Why Afghan interpreters must get priority for special immigrant visas

Why Afghan interpreters must get priority for special immigrant visas

Originally Published in The Hill

Greg Fairbank - April 21, 2021

Why Afghan interpreters must get priority for special immigrant visas
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President Biden’s announced withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept 11, 2021, culminates America’s longest conflict in history. Over the course of our nearly 20-year involvement in Afghanistan, countless Afghans have assisted U.S. forces in a myriad of functions, without which our troops and allies could not have sustained themselves, let alone fought in Afghanistan. Most notably, thousands of Afghans risked their lives to serve as interpreters for U.S. forces that have been chronically under-resourced with linguists fluent in Pashto and other Afghan languages. Their support has been necessary to work with the local populace, and they have saved countless American lives as they have fought alongside our troops. 

The Taliban and Islamic State both view Afghani interpreters as apostates whose involvement with U.S. forces should be punished by death. At nearly every opportunity, the Taliban have followed through on their threats with executions of locals who helped and protected the lives of U.S. servicemen and women. Since 2018, No One Left Behind, a nonprofit focused on Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) advocacy, has documented over 300 incidents in which Afghan interpreters were murdered by the Taliban for their support to U.S. forces.

The United States has recognized the contributions of these local allies, as well as its moral obligation to help them survive after their service, through the SIV program, which resettles Afghan interpreters and their families in the United States. Despite widespread and bipartisan support — including from legislators such as Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), whose own interpreters have been killed — the SIV program has been mired in process challenges, delays and limited resources under every administration since its inception in 2008. At present, approximately 17,000 Afghan former interpreters and their families await adjudication of their SIV applications.

With President Biden’s plan for troops to leave Afghanistan, the U.S. is now faced with a dilemma with both moral and pragmatic implications. Congress has authorized only 4,000 SIVs for 2021 and, given the delays associated with utilizing previous years’ visa authorizations, it is unlikely to clear the backlog of applicants by the Sept. 11 withdrawal deadline. Even if all available visas are used, thousands of SIV applicants — and thousands more who are likely to apply in the coming months — will remain in Afghanistan, subject to the ruthless judgment of the Taliban in their quest to take over the country. Without significant action by the administration to clear the backlog, there undoubtedly will be an intense persecution of our former allies, perhaps even on a massive scale.

The United States has a moral obligation to extract our Afghani allies before our withdrawal, one that is also of intense self-interest. We made a commitment to these allies who have put their lives on the line to serve with our forces. Furthermore, if we expect local assistance with inevitable future military endeavors — especially those in which we seek to recruit partners to fight terrorists for us — our honor and commitments to those with whom we contract must be upheld. It is a priority, even in just our own self-interest, that the U.S. make the SIV program a critical effort as it exits Afghanistan. Americans may one day forget Afghanistan, but our current and future partners around the world will remember how we have treated them.

Bringing our Afghan allies to the United States is not just an issue of morality and self-interest for possible future military operations; it also is one that is in the nation’s economic interest.   Our Afghani interpreters are fluent in English, motivated and brave — often proven under fire from their own countrymen. What better attributes can we seek in individuals to welcome to our nation and our workforce? These outstanding potential immigrants possess precisely the finest attributes that have spurred this nation’s economic growth over the centuries. Make admitting our Afghani SIV applicants a priority and our nation will be the better for it.

Greg Fairbank, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, serves on the board of directors for No One Left Behind, which advocates for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program. He is the CEO of a high-technology company, Saratoga Data Systems, Inc. Follow on Twitter @n1leftbehind.

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