Afghan refugees who fled to Kabul due to the civil war are forced by Taliban forces to return to their cities on Oct. 29, 2021.

Afghan refugees who fled to Kabul due to the civil war are forced by Taliban forces to return to their cities on Oct. 29, 2021. Getty Images / Majid Saeedi

Thousands of Afghan Refugees Await Rescue. Here’s What the US Needs to Do

Various policy changes are needed to alleviate national-security and moral harms.

The rapid fall of the Afghan government left a national-security and humanitarian mess. Thousands of American citizens and green-card holders were left stranded. Interpreters and translators who risked their lives to support American security were left behind. Much depends on getting these people to safety, including the Pentagon’s future ability to get help from local populations abroad. What is more, these individuals’ connections and relationships may be the key to any long-term influence the United States may hold in Afghanistan, and countering a resurgent Islamic State. Private groups have launched efforts to help them escape the Taliban, but these noble efforts aren’t enough. The U.S. government and broader civil society have a national security obligation to do more

These folks are in a category dubbed high-risk: religious, ethnical, and sexual minorities; human rights activists; former Afghan military; and USG assets. They face unique challenges. The Taliban are hunting them, making it harder to access basic human services. With winter approaching, freezing and starvation will grow.

Current evacuation efforts, while wonderful, focus on American citizens, green-card holders, and special immigration visa holders. The rationale is reasonable. There are about 2.2 million Afghan refugees. Judging the ethics of rescuing one refugee versus another is impossible; even if a decision can be made, the refugee may have already lost their head. Finding and focusing on the easy wins maximize the total lives saved. 

But high-risk folks deserve more attention, and the United States has several reasons to work harder to get them to safety. 

Afghan soldiers trained by the United States may become soldiers deployed by the United States. The United States can use the knowledge and experience of these folks to exert long-term influence in the country and the broader region: Afghan soldiers create opportunities for America to influence the emerging future for the country and help counter growing Islamic State activity. The United States needs local networks to support concepts like over-the-horizon targeting. Those networks provide eyes and ears to the U.S. government on adversary activities and opportunities to carry out strikes. These are also highly vetted people, many having passed polygraph tests. 

And finally, there is the risk of leaving these trained soldiers behind. Some soldiers faced with no other options to protect their family may use their SEAL-trained skills to defend the Taliban. U.S.-trained Afghan soldiers are no threat; they are an asset. 

There is also a moral obligation: the American dismantling of the Taliban government created an opportunity for women, Hazara, LGBTQ, religious minorities, and those safeguarding them to express greater freedom. Without the United States, their status—and therefore risk—would never have manifested.

It won’t be easy. High-risk targets have unique challenges. These folks may lack documentation, such as visas or passports. Although the Afghan passport office in Kabul has reportedly opened up again, these individuals may be on wanted lists, that would be triggered as soon as they provided their name and information. Even if they never made the wanted list, how would they even know without going into the office and putting their lives at risk? 

The Taliban is searching for these people. When they find them, they will be executed without trial, jury, or defense. We at Project Exodus Relief receive daily text messages from U.S.-based family members, terrified their loved ones may die tomorrow. Simply leaving the house to buy a loaf of bread or bottle of water puts them at risk. One woman, targeted by the Taliban and more than eight months pregnant, couldn’t go to the hospital because she feared being identified and her throat cut. Another family, nine Afghans of the persecuted Christian minority, hid in a shed whose owners were savagely beaten for sheltering them.

Winter is coming

Even before the Taliban took control of the country, Afghanistan experienced severe food insecurity during the winter months. This year will be much worse. Nearly 35 percent more people are expected to experience crisis or emergency-level food insecurity this winter compared to last, rising to about 55 percent of the country. The executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme has said that the country is “on a countdown to catastrophe” and may be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Only 5 percent of households even have enough to eat every day, with some of the 3.5 million internally displaced people living in camps and others wherever they can. 

All this means that the coming winter will be a death sentence for many. While the Biden administration[PB1] [ZK2]  has said they will provide some winterization and other assistance, the need to serve the millions made homeless will not be met. This is partially because travel in Afghanistan and especially during the winter months is difficult during the best of times, but with the complete collapse of Afghanistan’s economy, the government’s inability to pay its workers, and newly instituted Taliban roadblocks—it is incredibly difficult for refugees to escape. Millions are hungry, stranded, and about to face a deadly winter. 

The crisis facing high-risk Afghans cannot wait. National security and basic ethics demand a robust response to help these people. Specifically, the United States government should:

• Accelerate approval or non-objection to evacuation flights. Waiting for State Department approval has been a stumbling block for multiple groups. At minimum, the department must better explain to volunteer evacuee groups why manifests are being denied and flights cancelled. Better yet, State should adopt a default policy of non-objection: that is, people should be allowed to fly unless a national-security problem pops up during pre-flight vetting, in which case the individual or individuals should be removed and the flight allowed to proceed. 

• Expand lily pad availability. High-risk evacuees cannot leave Afghanistan unless there is space at a “lily pad”—one of several locations outside of the United States where refugees can wait in safety for visa processing to the United States, such as the al-Udied base in Qatar. Expanding capacity may require the United States to offer carrots to regional partners to offset any costs and risk they accept. 

• Accelerate visa processing. When high-risk people are waiting for visas, they are a drain on resources that could otherwise be put toward getting more people out. Congress should pass an Afghan Adjustment Act to allow evacuees to adjust their status to apply for long-term permanent residence. 

• Create new SIV categories. A dedicated visa category to accommodate high-risk refugees, such as Afghanistan special operations forces and other at-risk people allow additional paths through the system. The U.S. immigration system is already a labyrinth, with about 185 visa categories. Adding one more poses little harm. 

Better support volunteer efforts. The U.S. government needs to better support, not inhibit, evacuation efforts. Public signaling, such as the White House’s overt support for collaborating with and supporting evacuation efforts, is admirable and noteworthy. However, public statements must be matched with quieter efforts to expand multi-organization evacuation efforts such as the #AfghanEvac coalition, identify and work to mitigate common challenges, and accelerate the overall evacuation process. 

• Use humanitarian parole funds to hire staff and fund flights. Humanitarian parole applications that allow refugees to enter the United States in an emergency requires a $575 fee. Project ANAR, an advocacy and resource network for Afghan refugees, claims to have filed 20,000-plus applications alone, resulting in more than $11.5 million in fees. These funds should be redirected to hire temporary staff, federal or contract as appropriate, to accelerate visa processing. The fees should also be used to fund additional flights to evacuate high-risk people.

• Develop mitigation plans. Volunteer efforts largely drive the effort to evacuate refugees from Afghanistan. These noble folks also have other commitments to friends, job, and simple life. The effort cannot be sustained indefinitely. The United States should develop plans for what happens if those efforts diminish, or even disappear. The country has a responsibility to support those put in death’s path to defend it.

High-risk refugees do not have years to wait their turn for a flight, escape route, and a cumbersome bureaucratic process. These sons, daughters, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas may die in days. 

The authors thank Tommy Breedlove for providing input. The views expressed are those of the authors alone, and not any current or former funder, affiliate, or employer. 

Mike Edwards is the Founder of Project Exodus Relief. 

Zak Kallenborn is the Master Coordination Director for Project Exodus Relief.