The U.S. Can’t Betray Its Best Friends in Afghanistan

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By Sept. 11, President Joe Biden has vowed, all U.S. troops in Afghanistan will come home. They shouldn’t be returning alone.

In the nearly two decades that the U.S. has been battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda, tens of thousands of Afghans have risked their lives supporting U.S. troops. That was dangerous enough, but many will be at even greater risk after American forces leave — if, as many expect, the Taliban sweep back into Afghan cities and target suspected collaborators.

The moral stain of such a betrayal could not be easily erased. And the merely practical implications could be equally severe: If the U.S. abandons its most loyal supporters, it shouldn’t expect to enlist the help of locals in future missions around the world.

The Biden administration needs to take steps now to head off a potential tragedy. Special visa programs meant to provide a pathway for former interpreters and others to emigrate to the U.S. have been mired for years in red tape, exacerbated by the Trump administration’s determination to turn away refugees of all stripes. The roughly 17,000 Afghans currently in the queue face processing times of three years on average. Hundreds are estimated to have been killed while waiting.

There’s already a shortfall of 6,000 visas — and the pool of applicants is certain to grow as September nears. Many who might have hoped to remain in Afghanistan will think again if violence spikes. And many more will find it easier to show they’re under threat, as the programs require. 

The White House should work urgently with Congress to provide more visas. It also needs to clear the applications backlog, as courts have demanded. Advocacy organizations and the State Department’s inspector general have proposed sensible fixes, such as establishing a central database and revising unreasonable documentation requirements. The administration should provide the necessary staff, technology and resources.

Given the potential surge in demand, the White House and Pentagon also need to start considering more radical solutions. One might be to create a new humanitarian parole program similar to those used in the past for South Vietnamese, Cubans and others. Those who qualify could be airlifted to Guam or another U.S. territory and then processed for asylum or refugee status.

After much confusion about its intentions, the Biden administration has promised to raise the cap on refugees next month. That will help. It also needs to streamline the many redundant layers of vetting imposed by the previous administration. These changes would also benefit the estimated 100,000 Iraqis thought to be eligible for emigration to the U.S.

It shouldn’t need saying that the U.S. ought to keep its promises and honor its debts. The idea that Afghans and Iraqis who risked their lives to help the U.S. deserve America’s protection commands bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans who say they’re looking for ways to work together should seize on this issue as an excellent place to start.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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