Editor’s Note: Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College. Sediq Seddiqi is an Afghan social scientist and researcher with Assess Transform Reach Consulting. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors. View more opinions on CNN.
President Joe Biden’s confirmation that the US is preparing to evacuate Afghans who have worked in support of the American presence in their country has done little to reassure many of them. The announcement late last month suggests that the administration is starting to grasp the consequences of withdrawing on Afghan civilians. But for most Afghans who supported the US presence and who now face being targeted by the Taliban this haphazard process has thrown their lives into further chaos.
While the Special Immigrant Visa program was set up to provide visas for translators and others of the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States in Afghanistan, its process does not move fast enough to save many of their lives if they have to remain in the country while their application is considered. So, instead, the US now says it will evacuate many of these Afghans while they wait.
Although this may appear like a step in the right direction, the announcement raised more questions than it answered: Will those evacuated eventually be allowed into the US or will they have to remain in some third country? There are reports mentioning Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Guam, but how will it be determined who qualifies? Can they bring family? When will it begin, with troops on pace to be gone by August?
For many Afghans who worked for the US or simply supported the ideals the Americans brought with them, these questions are a matter of life or death. The announcement implies that the Biden administration does not have faith in the Afghan government to protect its own civilians, and is not inclined to expend the diplomatic pressure to make sure that it does. For ordinary Afghans who supported the US, the questions are practical, sharper, and better defined: as the Taliban gain territory across the entire country, should they wait and see if they are lucky enough to secure a visa spot? Should they move to Kabul or some other city that is less likely to fall to the Taliban? Should they cross the border to Pakistan or pay traffickers to try to get them to a more promising location, like Europe or Australia?
Take the case of Sediq, the co-author of this piece, for example. He is everything that the Taliban oppose: He is liberal and well-educated, and his wife is a graduate of law school. The two of us met when Sediq started giving me Dari lessons in Kabul almost 20 years ago. Since then, Sediq earned a BA and an MA in Turkey and could have stayed out of the country. Instead, he returned to Afghanistan to help his homeland because of the promise of democracy and economic growth that the United States government promoted under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Sediq went on to work as a researcher and later research manager in Afghanistan for the United States Institute of Peace and several other international organizations. He has worked on projects for USAID, the World Bank, the UN and others. After starting his work as a translator and helping others with their research, his own work has gone on to support numerous international development projects and made it possible for some key American initiatives to move forward. For several years now, he has been receiving threats because of this work and the homes of some of his cousins were burned down. Because, however, he has not had two years of continued direct employment for the US government, his attempts to secure a Special Immigrant Visa have failed.
According to the SIV requirements, he has not done enough service for the US since he worked as a contractor on many of these projects and thus cannot document continual service to the US, even though supporting US-funded projects has been at the center of his work for the past decade. The Taliban, of course, would make no such distinction.
Sediq is left to wonder what he and his family should do now. If the US revises its regulations around who qualifies for a visa, there’s a good chance that he would qualify. However, there are still almost 20,000 other Afghans who have already filed SIV applications and thousands more who have not yet done so since it did not seem worth it; in recent years, the wait time for visas has been more than three years.
Biden’s announcement is troubling news for other Afghans and leaves them asking: After the US withdraws from Afghanistan, will enough diplomatic pressure be applied to keep the Afghan government intact? The Afghan government is strong enough to maintain most urban areas and, with the support of the international community, could continue to ensure basic human rights protections.
But without the US adding key diplomatic pressure, the fragile coalition against the Taliban is likely to collapse. Past history suggests that when the Taliban retake urban areas, reprisals follow. Some of Sediq’s earliest memories are of escaping from his natal home as the Taliban scorched the farmland around it in the Shomali Plain. His family escaped to Kabul. This time, 25 years later, they may be escaping in the opposite direction – back towards countries to the north.
Get our free weekly newsletter
As the troops withdraw, there is much that the US can do to support the Afghans who remain – diplomatically and through financial support. Sediq and others like him worry that the Biden administration views Afghanistan as a sinking ship with few lifeboats – that they will be left scrambling to leave the country, their departure further eroding any chance that American ideals and influence will last longer than the troop presence. It does not need to be this way. Clarity about what the US will do to assist the people who helped the US presence would be a good start, but even better would be assurances that the US will stand by its allies in Afghanistan diplomatically and politically, even as the troops leave.