On Tuesday the Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) without an increase in visas for Afghans who supported U.S. troops in battle. The problem is that these allies of the U.S. military were already promised refuge in America if they were threatened, and they and their families are now being targeted.
Debate on the more than 500 amendments to the annual spending bill was blocked, and the visa increase was left out of the final version. This was the wrong decision. It disrupts our ability to fight the enemy effectively, and puts the estimated 10,000 Afghans and their family members awaiting visas in a tremendously perilous position.
Thousands of local Afghans worked alongside U.S. troops by translating for them, helping work with local populations, and providing intimate on-the-ground knowledge of villages and cities. They were, in the words of Senator McCain, “essential to battlefield success.”
In exchange for a year of their faithful service to the U.S. government, they were promised visas for themselves and their families, and refuge in America if they were targeted by the Taliban or other groups. This simple agreement helped the war effort, and claimed bipartisan support in Congress.
But this year’s NDAA deliberations in the House didn’t include an increase in visas to continue bringing over the 10,000 Afghans that are still being processed. Without any increase in total visas and with new restrictions for applying, the program is basically defunct for those already in line.
The Senate version wasn’t much better. Senator Chuck Grassley blocked visa additions in the Senate Armed Services Committee markup last month. And without amendments, the 85-13 vote closes the door on the program during these negotiations.
There will be drastic implications without a well-functioning visa program for our military allies.
First, the human toll will likely be staggering. Examples of Afghans being tortured and killed for their service are tragically commonplace. This is why resettling our allies here in the United States is essential.
Second, this forces the U.S. military to basically turn its back on the allies that helped us in battle. It sends the message that America will not honor its promises. The credibility of the American military, in the place that needs it most, will take a hit.
Third, current operations require translators and allies to provide information about the local culture. Local allies are invaluable. If we cannot guarantee the safety of allies and their families, the interest in helping America diminishes. And without that on-the-ground help, our ability to conduct our missions falters, subsequently producing national security risks.
Two U.S. soldiers that fought in Afghanistan wrote in Politico last month that cutting off the SIV program“will cost us our moral credibility and hurt U.S. military operations for years to come.”
Moreover, the top American commander in Afghanistan endorses the program.
Senators McCain and Shaheen lead the bipartisan effort to preserve this vital program through the end of 2017, increase the number of available visas, and save the lives of American allies and their families. The amendment was going to be taken up individually, but was halted when Senator Mike Lee objected and wanted a vote on his own amendment as well.
The opposition argued that there are possible security risks with resettling these Afghans.
But the individuals in question are the friends, confidantes, and colleagues of American soldiers. They are not threats. They risked death daily on behalf of the American government. They were hired by the U.S. military, screened by various intelligence agencies, underwent a security check every six months, and were again approved and vetted before arrival in the United States.
Moreover, a SIV application requires sign-off from the U.S. troops that were with the ally on the ground.
No program is without any risk, but those who have put their life on the line to help the U.S. and pass security clearance deserve to call the U.S. home.
Senator Jeff Sessions argued taking in more of our allies would result in a brain-drain in Afghanistan.
But the brain drain argument holds little water considering the only alternative of escape for these Afghans is to go into hiding. Abandoning them won’t help Afghanistan; it will just undermine future efforts to win future allies on the ground.
Congress has a decision to make: it can honor its promises to our allies or set the dangerous precedent that our friends around the globe can’t trust the word of the U.S. military.