As the U.S. military is almost out of Afghanistan, and the Afghan government seems unable to fend off the Taliban onslaught, the fate of thousands of locals who fought alongside and helped American and Coalition forces looks dire.
The Pentagon and State Department have launched Operation Allies Refuge, an attempt to evacuate the approximately 18,000 Afghan interpreters, contractors, and security guards, and their 53,000 family members who have applied for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program by the end of the month. But once out of the country, their ordeal will not be over, as their SIV applications will still need to be approved for them to relocate to the U.S.
Several organizations have sprung up to advocate for the Afghan allies’ cause. No One Left Behind is one of those efforts. No One Left Behind has been leading the push to reform the SIV process and providing financial services and even job placement for SIV recipients and their families when they arrive in the U.S. In addition, the organization has been working with Congress and the current Administration to precipitate the evacuation of affected Afghans.
Another group that is helping in the effort is Combined Arms, a veteran group that serves as a one-stop shop for veterans, providing a full spectrum of services and opportunities to those transitioning off of active duty. Located in Houston, Texas, Combined Arms is slowly expanding across the U.S.
Sandboxx News spoke with special operations veterans from across the community who have fought alongside these Afghans to get their thoughts on the situation, and what we can all be doing to help.
No One Left Behind
Afghan interpreters have been key in U.S. and Coalition operations since the start of the war back in September of 2001. Attached to conventional and special operations units, these Afghans served as a bridge between the troops and the locals.
“I was virtually traveling every day around Afghanistan with our forces and in meetings with Afghan partners and what these interpreters did for me for me was invaluable,” General Joseph Votel (retired), a former commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), told Sandboxx News.
“It wasn’t just so much about the language aspects, certainly an important piece of it, but also of being able to translate and communicate effectively.”
“From my personal experience and perspective, working with Afghan interpreters has always been an incredibly affirming experience. They clearly understand and appreciate what the Coalition is attempting to achieve in Afghanistan, helping the Afghan people create an inclusive and representative society for all people,” Lieutenant Colonel Doug Livermore, a Green Beret serving in a National Guard Special Forces Group, told Sandboxx News.
“I found my Afghan interpreters to be some of the most earnest, enthusiastic people who deeply loved their families and only wanted the best for Afghanistan and its people. There are many whom I would trust with my life, and did, without hesitation.”
Whether they were back in headquarters, translating between senior officers and Afghan elders, or in the field with the troops, the Afghan interpreters were often invaluable to the mission, and to their teammates.
“They are incredible people. Every interpreter I worked with was experienced and went above and beyond to put us in the best position to be successful. We became friends during the 7 months I was there,” Zach Asmus, a former Air Force Combat Controller, told Sandboxx News.
“We talked about our families, what we would do after the war, etc. They become part of your team and it’s no longer an ‘us’ or ‘them’ mentality when you are fighting a common enemy. So now, as the war is ending, many veterans, like me, feel like we are leaving our friends behind with targets on their backs.”
But despite the Administration’s and the State Department’s renewed efforts, time is running out for the Afghan allies and their families.
Targeting Afghan interpreters and their families is nothing new. For years, the Taliban have sought to frustrate U.S. and Coalition military efforts by killing interpreters, thus restricting the ability of American and allied troops to effectively communicate with the locals and alienating them in the process. Reports of retaliation against former and current interpreters are increasing, with some culminating in public beheadings.
“We made a promise to our friends in Afghanistan that if they helped us bridge the language and culture barrier that we would offer them a way out of there if they chose it. And don’t get me wrong, the SIV program can work, but it’s taking too long. These guys don’t have another day to spare, let alone 5 years of red tape,” Asmus explained.
“I talked to a gentleman who sent over 100 emails to the state department only clarifying a date on one section of his application. 100 emails. As we withdraw, no one has time for that sort of bureaucracy. The Taliban are literally knocking on the doors of these villages and executing or threatening anyone who served with coalition forces.”
The Day After
But relocating America’s Afghan allies to the States with a SIV isn’t the end. They need to be productive members of society once they arrive. Like anyone, they’ll need to have the opportunity to realize their full potential in order to find a fulfilling life on the other side of this war.
“Normally, when an Afghan ally is resettled in the U.S., they do so through the SIV program. When they arrive, they are immediately assisted by a refugee resettlement agency,” Cress Clippard, Marine Corps veteran and community group leader of the SIVs and Allies Group at Combined Arms, told Sandboxx News.
“They provide all of their basic needs for a few months and help them get culturally oriented. They sign them up for ESL classes, help with getting a driver’s license, and other basic things newcomers need. Because of their military connection, our group provides supplementary help alongside the refugee agencies. We connect them to additional resources from veteran organizations.”
These Afghans and their families can become productive members of society. But they also need some support once they arrive.
“Just getting them out isn’t enough. Once they get to America, we have to support them in getting used to our culture, involving them in veteran organizations, and getting them upskilled in order to get good jobs,” Asmus added.
“I can’t tell you how many amazing interpreters are stuck doing part-time warehousing work. We’re talking about guys that were trusted at the highest levels of both governments to organize the AV setups for international meetings and broadcasts, were doctors, have Master’s degrees, etc. So once we get everyone out of there, our next mission is to get them the resources and recognition they deserve here at home.”
Relocated Afghans who become Americans can offer great value to America’s national security apparatus. Besides their language skills and cultural expertise, for the majority, these are battle-hardened people who have fought for years against a determined enemy. Their skills could be valuable to the U.S. military and Intelligence Community in a wide variety of roles.
“Evacuating the Afghan SIV applicants and their families serves a national security imperative. These applicants and their families bring valuable experiences, skills, and awesome potential to add to the fabric of American society,” Livermore said.
But it’s only the fate of Afghans and their families on the line. America’s reputation is also at stake. Votel likens the current situation to America’s efforts to relocate Vietnamese refugees in 1975. Growing up in St. Paul, the future general watched as the Vietnamese population became an important part of their new American community.
“When you see the influence they have here, it makes you think of America doing the right thing, even in the wake of a disaster like Vietnam was. We did the right thing. We stood by people that stood by us, that were going to be persecuted because of their association and support to us. We brought them to our country and then made them part of our society,” General Votel added.
“Keep pressure on the administration to get this done, to do this right, to follow through on our promises. This, I think, is the most important thing: It’s critical that we keep this at the front of the discussion here in the eyes of our political leadership. It’s really important.”