In this 2009 photo, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jared Tomberlin, left, and an interpreter pull security on top of a mountain ridge during a reconnaissance mission near Forward Operating Base Lane in the Zabul province of Afghanistan.

In this 2009 photo, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jared Tomberlin, left, and an interpreter pull security on top of a mountain ridge during a reconnaissance mission near Forward Operating Base Lane in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. DoD / Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army

‘Guam or Bust’: America’s Helpers May Need a Halfway Destination as Afghanistan Pullout Nears

Lawmakers want more visas for interpreters and their families, but time is running out for anything but a hasty evacuation.

Updated: May 20, 4:06 p.m.

Bipartisan support is growing in Congress to expand the program to bring Afghans who helped American troops to the United States, but advocates say it’s too late to rely on the visa program to save allies threatened by the Taliban. 

With just 114 days until the U.S. military fully withdraws from Afghanistan, there is not enough time to approve Special Immigrant Visas for the thousands of Afghans who worked as translators for American troops during the war, no matter how much the program is expedited or how many additional visas are approved, two advocates tell Defense One. Instead, they say, it’s time for U.S. officials to airlift these Afghans and their families to an American territory to keep them safe from the Taliban.

“Fixing the Special Immigrant Visa process is important, but it’s not sufficient to address the immediate crisis we see today. We do not have time to fix the SIV process before we withdraw,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., told Defense One. “We need to evacuate our Afghan allies and friends before they are slaughtered in the wake of our departure. 

So far, the Biden administration has put forward no plan to protect those who helped U.S. troops, even under pointed questioning from members of Congress this week.

“This is a bipartisan win for the administration. I don’t understand why they’re not doing it,” said Christopher Purdy, a project manager at Veterans for American Ideals. “They seem to be very interested in doing the right thing on immigration. Here you have a situation where Republicans and Democrats are calling for drastic action. Why would you not do that?” 

On Wednesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, sent a bipartisan letter asking President Joe Biden to authorize 20,000 additional visas for fiscal 2022. The letter also asks the administration to consider evacuating the translators. 

But, Purdy said, “those visas are worthless if the people are dead...It has to be viewed as an ‘and.’ We need more visas and people need to be somewhere to be safely and securely processed.”

The Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghanistan, which was authorized in the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, allows Afghans who helped American troops as translators to bring their families to the United States. Many of these Afghans face threats from the Taliban if they stay in the country because of their support of America. 

The government has allocated 26,500 visas since the program began, according to the State Department.  

Even if the State Department increased the number of available visas and surged staff to process applications, Purdy said, it would not be enough to take care of every translator and their family in the short time remaining before America completely withdraws.

“The only solution at this point is an evacuation of every American-affiliated Afghan…to an American territory where they can be safely, securely, and efficiently processed for visas,” he said.  

Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconstruction, did not have an answer on Tuesday when lawmakers at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing repeatedly asked him how many more Afghan translators needed help getting out of the country.

“To expand that capability to function appropriately, you need to know how many people you expect,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., an Army veteran, said in frustration.

About 18,000 translators and interpreters who applied to the program are currently awaiting approval, said Matthew Zeller, a co-founder of No One Left Behind

On average, translators bring three people with them to America, typically a spouse and two children. That means there are likely more than 70,000 people waiting on a decision who “are going to be murdered if we don’t get them out of Afghanistan right now,” Zeller said. 

Zeller estimated it will take more than 300 flights on military aircraft to move all of these people out of Afghanistan. If the military started flying them out right now, it would require about three flights per day until the Sept. 11 deadline. But if the military is aiming to complete its withdrawal by July 4, as some reports indicate, the evacuation would require seven flights per day.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he doesn’t know “how we can do it by September,” and acknowledged at Tuesday’s hearing that the administration may need to airlift Afghans to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Kuwait while their applications are processed. 

Sending Afghans to a foreign country, however, will require the administration to negotiate landing agreements with other nations. 

Zeller said Guam is the best place to send people. Using an American territory eliminates the need to negotiate with other nations. Indeed, the United States sent refugees to the Pacific island to await visa processing after the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War

“We’re out of options. The time to save these people with the [Special Immigrant Visa] program is the 13 years it’s existed,” Zeller said. “We’re out of time. It’s Guam or bust.”

Moulton agreed Guam is an “obvious” option because it’s been used to evacuate refugees of past wars, but said he’s also open to other options. 

“Ultimately, the best place is anywhere that isn’t Afghanistan,” he said.

Khalilzad told lawmakers he’s worried about the optics of evacuating Afghan allies as American forces withdraw.

“We don’t want to signal panic and the departure of all educated Afghans by worst-casing and undermining the morale of the Afghan security forces, so this is a delicate, complicated balance that we have to keep,” he said. 

But Zeller said breaking promises to protect those who served alongside Americans will deprive U.S. troops of local assistance in future conflicts. 

Few will try to help the United States if they see “American friendship as a death sentence,” he said. “What’s worse, the optics of an evacuation or a genocide?”