Foreign Policy

America’s Afghan Allies Are Still Desperate for Help

Tens of thousands of Afghans are stuck in immigration limbo—or still hiding under Taliban rule.

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
US army soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2021. (Isaiah Campbell via DVIDS)
US army soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2021. (Isaiah Campbell via DVIDS)

During the United States’ chaotic retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021, military equipment worth an estimated $7 billion was left behind. Most of it has either fallen into the hands of the Taliban or ended up on the black market in the region.

This eye-watering price tag, however, pales in comparison to the moral cost of leaving behind tens of thousands of Afghan allies—including interpreters, civilians who worked on U.S. military bases, and even Afghan special forces—who sacrificed so much for the United States over 20 years. According to U.S. State Department Inspector General Diana Shaw, at least 152,000 Afghans qualifying for resettlement in the United States still remain in Afghanistan, not including family members. As the Taliban continue to seek retribution, Afghans who worked for or otherwise helped the United States remain in danger, and not all of them have successfully evaded the Taliban.

During the withdrawal, the United States evacuated only an estimated 124,000 Afghan allies, of whom around 90,000 have since arrived in the United States. Of these, only 21,000 have been issued a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which provides much-needed clarity on their legal status, including the right to remain and work in the United States. Most of the remaining evacuated Afghans in the United States are in the country under a process known as humanitarian parole.

As things stand, there is no clear path for Afghan evacuees without an SIV to legally remain and work. Congress, where many lawmakers refuse to touch anything that smacks of immigration, has repeatedly failed to pass the legislation needed to create such a path. In June, the Biden administration used executive authority to extend humanitarian parole for two more years. However, the use of executive authority in this context is merely a short-term solution to a long-term problem. After all, the next administration may choose not to extend parole, which could lead to immediate deportation. Imagine living your life with this uncertainty hanging over you.

Congress needs to act now. Adjusting the legal status of Afghans in the United States using legislation makes economic sense, too, because it could save U.S. taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. For example, according to a March report by Upwardly Global and Evacuate Our Allies, the administrative and bureaucratic cost of asylum adjudication for 36,000 Afghan cases would cost the U.S. government more than $64 million, compared to around half that cost if their status were adjusted by a legislative measure. Delaying the passage of relevant legislation is a bad deal for the U.S. taxpayer.

Legislation that provides a pathway to permanent resident status (through a green card) could also improve security vetting of Afghans admitted to the United States on humanitarian parole. Current drafts of proposed legislation expand vetting requirements for Afghan evacuees and authorize additional funding for deeper security checks. The provisions found in the draft legislation today entail stricter vetting requirements than those applied after the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, for example. Ultimately, this makes the United States safer.

But there are also broader strategic reasons to treat Afghan allies better—not just moral and economic ones. Afghanistan and its neighborhood in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East will clearly remain a focus of U.S. foreign policy and counterterrorism operations for the foreseeable future. Thinking otherwise is hopelessly naive. In this context, there are four strategic reasons why it is beneficial for the United States to ensure that all Afghans who were promised a way out after the return of the Taliban actually get out, and that those that have made it receive a long-term perspective.

First, Afghans brought to the United States form a talent pool of linguists, cultural experts, and proven patriots whose service Washington might someday need again. The Defense Language Institute recently announced that it will stop teaching Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s main languages, in November. In the event that there is a future shortfall of trained linguists, the United States would benefit from having a pool of Afghans with interpreting skills and a track record of service to the country.

Second, helping Afghans who helped the United States also sends a message to future local partners. Throughout the history of warfare, militaries have always depended on support from locals, whether civilians or local forces. There is no reason to suspect that future conflicts will be different. But working with any foreign force creates risks for a country’s citizens, especially those in the military or security services. In future conflicts, local partners will be more willing to work with the United States if they believe that the promises made to them will be kept and that they will not be left behind if things turn out badly.

Third, Afghans brought to the United States could play an important role in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. After the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001, members of the Afghan diaspora in the United States played an important role in helping to rebuild the country. Today, offering refuge and safety in the United States to Afghan allies, who tend to be educated and professionally trained, strengthens the United States and supports men and women who could play a role in building a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Finally, bringing Afghan special forces who worked closely with the U.S. military to the United States would deny adversaries the ability to recruit them as mercenaries. It has been widely reported Russian private military companies have attempted to recruit former Afghan commandos to join their ranks. Washington invested considerable resources to equip and train these special forces, and they had a very close relationship with their U.S. counterparts.

Given the chaos at the United States’ southern border, it might be tempting to play politics with the Afghan resettlement issue and include it within the larger immigration debate in the United States. That, however, would not only be a lazy approach to the immigration debate, but it would also be against the country’s national interests. Doing right by its Afghan allies fulfills the United States’ moral obligations, serves the material interests of the country, and furthers Washington’s strategic interests in the region and beyond. It is time for U.S. lawmakers to act.

Read in Foreign Policy.