In this Aug. 16, 2021, file photo hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Shekib Rahmani / AP

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Slade Moore of Arrowsic is a conservation biologist who helped Afghans restore damaged rangelands, perform wildlife assessments and develop institutional capacity.

Nine years ago, I lived in Afghanistan’s Central Highlands to assist programs supporting the health and livelihoods of mountain villagers. My work would have been impossible without the Afghan colleagues who kept me safe and provided other essential services.

Now the Taliban is reportedly  targeting civilians who assisted the activities of foreign organizations, like the one my Afghan colleagues supported. With time running out, cumbersome immigration requirements and an ill-equipped evacuation effort are leaving behind most vulnerable Afghans. We must fully shift into rescue mode before it’s too late.

With the initiation in May of full U.S. force withdrawal, a shiver of foreboding rippled through Afghanistan’s citizens. The dread of a reconstituted Taliban resuming its abusive and culturally regressive policies ran especially deep among Afghans who assisted foreign military missions and non-government organizations, but also human rights activists, civil society workers, students and girls and women of all social strata. Among the most at-risk are the Hazara ethnic group, a people long persecuted by the Taliban.

During the run-up to Kabul’s fall and immediately after, the Taliban issued assurances of amnesty for citizens. Meanwhile, I was receiving firsthand reports of Taliban atrocities perpetrated upon fleeing Hazara and the Taliban’s methodical door-to-door searches for Afghans who assisted western organizations. Now, a private report to the United Nations and Amnesty International investigations provide evidence of the Taliban’s ongoing human rights abuses, including the creation of “blacklists” used to target Afghans.

These are signs that the present humanitarian crisis is poised to devolve into violent purges against targeted Afghans.

Long before all of this, the U.S. State Department initiated a Special Immigration Visa program to protect Afghans previously affiliated with the U.S. government or International Security Assistance Force. It’s estimated that the U.S. has issued 16,000 SIVs. The 18,000 still in processing likely represents only a fraction of eligible Afghans, yet the SIV program is capped at 34,500.

With more than 300,000 Afghans previously affiliated with the U.S. mission, the SIV program’s restrictive criteria left many without a path to safety. In response, the U.S. announced a Priority 2 (P-2) program for Afghans associated with media and organizations who helped civilians caught between warring parties. Like SIV, the P-2 program has its own fatal flaws, most notably that Afghans must somehow self-relocate outside of Afghanistan before their applications are processed.

The deficiencies of SIV and P-2 programs are clearly tied to their origins in a non-crisis context. Correspondingly, they possess characteristics like restrictive eligibility criteria, burdensome processing hurdles and no sense of urgency. Now, with the Taliban controlling departure points, the failings of SIV and P-2 programs have become life-threatening.

U.S. leaders must transition from reliance on immigration tools unsuited to humanitarian crises and adopt a full-on rescue mode. They must provide vulnerable Afghans with safe pathways and transport to the U.S. or abroad. Vulnerable means anyone in a group previously targeted by the Taliban, which includes anyone who worked for or aided U.S. government and non-government organizations, but also Afghan minorities, officials, human rights activists, journalists, legal professionals and girls and women of all social strata. Documentation normally required for immigration must be temporarily waived. You don’t ask passengers of a sinking ship to show their travel documents; you find them a seat in the lifeboat.  

It’s also necessary for the U.S. evacuation effort to sustain a tempo and scale consistent with its latest milestone of 21,600 evacuees flown to safety in a single 24-hour period. Similar rates of evacuation over several weeks are necessary to deliver the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Afghans from danger before it’s too late. To paraphrase President Gerald Ford’s recollection of resettling over 130,000 Vietnamese to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, to do anything less will add moral shame to humiliation.

Let’s use Ford’s lesson in humanity and resolve to dispense with misapplied immigration requirements and immediately mount a rescue mission that leaves no vulnerable Afghans behind.