CONTRIBUTORS

Will Congress really send 80,000 Afghans back to the Taliban?

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Before the United States made its chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August 2021, Congress had promised special immigrant visas to Afghans who worked with our military or civilians. Once our allies were without the protection of American forces, they would surely face Taliban revenge.

As U.S. troops left, about 80,000 Afghans did make it out of the country, most with the help of their U.S. military colleagues (although tens of thousands who were qualified were left behind). But there was no time for eligible escapees to complete the complex SIV visa process, so they were granted a two-year, temporary "humanitarian parole" status.

Now, unbelievably, Congress seems ready to kick out those who made it here when their status expires in 2023.

Taliban fighters hold weapons as they ride on a humvee to celebrate their victory day near the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 15, 2022. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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The Afghan Adjustment Act, a bipartisan bill that would give those refugees a path to permanent residency, is almost dead because political leaders from both parties have chosen to ignore it. If it doesn't pass this year, there is virtually zero chance a Republican-led Congress will put it forward next year.

Do congressional leaders, Democrats and Republicans, really plan to stand by while tens of thousands of Afghan allies are loaded on planes and sent back to the Taliban? It seems so.

"People just want to forget about Afghanistan," said Rye Barcott, a Marine veteran and cofounder of With Honor, a bipartisan organization dedicated to enlisting veterans in public service.

"Neither party wants to make it a top issue," Barcott told me. "The Afghans have no one pushing for them except vets."

I spoke with Barcott at a small dinner to honor Reps. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.) and Peter Meijer (R., Mich.) for their relentless efforts to help Afghans. Both are members of the House of Representatives' For Country Caucus, comprised of veterans, a group that pressed the Biden administration to evacuate all of our Afghan allies before we withdrew.

That didn't happen.

When tens of thousands of terrified Afghans rushed to the Kabul airport in 2021, there was no way to activate the cumbersome SIV process, which can take years. Thousands of Afghans were flown out on U.S. military planes and charters organized by U.S. veterans. Many of the evacuees had worked with Americans, many had not. Giving them temporary status was the easiest answer but left their future in limbo.

Meantime, tens of thousands of interpreters, democracy advocates, and women's rights activists, who are entitled to those SIVs, are still in hiding in Afghanistan or neighboring countries, desperately waiting for their cases to be decided.

The Afghan Adjustment Act would move the process forward for both groups (although more must be done for those allies left behind).

Republicans such as Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley — a key opponent of the Afghan Adjustment Act — claim they oppose the measure for security reasons. But the Afghans here have already been vetted, and the act would require additional security checks. In other words, the act is a solution to the security problem, not the reverse.

Yet Grassley's staunch opposition as a senior Republican leader makes it impossible to attach the act to the omnibus appropriations bill working its way through to passage by year's end. That is the only path open to getting the Afghan bill through.

Senior Republicans appear untroubled by the hypocrisy of their opposition to the bill — at the same time the GOP is demanding an investigation into the Biden administration's messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"If you want to investigate Biden's treatment of Afghans, you shouldn't be in the position of deporting them," bluntly states Meijer, an Army vet of the Iraq war, who also worked as a civilian in Afghanistan. (Meijer, one of 10 Republicans to vote for the impeachment of Donald Trump, lost his 2022 primary to a Trump clone.)

His Democratic colleague, Moulton, a Marine Corps vet of the Iraq war, was blunter, saying "Grassley may be carrying racist water for other Republicans" who oppose any Afghan immigration — or any immigration, period. He added "There are a lot of good Republicans who are vets who want to uphold our promises."

Yet it isn't just the GOP and Grassley who are at fault.

"The administration is not really lifting a finger for the Afghan Adjustment Act," Meijer said flatly. "Nobody is really opposed to it, but nobody is viscerally advocating [for it]."

That means it is going nowhere.

It's no surprise that the Biden team doesn't want to draw attention to its Afghanistan failure or the immigration issue, but that does not excuse its avoidance of past obligations.

This bipartisan blindness toward pledges made to Afghan allies is a stain on America's honor — a word that sometimes seems to have traction only with veterans. That blindness also carries security costs.

"We made that promise to protect the Afghan people who risked their lives to help us," Moulton told me, with the weariness of someone who has stressed this point over and over. "We put our word on the line on behalf of our country. And we know how hard it will be in the future conflicts to find foreign allies if we can't keep our word."

Passing this bill should be a no-brainer. Its death would add another chapter to a history of U.S. betrayal of its allies.

"My father was a Vietnam vet, and [I'm sure] he's rolling in his grave," Barcott told me. "The Kabul exit was like a repeat of images of Saigon, which is why he spent so much of his life helping Hmong" — an ethnic group endangered by its alliance with Americans in Laos during the Vietnam War.

Yet Barcott was unwilling to relinquish a shred of optimism. "There is hope," he said. "Legislators need to feel a sense of urgency from their constituents, who need to contact their legislators."

If you care about American honor, security, and the fate of the Afghans who helped us, that is what you should do — right now.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer.