Editor’s Note: James R. Clapper Jr. is a retired US Air Force lieutenant general and the former director of national intelligence. Keith P. Saddler is a former US Army infantry officer, and currently the vice chairman on the board of directors of No One Left Behind. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
In the wake of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all US military forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, many consequences will accrue — some intended and anticipated, others perhaps unintended and unforeseen.
Among those in the second category, we can unfortunately count life-threatening jeopardy to a group of Afghans who hitched themselves literally and spiritually to the United States.
We refer specifically to the Afghans who served as translators and in many other critical capacities — including, for instance, cooks, drivers, electricians, construction workers, base security, diplomatic linguists, cultural advisers and, of course, combat interpreters — during that 20-year period.
They served faithfully and effectively at every level, from working with the senior-most US staff at headquarters to working with squads of US troops patrolling and operating “outside the wire.” They endured the same risks — including to their lives — as our troops did. In many cases, what they did made the difference between mission success or failure, and between being killed or surviving to fight another day. Over these two decades, it’s likely that thousands of US soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were saved by the service of Afghan interpreters.
Perversely, the best testament to their effectiveness may be the repeated statements by captured Taliban fighters. They stated that they always sought to kill the translators serving the US military to prevent American soldiers from communicating successfully with the local population and winning their “hearts and minds.”
Since 2014, the non-profit group No One Left Behind has documented more than 300 cases of interpreters or their family members killed because of their affiliation with the United States.
With the President’s decision to withdraw, the danger to these interpreters rises significantly.
Afghan contractors who worked with the US military have already said they’re under threat from the Taliban, as NBC reported recently. Many interpreters left their homes in rural areas for what they perceived to be the relative safety of urban areas, primarily the largest, Kabul. If the Taliban take over, as many fear, this could mean death for many of these loyal Afghans.
In 2009, Congress, recognizing both the potential threat posed to them, and America’s obligation to them, established the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program as a legitimate way for those Afghans (or others, such as Iraqis) to leave their native countries, where they were threatened, and resettle in the US. (Among the ostensibly reasonable requirements is for the potential immigrant to produce proof of loyal service and to demonstrate that he or she, and his or her family, have been targeted by the Taliban or another extremist group.)
According to the State Department’s most recent quarterly inspector general report on the program, there are nearly 11,000 SIV candidates awaiting adjudication of their applications. The information available to us is that part of last year, primarily due to Covid-19 restrictions, only one State Department employee in the US Embassy in Kabul was assigned to process these applications. We hope and trust that this situation has improved.
Applicants must navigate a complex 14-step process, which can take from three to five years to complete; applicants must produce proof of employment and a letter of recommendation from a former US supervisor who may have left Afghanistan years ago. This latter requirement — while seemingly reasonable and understandable — has itself resulted in the death of many applicants, applicants in Afghanistan have told No One Left Behind.
Processing of applications isn’t the only problem; for those who do complete the process, actually settling somewhere can also be difficult. Despite the Biden administration’s supportive rhetoric, the US government does not provide sufficient funding to securely settle the former translators and their families.
Apart from the risk to the interpreters and their families, this situation causes the credibility of the United States to be questioned — both by the interpreters and their families and by other nations, notably NATO allies who also hired translators. Both Germany and the UK, for example, have committed to enhancing their programs comparable to our SIV system. In the US, members of Congress, active and retired generals, and distinguished foreign service offices have spoken of the need to recognize our moral and ethical obligations to move quickly to authorize and resettle these loyal former employees, and at a faster clip than the current glacial pace.
Our request is twofold: for the State Department (perhaps assisted by the Department of Defense) to assign more people to process applications, and for the US government contractors who hired, and handsomely profited from the long and loyal service of their employees, to provide financial assistance to those authorized to resettle in the US.
This group of companies includes private security contractors but also firms doing other sorts of work on the ground in Afghanistan — for instance, repairing drones. Any company with a footprint in the country likely has needed local help.
An organization we think is ideally suited to lead such an effort is the Professional Services Council (PSC), which serves as an advocacy group for more than 400 US government contractors. The PSC could — and should — forge a consensus among this group of contractors which benefited from the services of these foreign employees, to help them resettle safely and securely in the United States.
This would convey a compelling message not just to the interpreters and their families — but to others as well — that the US will live up to its moral and ethical obligations. It’s an important signal to send, especially when US troops may find themselves in harm’s way in other far-flung countries in the future.
We can — and must — do the right thing here. To do otherwise is to risk the lives of a group of people who long served the United States loyally and effectively.