houston. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a police station a mile and a half from Khan’s house was recently overrun by Taliban, and the highway to Kabul is now riddled with insurgent checkpoints. As we talked, Khan’s phone was running out of juice because nearby fighting had knocked out the electricity. Khan’s interview at the U.S. embassy, scheduled for the end of this month, has been postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak. He calculates that he will have to make the trip to Kabul half a dozen times to complete the cumbersome application process, while the country deteriorates daily.

Recently, the Taliban announced a new policy on interpreters: If they confess and repent, they won’t be killed. Neither Khan nor Hakim believes it. “This is not a trustable thing,” Hakim told me. “This is a thing that the Taliban, they want to use it for example to attract the global community for their self—that we are good people right now. When the United States leaves this country, 100 percent the first target are the linguists.”

Khan had an even darker thought: that the Taliban are lying in order to keep their quarries in Afghanistan. “They are afraid these people will be evacuated to U.S. or other countries where they will be safe,” he said. After hearing the Taliban statement, he gave his wife the password to his phone and told her that in case of his death, she should contact his lawyer, Julie Kornfeld, and me. Then he went to the bazaar and looked for someone with computer equipment in order to have an American flag printed from the internet. The first two people he approached refused; the third knew him and complied. Khan folded the copy in half so that it wouldn’t be seen on his way home, where he tacked it up on his wall. For him, the flag was a sign that he would never regret or repent what he had done for his country.

It’s hard to see how even an expedited review will answer the prayers of Khan and Hakim. Neither is far along in the process—red tape has held Hakim at the start—and both live in dangerous areas many hours’ drive from the capital. The senior U.S. official told me that “the vast majority of applicants” live in or near Kabul, but my experience says otherwise. Going back and forth to Kabul while duly following current procedures will greatly increase the risk applicants face. Spending weeks or months in the capital to eliminate the trips is beyond the means of most Afghans. In six months, a functioning American embassy might not even exist in Kabul.

Several days ago a Western official wrote me this description of the atmosphere in the Afghan capital:

The political class seems to have no sense of urgency. I don’t think they have fully registered the impact of what has happened. They are so used to having the international community pull them back from the brink, and save them from the consequences of their petty feuds, that they act as if there is still an appetite for it … The Taliban seem to have the better strategy, which is to take districts around major cities but leave them alone (until the last foreign soldier is gone, I presume) and control the main roads so that they can block them if they choose. There is a real chance Kabul could fall, in my view, but more through political implosion due to this steady boa-constrictor strategy of the Taliban rather than a military takeover. There is a weird slow-motion quality to this Greek tragedy.

That U.S. officials don’t want to take the extreme step of organizing flights out of Afghanistan is understandable, but at this point, nothing else will keep our Afghan allies safe. If we leave without them, they will be killed one at a time. Their deaths will be obscure, and the news might not reach us for weeks or years, if it ever does at all, but they will haunt our memory.