Two years since the war in Afghanistan ended, the administration is remembering the sacrifice of service members, while acknowledging the work needed to help Afghans who aided the United States.
“Today, we pause to remember the selfless service of generations of brave women and men over the course of the conflict—who, time and time again, sacrificed their own safety and security for that of their fellow Americans,” a statement from President Biden said Thursday.
2,461 U.S. service members died and more than 20,000 were wounded in action during the war.
“You know, people want to thank me for his service. They need to know why he died. They need to pay attention to what's going on. And he was the best man I ever met. He was a man of honor, a man of integrity. He would do anything for anyone,” said Jane Horton, a senior policy adviser in Congress and a Gold Star wife.
Her husband, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Horton, was killed in Afghanistan. Horton traveled to Afghanistan several times, in both official and personal capacities.
“Going forward, I think it's important to have a nationwide reflection and conversation about how we do better, how we treat our allies, how we treat our partners, and how we win wars, because the next war is going to be a near peer war, it's not going to be a war against the third world country like Afghanistan,” Horton said. “We as a country need to have a nationwide reflection, we need to have a non-political, apolitical after-action review on what went wrong, and how we could do better in the future,” Horton said.
The final days of the war were marked by the death of 13 U.S. service members during an attack, as troops rushed to evacuate Afghans fleeing from Taliban control after the fall of Kabul. “I remain forever grateful to the military members, diplomats, intelligence professionals, and development specialists who not only worked together to advance the United States’ Afghan mission for two decades—but who also conducted our withdrawal with the same resolve and bravery that defined U.S. service in Afghanistan. Together, they helped evacuate approximately 120,000 people in one of the largest airlifts in history. And every day since, they have skillfully used every military, diplomatic, and intelligence resource available to continue to protect our homeland from terrorist threats in Afghanistan and around the world,” a statement from President Biden read Thursday.
But the efforts to help continue.
“I think it's important for us to understand people who left their home and became refugees, especially from many countries, but especially from Afghanistan, nobody's doing that to pursue an American dream and have a better life, it's more of to be alive and be safe,” said Naheed Samadi Bahram, the U.S. country director for Women for Afghan Women.
The organization works to help Afghan women in the United States and Afghanistan. For those who are here, she says there are still issues finding long-term housing, jobs that match skill sets and help with legal status.
“There is a large number of people who came on humanitarian parole visas, or still doesn't have an exact path towards citizenship or their future,” Bahram said. “So for many of them, they need to apply for family reunification, if they have immediate family in the U.S. or they have to apply for asylum. And for many applying for asylum is a longer process, a more costly process. And we know many people who left Afghanistan through evacuation ... were not able to bring anything with them. And that financial cost is a large burden on families.”
More than 26,500 special immigrant visas (SIVs) were issued to applicants and eligible family members from the suspension of operations at Embassy Kabul until Aug. 1st, and in total, at least 108,000 Afghans have benefited from the program, according to a State Department official. The Afghan special immigrant visas help resettle Afghans who worked to help the U.S.
The administration has urged congress to pass the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2023, to extend the program and increase the cap on Afghan SIVs, according to a State Department official.
“The administration has done a really good job of engaging across a whole government effort, they've been taking the steps to make sure that this is a long-term durable effort that spans administrations,” said Shawn VanDiver, the founder of #AfghanEvac.
The volunteer organization says it’s worked with the government on faster processing and reducing uncertainty.
But he says they’re working on communication challenges. “There are challenges in making sure that every Afghan knows about the family reunification process, every Afghan knows about the parole process.”
President Biden is urging Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. It was re-introduced over the summer by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. It would expand the SIV process and allow Afghans who have humanitarian status to seek permanent legal status with more vetting.
VanDiver said it would be a “game-changer.”
“Congress needs to fund the State Department, HHS and DHS appropriately and stop playing games, definitely political games. It was an ongoing humanitarian crisis,” he said.
He estimates there could be between 150,000 to 300,000 people left to come.
“And so it's incredibly frustrating, very sad. There's kids who can't be reunified with their parents in Afghanistan. There's all kinds of issues. And it's just so murky, and there's really no clear way forward,” Horton said.
For those who helped the U.S., “They need to be evacuated and getting out of Afghanistan. I think that that's the most important part of the policy that needs to be set,” Bahram said.
Under Taliban control, Afghanistan is marred by human rights violations, food insecurity and the gutting of women’s rights.
“We have over 100 female colleagues in Afghanistan. And they have been facing, frankly, what I can only describe as discriminatory behavior. And what we see in Afghanistan is a gender apartheid system where women, you know, are not allowed to work for NGOs, even if you are providing essential services such as for looking after children who have nobody to look after them,” said Kevin Schumacher, deputy executive director for Women for Afghan Women.
Schumacher said there are few people with the opportunity and financial means to leave Afghanistan, comparing it to a prison, especially for women and human rights activists.
“I should say that there has been very little movement beyond the initial evacuation of Afghans from Afghanistan, you know, in terms of helping them getting out of Afghanistan to other countries, especially when it comes to the United States policies. I think what has been said publicly, is very different from what we see in reality. For all practical purposes, Afghanistan is an abandoned country right now. It's a forgotten country."
A U.S. Department of State Office of the Inspector General report found the Afghan special immigrant visa program continued to face challenges. The report concludes, “Without additional dedicated resources to address the situation, the backlog in SIV applications will remain a significant challenge.”
The report in part noted the lack of a strategic performance management approach to fix the backlog of applicants. It also underscored a reliance on Taliban cooperation, since the U.S. does not have a diplomatic ground presence.
“The reliance on Taliban cooperation because of the lack of U.S. diplomatic ground presence in Afghanistan impacts the ability for Afghan SIV applicants to exit Afghanistan and arrive at a U.S. diplomatic post for visa processing. Department officials told OIG that one of the biggest challenges to SIV applicants departing Afghanistan is the lack of freedom of movement out of Afghanistan, which is dependent on Taliban cooperation,” the report states. “Department Officials told OIG that the Taliban’s willingness to approve flights, to allow women to depart Afghanistan alone, to determine the number of aircraft Kabul International Airport can accommodate, and other factors impacted freedom of movement for Afghans.”
Meanwhile, a State Department official says the agency has made “substantial efforts" to streamline processes while protecting national security. That includes increasing staff processing applications
But those helping take note of the success and humanity that is found in the efforts.
“I think all of that still make you trust in humanity and still make you believe that there are good people with caring hearts, and they are ready to help even to those people,” Bahram said.
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