It’s Now Life or Death for the U.S. Military’s Afghan Interpreters
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is nearly complete, with about half of the final contingent of 3,000 or so troops headed home in preparation for the mission’s conclusion on Sept. 11. As time grows short, the U.S. is facing a moral imperative: to rescue — in an orderly, safe and timely fashion — the Afghans who served closely alongside Americans during the 20-year war.
To understand the plight of these Afghans, look at what happened in South Vietnam in 1975, after the fall of the country to the Viet Cong. U.S. partners were often executed or imprisoned and “re-educated.” Their families suffered gravely. Washington must avoid that grim eventuality repeating itself.
Over the four years during which I was the strategic commander of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, I frequently went from my North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Belgium to Kabul. After a night in the Afghan capital and briefings with the four-star general commanding the international forces “in-country,” I would typically spend a week or so flying around Afghanistan to visit NATO allies in the field.
The visits varied greatly given the geographic diversity of Afghanistan, a country roughly the size of Texas. One day might be spent with Italian special forces and their Afghan counterparts near the western border with Iran; the next day would be visiting U.S. Marines and Afghan army rangers at their firebases in Marjah and Kandahar in the south-central part of the country; a third night might be up north with the Germans and the Afghan police around Kunduz.
Everything changed day by day, hour by hour, as I cycled through the 150,000 troops under NATO command and the 370,000 Afghan National Security Forces.
But one thing was constant: my interpreter. I had several over the years, who were always at my side, permitting me to communicate with members of the Afghan army and police. Each was also instrumental in the countless meetings I held with Afghan political leaders, especially at the district and provincial level — once you got out of the capital, very few Afghans spoke English. Other than the U.S. Special Forces security detail in my immediate presence, there was no one with whom I spent more time, nor relied on more extensively.
Interpreters were likewise crucial in allowing me to speak with ordinary Afghans, to understand their hopes and fears. And, finally, they became a good barometers of the mission itself, as I encouraged them to tell me about their families, villages and aspirations — both for themselves and the nation. And there is nothing unique about my experience; tens of thousands of other Afghans (and Iraqis) performed the same risky job over the last two decades.
But now that there is a real possibility — some may say likelihood — that the Taliban will return to power, the Afghans most at risk are these stalwarts who served alongside American forces, risked their lives in combat, and were in constant fear of being rounded up, tortured and killed. And this is a big number — the State Department has more 18,000 unprocessed applications for its Special Immigrant Visa program, reflecting a total of perhaps 70,000 Afghans including family members. (To its credit, more than 16,000 visas have been issued already.)
Ultimately, given the small amount of time remaining, the military needs to conduct a full-scale evacuation. The U.S. managed to get more than 100,000 Vietnamese out of country in 1975, and then processed their visas on U.S. soil — in that case Guam.
Doing so in Afghanistan would require a massive airlift, but one that is well within the Pentagon’s capabilities. There are indications that the residents of Guam, who are U.S. citizens, would be willing to support another humanitarian effort. There are also suitable U.S. facilities in the continental U.S., and — ironically, given its history with terrorists — the naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has facilities to support mass refugee operations (similar to the boatlifts from Cuba and Haiti decades ago).
General Mark Miley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on my team in Afghanistan, so he understands the life-and-death nature of the situation. In late May, he said “there are plans being developed very, very rapidly here” for saving the interpreters and their families. He added, “We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection, and if necessary, get them out of the country, if that’s what they want to do.”
As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, I watched the fall of Saigon on a black-and-white television, straining to see the helicopters lifting off rooftops and shuttling to Navy warships offshore. It was obvious that the vast majority of those who had helped the American cause were abandoned. Time is running short to avoid a replay of that shameful day in American history.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates. His latest book is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."
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