Editor’s Note: Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the president and chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She previously served as a senior adviser at the State Department and as a policy director in the Obama administration. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Sohail Pardis was on his way to pick up his sister in Afghanistan’s Khost province for the upcoming Eid celebrations marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. What was supposed to be a joyous occasion turned into a horrific nightmare as he reached a Taliban-controlled checkpoint along his route to Kabul. As CNN reported Friday, villagers witnessed Taliban militants drag Pardis out of the vehicle and behead him.
This abhorrent act of violence was far from random – Pardis was one of the thousands of Afghan interpreters and allies who served alongside US personnel during two decades of war in Afghanistan. As a result, they and their family members live in constant fear of persecution, torture, and murder at the hands of a vengeful Taliban with growing power as the American withdrawal reaches 95% completion.
Pardis’ ruthless killing underscores the need for urgent and bold action to protect allies who President Joe Biden swore would be given a home in the US if they wanted one. Months of advocacy from refugee advocates, veterans, human rights organizations and legislators have moved the administration toward an evacuation, albeit with less urgency and decisiveness than the situation has warranted.
“Operation Allies Refuge,” as the Biden administration has dubbed the effort, will first relocate approximately 700 Afghan allies along with their families – about 2,500 in all – who are in the final steps of the visa application process to Fort Lee, Virginia to complete processing stateside.
While the administration has not released a comprehensive plan, it is reportedly considering relocating approximately 4,000 additional applicants and their families to US military bases overseas – possibly in Qatar and Kuwait, countries that are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, and therefore not bound to non-refoulement, the bedrock principle that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This could lead to situations where an applicant is erroneously denied and sent back to what could very well amount to a death sentence in Afghanistan.
Evacuating these 4,700 applicants is a welcome first step, but this figure represents approximately 25% of the total 18,000 Afghan applicants still languishing in the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application process. It remains to be seen how the administration intends to keep its promise of protection to this vast majority of applicants with no imminent hope of reprieve from the growing Taliban threat.
While operational security is of the utmost importance, the administration must address a myriad of outstanding concerns. Perhaps the most pressing is how officials intend to safely evacuate those who do not live in Kabul. According to a recent survey, nearly 50% of America’s Afghan allies do not live in the capital, where the only secure airfield for evacuation flights is located. They will most assuredly be forced to travel by car through the Taliban-controlled checkpoints that stand between them and safety.
Pardis’ barbaric murder represents a tragic example of allies left behind and in harm’s way because of how the law defines who is worthy of protection. Currently, eligibility requirements for the SIV program mandate two years of service for, or on behalf of, the US government. There are countless additional would-be applicants in desperate need of protection who do not meet this standard, including Pardis, who served as an interpreter for 16 months. And yet, the Taliban does not distinguish between those who supported America for two months or two years.
With so many lives on the line, Congress must move quickly to modify burdensome requirements for allies. Fortunately, there is broad bipartisan consensus on the issue, as evidenced by the House of Representatives’ overwhelming support in passing the ALLIES Act last week. It is critical that the Senate swiftly advance parallel legislation, such as bills proposed by Sens. Patrick Leahy and Jeanne Shaheen, both of which would lower the work duration requirement from two years to one, streamline the application process, allow for the resettlement of family members of deceased applicants, and increase the program’s visa cap.
The sad truth is that our nation should have acted months ago when we had the resources and personnel on the ground to respond to this humanitarian imperative. The next best time for bold leadership is now.
We must do everything in our power to quickly relocate each and every ally to US territory, where they can be processed, vetted, and cared for humanely – and where their human rights will be upheld by international and domestic law. Evacuating and welcoming those who sacrificed on our behalf is a sacred and strategic act we have turned to through decades of modern warfare, from airlifts of Vietnamese to Albanian Kosovars to Iraqi Kurdish allies.
We may not always remember our history, but history will certainly remember us – especially the way we leave Afghanistan, and who we bring with us.