Nearly 18,000 Afghans who served alongside U.S. troops are waiting for their Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to be processed before the U.S. withdrawal of American troops is completed any day now. Now, America urgently needs a faster path to safety for these 18,000 Afghans who remain in limbo.
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“As long as I am alive and breathing, you will be okay,” Ghulam exclaimed as he pulled Jawad out of the mangled U.S. army vehicle. They had trained for a scenario such as this many times before, but neither expected it would become their reality. Jawad, a linguist for the 82nd Airborne, had been trapped inside the very vehicle meant to protect him. He was bleeding badly and in shock. The unexpected IED strike killed Jawad’s co-passenger, and had it not been for Ghulam, Jawad might have experienced the same fate.
It would have been easy to panic, but Ghulam remained calm and even encouraging throughout. In Jawad’s words, he acted as a “true brother,” kindly laughing at Jawad’s fear and then giving him bravery and courage despite the grim circumstances. They had a job to do. There were three more sites to secure, three more IEDs to deal with. They needed to keep the Taliban at bay until reinforcements arrived. Jawad was medevac’d via Blackhawk helicopter to Lagman Hospital where he’d spend a month before making a full recovery. Ghulam had saved his life. By all accounts, he was a hero.
For 10 years, Ghulam served alongside the U.S. military in countless battles before making the difficult decision to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to come to the United States. Like so many Afghans and Iraqis who have dedicated their lives to serving our military efforts, this was a life-or-death decision for Ghulam. With more than 17,000 Afghans in the SIV pipeline, he knew obtaining a visa wouldn’t be easy. However, he hoped for a life free from combat where he could get married and have children. After all, he’d remained in contact with men like Jawad who had successfully come to the U.S. under the SIV program. Ghulam was never able to experience the life free from war he longed for. The extended screenings and waiting process proved fatal. This summer, Ghulam was killed by a Taliban-placed IED on the same stretch of road where he’d previously rescued Jawad.
From October 2016 through September 2017, the U.S. granted SIV status to 19,321 individuals from Afghanistan who had served the U.S. military. From October 2017 through September 2018, SIV arrivals were cut to just 9,953—less than half of the arrivals compared to the previous year. When asked about the drastic reduction in visas being issued, a Department of Homeland Security official said that “new vetting procedures to close security gaps and a more risk-based approach” had been implemented. This was after former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson directed American embassies to double down on visas and “increase scrutiny of visa applicants for potential security and non-security ineligibilities.” It is currently estimated that one SIV applicant is killed every 36 hours of fighting against terrorism in support of U.S. troops.
Though the security of America is the top priority in our policy and decision-making processes, we must also keep our political promises. When Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, we promised personal protection to Afghan nationals in exchange for their service and assistance of U.S. military actions within the country. Some of these roles consist of linguists, engineers, cultural advisors and soldiers. According to Scott Cooper, Director of National Security Outreach for Human Rights First, their participation remains vital for our intelligence collection efforts and the continued pursuit of peace in the region.
We must do better, balancing compassion and national security, as we remember those who have served alongside us. In January 2018, Jawad became World Relief Sacramento’s Afghan Cultural Advisor, acting as a liaison between staff and the refugees and immigrants we serve. He remains in contact with many of his “friends and brothers” who are still in Afghanistan waiting for their visas to be processed and the chance to experience what Ghulam had hoped for: a life of peace.