Evacuating the Afghans

President Biden has a second chance to do the right thing.

Yesterday, I directed your attention to Elliot Cohen’s call for admitting as refugees those Afghans who “have thrown in their lot with us” in our failed attempt to turn their country into a functioning democracy. George Packer makes the point even more powerfully:

As I recently wrote, Biden has a relevant personal history. In April 1975, as a first-term senator, he was an outspoken opponent of using American money and risking Americans’ safety to rescue the tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had bet their lives on American promises. “The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese,” he said in a Senate speech. President Gerald Ford tried to sway Biden by reminding him of the American tradition of welcoming refugees from war and oppression, but Biden was unmoved. Vietnam was a lost cause, and Americans wanted to forget.

As South Vietnam fell, 135,000 endangered Vietnamese were evacuated through the heroic efforts of American officials, military veterans, and private citizens. Ford later said, “To do anything less would, in my opinion, only add moral shame to military humiliation.” Those refugees and their descendants are now Americans. I doubt that Biden would wish it otherwise.

Biden failed to see a moral obligation in 1975. Today he can learn from the mistake and redeem it. Seventeen thousand Afghans who have worked for America in Afghanistan, along with tens of thousands of their family members, are waiting for the excruciatingly slow bureaucratic wheels of the U.S. government to process their visa applications. At the normal pace, they will still be waiting years after the last American troops leave their country. While they wait, trying to hide, many of them will be hunted down by the Taliban. We will be gone, and Afghans who believed our promises will be killed. Our war will be over—Americans might not even hear the news of their deaths.

Once South Vietnam began to collapse, in the spring of 1975, the end came with shocking speed, and the Ford administration had just weeks to organize evacuations. In Afghanistan, the Biden administration has given itself almost five months. That’s enough time to save thousands of Afghans who risked everything to help the United States in their country. But there isn’t enough time to save them just by speeding up the review of visa applications. These Afghans have to be extricated from the country and taken to an overseas U.S. military base, where their cases can be heard in safety, beyond the reach of the Taliban. This is what is sometimes called “the Guam option,” after a U.S. rescue operation that saved thousands of Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein in the 1990s by airlifting them to Guam. Biden should create a task force with a team of military and civilian officials from key agencies to plan and run the operation. By ordinary government standards, such an effort is unimaginable. By the standards of the U.S. military, with its code of leaving no one behind on the battlefield, any alternative is unthinkable.

It’s so obviously the right course of action but not one without political cost. Along with our regular cycle of panic over illegal immigration from Latin America, there is deep anxiety about admitting refugees and other migrants from the Middle East, particularly those fleeing the devastation in Syria. And there are pockets of resentment over localized phenomena like the Somali immigrant population in Minneapolis.

With so many other items higher on the agenda, one wonders whether President Biden will see this as a fight worth having. But, despite what I believe to have been good intentions, our two-decade adventure in Afghanistan has left the place even worse off than it was when we got there. And, as both Elliot and Packer rightly note, thousands of Afghans who sided with us in that losing fight are almost certain to be hunted down the moment we’re no longer there to protect them. I don’t see how we have any choice but to give those who want it a fresh start here.

We’ve known this was coming for quite some time now. Congress, which can’t pass much of anything these days, managed to pass a Special Immigrant Visa program for this very problem in 2009 but, alas, didn’t provide the necessary infrastructure to support it.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Borders and Immigration, Democracy, Middle East, National Security, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Well said, James

  2. JohnMcC says:

    Agree 100% with moral obligation to the Afghans who worked with NATO/US forces. Do not think a revision of the history of the Vietnamese refugees ‘welcome’ in America is necessary. There was plenty of anti-refugee sentiment.

  3. Agreed.
    These people are in serious danger once we are gone and by then it will be too late to help them.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yes, our Afghani partners should have the opportunity to escape. America should benefit from the talents of these people with their own country doesn’t want them.

  5. Biden was not the only one who rejected the idea of helping the South Vietnamese escape in 1975

  6. walt moffett says:

    Now to see if anyone is listening.

  7. Gustopher says:

    It’s so obviously the right course of action but not one without political cost.

    I think criticizing it would have a great degree of risk. Would you want the President using his bully pulpit to say that “People like my friend Tom Cotton want to abandon those who helped us. That’s not America, Tom, we don’t leave our friends behind.”?

    (No idea what Tom Cotton thinks of this issue, using him as a random example)

    There’s only risk if you slow walk it and are all mealy mouthed about it. See Obama, when there were similar questions about bringing people who helped us in Iraq here.

  8. CSK says:

    Well, this may not bode well for potential refugees:

    “…Biden was asked if he would feel any responsibility if Afghan human rights, particularly of women, were harmed as a result of the withdrawal.
    ‘Do I bear any responsibility? Zero responsibility,’ Biden replied. ‘The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national self-interests and not put our women and men in harms’ way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force.'”

    From The Guardian

  9. Sleeping Dog says:


    This results in 3 desirable outcomes

    1. All across America in coffee shops, bars and barber shops, citizens nod in agreement.
    2. Cuts the legs out from under his R critics
    3. Official Washington can’t decide whether to clutch their pearls or faint.

    And who said realist FP is dead.