Biden must honor pledge to help US allies in Afghanistan

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Conservative Opinion

Katherine Zimmerman

Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
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The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan marked a major win for the U.S. But as we approach the first anniversary of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, nearly 70,000 our our Afghan allies remain trapped. President Biden’s pledge to help U.S. allies in Afghanistan has gone unfulfilled. Straight Arrow News contributor Katherine Zimmerman says the U.S. must make things right, and Biden must honor his pledge to help U.S. allies.

Accelerating the adjudication of our Afghan allies’ cases is a step forward but more needs to be done. Too stringent application of U.S. laws regarding support for terrorism, a complicated, cumbersome visa application, and slow processing has stranded those who helped U.S. soldiers and diplomats.

Meanwhile, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan is trending the wrong way. Counterterrorism pressure has lifted. The Islamic State has strengthened and expanded its attack range to neighboring Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It leads an insurgency against the Taliban and actively recruits from marginalized Afghan groups. Al- Qaeda remains close to the Taliban and enjoys relaxed pressure to communicate more freely with followers, and begins to train new recruits. The Taliban’s minimal restrictions on Al-Qaeda are expected to loosen further over time.

The “over-the-horizon” approach briefs well—the United States has exquisite targeting capabilities—but remains hollow upon closer examination. Everywhere else in the world where the United States is conducting counterterrorism operations, the U.S. military works directly with partners on the ground and can use nearby drone bases to sustain pressure on Al-Qaeda and Islamic State networks. In and around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, America’s lack of local support and infrastructure forestalls effective counterterrorism.

Any counterterrorism operation requires good intelligence. Discussions of the current U.S. intelligence picture have rightfully remained behind closed doors. But the local intelligence networks that illuminated threats for the United States have disintegrated, and satellite pictures and technology can only go so far. Potential counterterrorism partners in neighboring states may have parts of the picture, but those relationships—if they exist—are still forming.

Counterterrorism operations also require access. Afghanistan’s distance from U.S. military bases is a problem. Geopolitical realities—namely strong Russian influence—almost certainly preclude basing in Central Asian states. Currently, the United States relies on Pakistan to allow overflight of drones flown from the Gulf.

U.S. officials are actively courting partners in the region, but any such relationship will take time to develop, time the terrorists will also make good use of. We should commemorate the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by remembering the sacrifices of Americans, Afghans, and other allies, but also by ensuring that their sacrifice has not been in vain. One such way is for the President to deliver on the promise he made a year ago: Secure protection for our Afghan partners and keep Americans safe.

Afghans are marking one year under Taliban rule. One year since the calamitous US withdrawal led to chaos in the capital, Kabul, and the return of the Taliban government. President Biden made a promise to the American people and to those who served as our allies in Afghanistan. His administration would leave no one behind and a so-called over-the-horizon counterterrorism approach would keep Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist sanctuary again.

More than 67 thousand Afghans who worked side-by-side with Americans remain trapped despite promises and reassurances that we would not abandon them. The Special Immigrant Visa program, enacted in 2009 by Congress to bring America’s Afghan allies to the United States, has been plagued by delays and backlogs. The process slowed under the Trump administration due to additional vetting requirements. The Covid-19 pandemic introduced new roadblocks to accelerating visa processing, though the State Department displayed little creativity in devising workarounds once the world moved beyond the initial pandemic disruption. 

In summer 2021, the State Department announced a second pathway for Afghans—Priority 2—to enable Afghan partners who did not meet strict SIV requirements to leave. Those eligible for Priority 2 visas were primarily contractors for US government-funded programs or worked for US organizations, especially US media companies and NGOs, rather than being direct US-government employees.

Even after the fall of Kabul, Afghans continued to experience visa delays while the Taliban hunted down US collaborators. Only this summer did the US government ease some of the requirements that blocked Afghans from receiving their visas. Previously, anyone who had paid the Taliban regime to pass through a security checkpoint or for a public service, like getting a passport to travel, was deemed ineligible for a visa on the grounds of support to a terrorist organization. The same applied to those who had worked as low-level civil servants under the Taliban regime from 1996 through 2001 and after August 2021. The Department of Homeland Security announced exemptions in June this year to prevent the automatic disqualification of those Afghans who had had to interact with the Taliban in their daily life. 

In July, the State Department announced that it was further streamlining the SIV program by eliminating a lengthy form that previously had to be filed separately. Eliminating the extra form should save about a month in visa processing time, according to US officials. But for some applicants, the process has already taken years. Afghans pursuing other ways to enter the United States also face bureaucratic red tape. As of March, over 44 thousand Afghans applied for humanitarian parole status. Only 200 received it and over 2000 were denied it.

Accelerating the adjudication of our Afghan allies’ cases is a step forward but more needs to be done. Too stringent application of US laws regarding support for terrorism, a complicated, cumbersome visa application, and slow processing has stranded those who helped US soldiers and diplomats.

Meanwhile, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan is trending the wrong way. Counterterrorism pressure has lifted. The Islamic State has strengthened and expanded its attack range to neighboring Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It leads an insurgency against the Taliban and actively recruits from marginalized Afghan groups. Al Qaeda remains close to the Taliban and enjoys relaxed pressure to communicate more freely with followers and begin to train new recruits. The Taliban’s minimal restrictions on al Qaeda are expected to loosen further over time.

The “over-the-horizon” approach briefs well—the United States has exquisite targeting capabilities—but remains hollow upon closer examination.

Everywhere else in the world where the United States is conducting counterterrorism operations, the US military works directly with partners on the ground and can use nearby drone bases to sustain pressure on al Qaeda and Islamic State networks. In and around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, America’s lack of local support and infrastructure forestalls effective counterterrorism.

Any counterterrorism operation requires good intelligence. Discussions of the current US intelligence picture have rightfully remained behind closed doors. But the local intelligence networks that illuminated threats for the United States have disintegrated, and satellite pictures and technology can only go so far. Potential counterterrorism partners in neighboring states may have parts of the picture, but those relationships—if they exist—are still forming.

Counterterrorism operations also require access. Afghanistan’s distance from US military bases is a problem. Geopolitical realities—namely strong Russian influence—almost certainly preclude basing in Central Asian states. Currently, the United States relies on Pakistan to allow overflight of drones flown from the Gulf.

US officials are actively courting partners in the region, but any such relationship will take time to develop, time the terrorists will also make good use of.

We should commemorate the one-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by remembering the sacrifices of Americans, Afghans, and other allies, but also by ensuring that their sacrifice has not been in vain. One such way is for the President to deliver on the promise he made a year ago. Secure protection for our Afghan partners and keep Americans safe.