Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Not Too Late to Save America’s Afghan Allies

Here are three steps the Biden administration can take today.

By , an international human rights lawyer and former U.S. State Department official.
U.S. military police walk past Afghan refugees.
U.S. military police walk past Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army base, in McCoy, Wisconsin, on Sept. 30. Barbara Davidson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Over the past two months, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been rightly criticized for its poorly planned and executed Afghanistan withdrawal. Although much of the damage may be unrecoverable, there are several known, proven, and relatively low-risk policy options the Biden administration can still adopt to fulfill its promises to rescue at-risk Afghan allies. For the most part, these options have broad bipartisan support, do not require additional funding or staff, and are within the existing legal authority possessed by executive branch agencies. It is not too late for them to change course and adopt these more effective policy and programmatic responses to the ongoing evacuation crisis, but every week delayed puts already vulnerable Afghans at greater risk.

During the initial evacuation, the U.S. State Department’s performance prompted particularly harsh criticism from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, other administration colleagues, and even career State Department personnel. More than a month after the end of the noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO), the State Department still does not know how many U.S. citizens remain in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Likewise, an unknown number of U.S. legal permanent residents and Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas (SIVs) remain stuck in Afghanistan with little support and diminishing hope.

During the NEO, inexplicable bureaucratic responses cost precious time and, ultimately, lives. Regrettably, not much has changed. Among those of us who frantically worked to rescue at-risk Afghans, it quickly became an article of faith that the State Department’s bureaucratic, risk-averse culture and tendencies were a major obstacle to U.S. efforts. Even the most well-connected groups struggled to get clear or consistent guidance from those running the NEO. Email addresses bounced back or endlessly auto-replied. Hotlines went unanswered. Instructions changed daily—sometimes hourly. Needlessly complex procedures were established only to be abandoned without notice or replacement. These problems haven’t gone away.

Over the past two months, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been rightly criticized for its poorly planned and executed Afghanistan withdrawal. Although much of the damage may be unrecoverable, there are several known, proven, and relatively low-risk policy options the Biden administration can still adopt to fulfill its promises to rescue at-risk Afghan allies. For the most part, these options have broad bipartisan support, do not require additional funding or staff, and are within the existing legal authority possessed by executive branch agencies. It is not too late for them to change course and adopt these more effective policy and programmatic responses to the ongoing evacuation crisis, but every week delayed puts already vulnerable Afghans at greater risk.

During the initial evacuation, the U.S. State Department’s performance prompted particularly harsh criticism from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, other administration colleagues, and even career State Department personnel. More than a month after the end of the noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO), the State Department still does not know how many U.S. citizens remain in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Likewise, an unknown number of U.S. legal permanent residents and Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas (SIVs) remain stuck in Afghanistan with little support and diminishing hope.

During the NEO, inexplicable bureaucratic responses cost precious time and, ultimately, lives. Regrettably, not much has changed. Among those of us who frantically worked to rescue at-risk Afghans, it quickly became an article of faith that the State Department’s bureaucratic, risk-averse culture and tendencies were a major obstacle to U.S. efforts. Even the most well-connected groups struggled to get clear or consistent guidance from those running the NEO. Email addresses bounced back or endlessly auto-replied. Hotlines went unanswered. Instructions changed daily—sometimes hourly. Needlessly complex procedures were established only to be abandoned without notice or replacement. These problems haven’t gone away.

Among the most Kafkaesque own goals in U.S. policy is the very refugee program ostensibly created to assist at-risk Afghans. Most at-risk women—including government ministers, mayors, and high-ranking civil servants—did not qualify for the special immigrant visa program. Instead, they were potentially eligible for admission under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Priority 1 or Priority 2 (P-1/P-2), which the State Department announced on Aug. 2.

When Kabul fell on Aug. 15, this program did not exist at all; today, it still exists primarily on paper. Because it is a refugee program, the P-1/P-2 process requires applicants to cross an international border before they can even apply. Pre-NEO estimates for P-1/P-2 processing were 12 to 14 months with no guarantees of resettlement, and similar programs for Iraq have faced bipartisan criticism for years. For eligible Afghans trying to flee, P-2 became a Catch-22: They could not approach Kabul’s airport or try to leave Afghanistan without a U.S. or third country visa, but they could not apply for U.S. admission until they left the country. Because they had no way to prove they were likely to be admitted to the United States, neighboring countries were understandably reluctant to issue them visas.

It did not and does not have to be this way. Over the past two months, concerned members of Congress and private evacuation coalitions have advocated several steps the Biden administration could take to address some of the most pressing short- and medium-term problems vexing its current failed strategy. These proposed solutions would facilitate ongoing evacuation efforts leveraging the strengths of the other organizations and networks that have proven they can safely, legally, and effectively manage the logistics and security of assisting at-risk Afghans. None of these proposals are particularly novel, and they have been presented to the Biden administration in a bipartisan fashion by Congress, outside experts, advocacy groups, and even career agency personnel.

Proposed solutions primarily revolve around moving to a targeted parole-based system for Afghan admissions and working with independent intermediaries to establish a pipeline for orderly evacuations of at-risk Afghans. By channeling at-risk Afghans into broken or unrealistic pipelines, the P-1/P-2 program not only puts them at further risk inside Afghanistan but also creates incentives for irregular migration (such as human trafficking) across Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and other neighbors. In addition, between 6,000 and 10,000 Afghan nationals—all of whom are SIV or P-1/P-2 eligible and known to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by virtue of referrals from trusted groups—who did escape Afghanistan are now sitting in third countries outside the system of U.S.-run “lily pads”—multi-agency processing centers established on military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Germany, and elsewhere during the NEO. These individuals are currently not being assisted in any meaningful way by either the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) or the local U.S. Embassy, and the U.S.-based groups that evacuated them—most of which have little or no experience with refugee processing—are doing their best to take care of them with local governments.

Meanwhile, those Afghans who were evacuated by U.S. military aircraft onto military bases overseas and in the United States are being automatically paroled and admitted into the United States once they pass DHS security and health screenings. Many of them would not ordinarily qualify for admission or refugee status, but through recently passed supplemental appropriations, these parolees will be eligible for refugee resettlement assistance and will ultimately be able to apply to stay in the United States. Smoothing their process is a good thing, but the disparity between the way different groups of Afghans are being treated by the U.S. government has become a source of tremendous anger and frustration among both at-risk Afghans and their allies.

As evidenced by its already liberal usage of parole, the Biden administration has existing legal authorities to create a special humanitarian parole channel for eligible Afghans. Parole, also known as “humanitarian parole” or “special public benefit parole,” is a special category of temporary, emergency admissions that is typically done on a case-by-case basis. However, in the past, the United States has created special parole programs for diverse groups like Filipino World War II veterans, Vietnamese refugees, and Central American minors. Such a channel would equalize the treatment of SIV applicants and P-1/P-2 qualified Afghans, and it would remove many of the existing bureaucratic bottlenecks and other negative incentives that hobble those programs. Replacing the current system with a parole program where the administration sets specific criteria for membership would lighten the administrative burden on already strapped agencies, allowing them to focus scarce resources on maintaining appropriately layered security vetting instead of wasting time and energy proving U.S. ties that are already well established. As a preliminary step, the special parole program should focus on processing eligible Afghans in non-lily pad third countries. These Afghans could be given the option to either stay in their current location for resettlement via the UNHCR or move to a lily pad or other appropriate site for parole processing, including mandatory health and security vetting.

In addition to requiring fewer bureaucratic resources, a special Afghan parole program would substantially reduce the current incentives for unsafe, illegal, and irregular migration out of Afghanistan. Unlike the current approach, it would allow qualified Afghans to receive some form of preliminary U.S. travel authorization prior to crossing a border. Although these individuals would still be subject to additional security and health screenings in third countries, parole would make ongoing private sector-led extraction efforts significantly easier, safer, and more likely to proceed in a legal fashion. Existing nongovernment evacuation coalitions have been advocating for this approach for months. They also have already developed eligibility and referral criteria, are identifying potential sponsors, and are building a secure database of those already vetted by qualified U.S. partners at no cost to the U.S. government.

As a complement to the parole program, the State Department should also work to augment and ultimately replace ongoing private sector evacuation efforts by supporting credible international organizations with a track record of carrying out sensitive, politically complex orderly departures in conflict areas. Specifically, they should approach the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regarding the establishment of an expanded operational presence in Afghanistan that could assist U.S. citizens and qualified at-risk Afghans with orderly departures. The ICRC is a better choice for this mission than U.N. agencies by virtue of its independent status, its humanitarian mandate, and its long-standing relationship with the Taliban.

Although the U.S. government remains the largest contributor to the ICRC and can work directly with the ICRC on further evacuation efforts, the ICRC’s humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity create valuable space between the U.S. and the Taliban. Turning departure operations over to the ICRC would push it from being openly political to being a more humanitarian domain, obviating much of the United States’ need to continue negotiating one-off departures with the Taliban or other governments—efforts that have been opaque and of questionable effectiveness to date. Working with the ICRC also avoids the vexed question of Taliban government recognition as this is not within the ICRC’s province as an international humanitarian organization.

The ICRC can cooperate in this effort with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which maintains substantial transportation logistics capabilities and receives substantial U.S. funding. Both the ICRC and IOM can issue temporary travel documents (known as laissez-passers), another major problem for current evacuation efforts. The ICRC would work with the U.S. government and its private sector coalition partners to identify qualified individuals and work with the IOM to arrange transport to a border and/or airport for onward transit to lily pad sites where they can be processed.

In addition, the U.S. government should continue to work with partners and allies willing to permanently resettle Afghan partners and allies as well as countries willing to provide transit and work with the UNHCR to surge short-term emergency assistance to those in non-lily pad settings. These efforts will be essential for dealing with latency in the system while lily pad sites are cleared to a level that will allow individuals at non-lily pad sites to be transferred, the parole program to stand up, and ICRC negotiations to expand its operational mandate in Kabul.

Together, these elements work in a complementary fashion to create a safer pipeline for potential evacuation and resettlement. Again, these are not particularly novel or original ideas; the State Department is aware of these options and, at the working level, has encouraged the compilation of vetted names, potential sponsors, and other preliminary steps toward these ends.

To date, however, these proposals reportedly remain stuck in the interagency decision-making process. Instead, the administration appears to be waiting for Congress to legislate a parole program—a time-consuming, fraught, and wholly unnecessary process. Taking these steps would not solve all of the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy problems, but they would eliminate key barriers to an improved evacuation process and empower the diverse, bipartisan coalition of U.S. citizens who are working to fulfill the nation’s promise to at-risk Afghans.

The State Department does not have the capabilities necessary to carry out this task alone. The question is whether it has the humility and political will to admit this and course correct. If the Biden administration is looking for a way to distinguish its Afghanistan policy from its predecessors, moving quickly to adopt these policies would be a good place to start. In doing so, the Biden administration could begin to restore honor to the United States’ word, turn some of its fiercest critics into partners, and renew the fading hopes of the nation’s most loyal Afghan allies.

Kelley Currie is an international human rights lawyer and former U.S. State Department official.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?