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Biden Has Two Weeks to Save As Many Afghans As He Can

It normally takes more than two years to get a refugee out of the country. The president doesn’t have that kind of time.

An Afghan woman and three children huddle on the tarmac of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images
Afghans sit on the tarmac at Kabul’s airport, hoping to leave the country after a stunningly swift end to the 20-year Afghanistan War.

While the United States lost the Afghanistan War a long time ago, the scale of the defeat became undeniable when Kabul fell to the Taliban on Sunday. The Afghan government, built in the awkward image of Western liberal democracies, floundered and collapsed as the Taliban captured one provincial redoubt after another over its steady three-week march to the nation’s capital city. The Afghan military, into which the U.S. poured 20 years of training, funding, and equipment, was unable to halt their advance. The U.S. spent two decades, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives building a sandcastle.

Some officials, including President Joe Biden, callously faulted the Afghans themselves for not fighting hard enough. Other commentators blamed American voters for having the audacity to oppose an indefinite occupation of Afghanistan. What the Afghanistan War actually represents is a stunning, defining failure by four American presidents; dozens of senators and representatives; two generations of generals, diplomats, and civil servants; and the bulk of the American foreign policy establishment. Some of these figures deserve far more blame than others; another two decades could be spent properly allocating it.

There is a more urgent task at hand, however: We must ensure that thousands of Afghans at risk of persecution once the U.S. exits on August 31 aren’t left to the depredations of the Taliban. The Biden administration did not do nearly enough to accelerate the special immigrant visa, or SIV, program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. during the war, and the rapid collapse of the Afghan government has only raised the likelihood of a broader refugee crisis. Biden can argue that there was little he could have done to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing. But he will be wholly responsible if the U.S. fails to rescue these people.

It’s unclear exactly how many Afghans might be eligible for the visa program. The White House said on Monday that roughly 2,000 visa applicants and their families are already in the United States. How many others remain stuck in limbo is hard to discern. In June, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said in a letter to the White House that more than 18,000 Afghans had already applied. That number likely rose over the last two months, especially as the breadth of the Taliban’s victories became more apparent. The lawmakers said in June that the average waiting period for such visas was “800+ days,” or more than two years.

Why does it take so long? It doesn’t help that simply applying for a special immigrant visa is a laborious marathon that makes the average DMV trip look like a light stroll. The State Department’s website for the program claims it’s a five-step process, but experts say that it’s closer to 14 steps. In general terms, an applicant has to obtain an assortment of documents from their current or former U.S.-backed employer, a letter of recommendation, and other identification papers. They then must submit the materials to the U.S. embassy, which for the next few weeks will operate out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

That’s just step one. If the embassy approves an application, the applicant must then file a separate one with some (but not all) of the same documents with U.S. immigration officials. Once that application is also approved, there’s an in-person interview and a medical exam. This process would be exhausting and complicated at the best of times. It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it would be in Afghanistan, especially if you don’t live in the capital.

Many soldiers, diplomats, and NGO employees who worked in Afghanistan over the past two decades have pressed lawmakers and the White House for years to accelerate the SIV program. (A similar battle was fought over it for Iraq a few years ago.) In June, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law to accelerate the program. But these steps seemed insufficient to address the problem at hand even before Afghanistan actually collapsed. The most notable efficiency tweak in the bill was deferring the medical exam until the applicant reaches U.S. soil.

In the coming days and weeks, as the full scale of the defeat sinks in, pressure will almost certainly rise on the Biden administration to save as many people as possible. “We have a moral obligation to the Afghan people,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement on Twitter. “The U.S. role in this crisis is indisputable. We must waste no time or expense in helping refugees safely & swiftly leave Afghanistan. We must immediately welcome them to the U.S. & provide real support as they rebuild their lives.”

Even former President Donald Trump, a bitter opponent of refugee resettlement programs, called on the government to rescue more people from Kabul. “Can anyone even imagine taking out our military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” he said in a statement criticizing the Biden administration. Though Trump elided his own role in hamstringing refugee resettlement programs over the last four years, his comments should at minimum provide some bipartisan cover for Biden to act as aggressively as possible.

The United States is obviously no stranger to taking in people displaced by overseas upheavals. Thousands of liberal-minded Germans emigrated to the U.S. after the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe; many of these “Forty-Eighters” played an outsize role in American politics over the next few decades. Los Angeles is home to tens of thousands of Iranian immigrants who fled after the revolution in 1979. And in perhaps the most apt parallel to the Afghan situation, the U.S. took in more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975, many of whom resettled in Texas.

Biden is obviously less hostile to refugees and immigrants than his immediate predecessor—especially those from the Muslim world. But he could stand to do more than clear the lowest possible bar. When the U.S. began evacuating Vietnamese civilians who favored the United States in the 1970s, Biden publicly opposed the program. “The United States has no obligation to evacuate one—or 100,001—South Vietnamese,” he said in a Senate floor speech at the time. Earlier this year, he also briefly refused to lift the annual cap on refugee admissions above its Trump-era lows, only to backtrack under immense criticism and pressure from fellow Democrats.

In his first public remarks since the fall of Kabul, Biden acknowledged that the U.S. withdrawal led to a more rapid collapse than expected, but he resolutely stood by his decision to end this country’s longest war. His confidence stems from his apparent belief that the American public shares his thinking on nation-building and the utility—or futility—of staying in Afghanistan any longer. Though there are many in Washington and on Twitter who disagree, there is little reason so far to think Biden has misread the national mood.

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that Americans will stomach leaving thousands of Afghan civilians who want a better life in the United States to a grim fate under Taliban rule. By Biden’s own statement, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will last for another two weeks, even if it’s limited to Kabul’s crowded airport. Getting as many people out as possible—even if it means stuffing them into C-17s and leaving the paperwork and red tape until they’re safely out of the country—is the only moral way to end the Afghanistan War.