“How many more lives, American lives, is it worth?” President Biden asked the American public this week, defending his administration’s reckless abandonment of Afghanistan. But what about those Afghans who risked their lives to protect our soldiers, contractors, and embassy personnel? Are their lives not worth something? We are the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. Can we really do nothing to evacuate those who stood with us for twenty years?
What good does it do to have 6000 well-armed soldiers on the tarmac of Hamid Karzai International Airport when the people they are supposed to help leave are being beaten back on the streets of Kabul? There will be plenty of time to assess who was to blame in this fiasco—and resignations should come—but our duty now is to get as many people out as we can, even if it means risking American casualties.
We have a limited amount of time to accomplish the task. But the military assures us that we can fly as many as 9,000 people out daily. We can’t possibly check papers, do security checks, or even demand passports from those seeking safe transit—news reports suggest that many Afghans who had begun the process of applying for the Special Immigrant Visas had their paperwork, including passports, destroyed when we abandoned our embassy. The vetting that would normally take place in country will have to be handled once the Afghans arrive safely in third-party countries like Qatar, Albania, and Kosovo, where discussions are underway to house them temporarily. An operation this big—we are looking at some 80,000 or more people, including dependents of those who worked directly or indirectly for the U.S. government—will require resources and personnel working round the clock. But there are also organizations who are willing to help: non-governmental agencies, churches, mosques, civic groups.
This is not the first influx of tens of thousands of refugees the United States has dealt with. When Vietnamese whom we’d left behind started fleeing their homeland after the Vietnam War, we managed to evacuate 125,000 in fast order, and over the next 15 years successfully admitted 500,000 such refugees. I saw this first-hand in 1978 when two brothers who had fled Vietnam by boat came to live with me for a short time. I picked up the scared young men at Dulles Airport, clad in short-sleeve shirts, khakis, and flip flops, despite the freezing weather. Like so many of their contemporaries, these men went on to lead exemplary lives, acquiring education, becoming citizens, and contributing to their communities and the country. One of them recently retired from a career as an FBI computer specialist.
There is no reason we cannot do the same thing for these Afghans.
The politics of admitting Afghan refugees will not be easy. Already, the trolls at Fox News are warning of invading hordes. But neither was admitting so many Vietnamese. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter doubled the number of Southeast Asian refugees the United States admitted. As one of those refugees wrote four decades years later: “A poll from CBS and The New York Times showed that 62% of Americans disapproved. He did it anyway.” And so should President Biden.