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Lionel Rosenblatt is a retired Foreign Service officer and NGO official. He was a Bangor Daily News reporter in 1973-74.
The good news about the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul is that it is still remembered, despite the enormous important distractions of Ukraine, Taiwan-China and the steam from our country’s political pressure-cooker. Yet, sadly, our Afghan associates and others who relied on sustained American interest and protection remain, in effect, abandoned.
Two U.S. administrations bear primary responsibility for the chaotic demise of Afghanistan. The Trump Administration negotiated the Doha agreement, which failed to include the Afghan government. President Donald Trump’s assistant, Stephen Miller, added complicating layers, which constricted the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process for Afghans who had worked in combat with the U.S. military.
Then, the Biden Administration failed to prioritize U.S. obligations toward SIV applicants and other Afghans who had relied on the U.S. presence and who would be exposed to a high risk of retaliation by the Taliban. A year later, it is hauntingly clear that the Taliban are hunting down our former associates.
Foreign policy and military experts have continued to criticize the Biden administration for the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but they note that the situation does not have to be dishonorable. There is still an opportunity for the president to redeem American honor by putting in place an action plan to address our Afghan allies left behind. Here is what he should do:
Appoint a senior, well-known personality to manage this problem with an interagency mandate and direct authority from the president. In the final weeks of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, it was the designation of Ambassador L. Dean Brown as director of the President’s Interagency Task Force that finally jump-started the bureaucracy after weeks of spade work at lower levels of the U.S. government.
The Biden administration should provide a clear tally of the status of all Afghans with close ties to the U.S. who have departed from Afghanistan in 2021 and 2022 to date and the count of American associates left behind in Afghanistan, including employees of the U.S. government, SIV holders and other cases at especially high risk (including women leaders). This should put an end to the disgraceful dissembling on Afghan refugee numbers by the spokesmen and senior officials at the National Security Council, State Department and Defense Department.
Delineate the populations of Afghans in so-called “lily pad” countries from where they are still en route to the U.S. and other resettlement countries; formulate an action checklist to address the end-game strategy for each of the refugee populations.
The U.S. should make a priority effort to establish an orderly departure program direct from Afghanistan for those most vulnerable owing to their service on behalf of America. In the case of Vietnam an orderly departure program was launched without diplomatic recognition. Eventually several hundred thousand Vietnamese took advantage of this safe way to reach the United States. Considering that the Taliban are hunting down our Afghan former associates, an orderly departure program will be challenging to achieve, but should be attempted.
The Afghans fortunate to be evacuated to the U.S. have been left to drift without a route to permanent status. The Biden administration and Congress must work together to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which will give Afghan refugees a path to permanent residency (a pathway already available to Ukrainian refugees).
Recognizing our responsibility for Afghans at risk because of their work on the U.S. side, is not only the right way forward, but also, even a year later, will finally restore essential credibility that the U.S. does fulfill its obligations to its allies. And veterans and other Americans working relentlessly to assist Afghans will be able to finally rest knowing that the nation backs their commitment to their counterparts.
As it has done at historic junctures in the past, the Maine congressional delegation could play a galvanizing role to ensure that the president and the Congress do not abandon our Afghan allies.