What does America owe Afghan interpreters?

Democracy Examined

On June 20th, the White House announced that President Biden would be meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this Friday. Afghanistan is in the midst of escalating fighting as the American withdrawal continues and hard-won territories fall to the Taliban. The meeting between the two leaders is a welcome opportunity for the United States to commit to greater assistance for the Afghan government, but it’s unlikely to address our immediate, outstanding obligation: protecting the thousands of Afghans who have put themselves in terrible danger to support our troops. 

For two decades, tens of thousands of Afghans served alongside American troops as interpreters. In doing so, they put themselves and their families at risk of retaliation. As the Taliban gains ground against Afghan forces, some 18,000interpreters are still waiting on their American visas. With American troops set to leave entirely by September 11th, any delay could prove fatal. 

These individuals qualify to immigrate to the U.S. on Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for their service. Despite Congress mandating in 2008 that the entire process take no longer than nine months, the State Department has acknowledged that it is more likely to take a minimum of 1.5 years. President Biden recently signed an executive order in part reiterating America’s commitment to supporting Iraqi and Afghan interpreters via the SIV program. But with U.S. forces set to withdraw completely in just three months’ time, this gesture may be too little, too late. At this point, the only acceptable option may beto help evacuate the interpreters, possibly to a third-party country or to the U.S. on a temporary visa, while their cases are processed.

What would failing to evacuate the interpreters mean?

Failure to take action could cause hundreds, possibly thousands of former interpreters to be killed. The resettlement advocacy group No One Left Behindrecords that more than 300 Afghan interpreters have been murdered since 2014 as they waited for their applications to be approved. Afghan women who worked with U.S. forces are especially at risk, as the Taliban considers them guilty of the dual crime of aiding America and working in a role unacceptable for women.

Abdicating responsibility in this case would be a colossal moral failure and counteract our national interest. The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategy Guidance calls for greater local cooperation in military efforts, avowing that “when force is required, we will employ it alongside…local partners wherever possible to bolster effectiveness and legitimacy.” As Ohio Congressman Steve Stivers put it, “what kind of message does that send next time that we go somewhere and ask people to help us if they realize the people who helped us last time, we turned our backs on them and didn’t help them?” America has and will continue to rely on the support of local allies in our military efforts––we cannot take that invaluable relationship for granted.

With our reluctance to support those who support us, America risks further degrading its claim to being a global force for good. Along with Hollywood and technological innovation, American soft power has always relied on a relatively simple concept: benevolence. The Marshall Plan, Green Revolution, PEPFAR, and a world-leading refugee resettlement program all served others before our own interests. American leadership empowered liberal democracy around the world as our partners opened up to trade, expanded individual freedoms, and accepted a rules-based world order as mutually beneficial. A morality-first foreign policy is an America-first foreign policy, and to turn our backs on this humanitarian obligation is, in the words of Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, “playing politics with our national security and with the lives of American heroes.”

These individuals risked everything to support our troops and rebuild their country. But while Americans get to come home, a resurgent Taliban threatens our partners’ lives. Our responsibility is clear and the solution is simple: evacuate the Afghan interpreters.