President Biden’s decision to remove the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has occasioned heated debate; I will not address that question. In announcing his decision, the president promised that America’s support for Afghanistan will endure and include diplomatic, economic and military support, thus implying that the Afghan government will have substantial assistance as it continues to confront the Taliban.
What has gone largely unnoticed is that the president’s promise of continued support is being incrementally and quietly undermined with each passing day, creating a situation that sadly reminds many analysts of the promises to the South Vietnamese that we made and broke.
The most important of those promises was to protect those who served closely with us and shared the risks our soldiers took. They and their families will be at terrible risk if taken by the Taliban, and some 18,000 have applied for Special Immigrant Visas. These applications are going nowhere quickly, and as our troops are withdrawn their plight is becoming desperate.
The decision to withdraw all military assets from Afghanistan was not made under pressure of “force majeure.” Yes, it became our longest war, but there was no political tidal wave of protest against maintaining in Afghanistan a military presence in that is smaller than that in many other areas such as Germany, South Korea, Italy, Japan and various locations throughout the Middle East and Africa. American causalities in Afghanistan have fallen significantly. It has been more than a year since the last U.S. death was attributable to hostile action — this is a presence rather than a war.
The president’s promise of continued support is looking more and more hollow. This withdrawal was launched without first securing access to facilities in nearby countries to position the assets that are needed to fulfill commitments. We have already told Kabul that American air support will not be forthcoming.
Our ability to collect intelligence to help the fight against the Taliban will be significantly degraded. The Afghanistan Air Force (which gets high marks for effectiveness) is already deteriorating and will become combat ineffective with the withdrawal of American contractors who provide essential maintenance capacity. In brief, President Biden’s recent promise will have a very short half-life.
The duration of the American military presence in Afghanistan was never carved in stone. But one promise endorsed by every American administration was that we would take special measures to protect those Afghans (and immediate family members) who worked closely with us, shared the risks our soldiers encountered and who would be in terrible jeopardy if taken by the Taliban.
The vehicle to fulfill that promise is known as a Special Immigrant Visa or SIV. Obtaining a SIV is a time consuming process even when travel and communication within Afghanistan are easy. Approximately 18,000 Afghans have applied for SIVs with the average processing time of 900 days. One complicating factor is that our Embassy in Kabul has ceased visa issuance due to concerns about COVID-19.
Given that our troops are expected to be out of Afghanistan by July 4, it is obvious that this process will be nowhere near complete prior to our departure.
But we have dealt successfully with this type of challenge in the past. In the 1970s, we established refugee processing centers in Asia and provided safe haven for those who ultimately hoped to come to the U.S. or other countries. It would be far easier politically to establish such centers today than to find countries willing to host our military operations.
The Biden administration should press our NATO allies to share the resettlement burden. But it takes energetic leadership and a real commitment to immediate action by Mr. Biden. Today, those essential conditions have not been seen. Most of those 18,000 Afghans will be left behind. Their fate at the hands of the Taliban will be America’s indelible moral stain.
• Matt Daley is an editor of the Chesapeake Observer and former deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia. As a foreign service officer, he was frequently involved in efforts to sustain first asylum for refugees fleeing Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as well as supporting robust resettlement programs.
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