Immediate Steps to Respond to the Emergency in Afghanistan

The United States has a moral obligation to help its Afghan partners. How the country supports its partners will be noted and watched. In the case of Vietnam, the United States took on about 130,000 people after the fall of Saigon. When the Batista government fell in Cuba, the United States took on 248,100 people. This is not the last time the United States will have to ask local partners to risk their lives, and if it fails its Afghan partners, it will be immensely more difficult to ask for other partners to do so in the future.

Over the last 20 years, thousands of Afghans have worked directly with the U.S. government—including with the military and the intelligence, development, and diplomatic communities—and tens of thousands more worked for support contractors, U.S. government grantees, as well as subcontractors and subgrantees. There could easily be around 500,000 people who either worked with the United States or are direct dependents of those who did. The estimated 20,000 people currently in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) pipeline are only the tip of the iceberg. Over time, the United States is going to have to help many more people to meet its moral obligation. To do so is in the nation’s enlightened self-interest in an age of great power competition. Here are some immediate steps that Congress—where there is currently bipartisan support for SIVs—and the Biden-Harris administration can take to address this issue.

First, given the immense need, chaotic situation, and unclear protocols for identifying individuals, the Biden administration should drop any discrimination against non-U.S. citizens and non-legal permanent residents (and their dependents) for evacuation. There should be no triaging of individuals on the ground. The United States should get anyone who is in danger out of Afghanistan, and then once they are safe, begin the task of going through their legal avenues for entry into the United States—as it did in Saigon for a higher number of people. It is especially important to complete this process either in U.S. territory (e.g., Guam, the continental United States) or in a country that is a signatory of the Refugee Convention. Once in these places, individuals who would not qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) or P-2 designation programs could seek asylum either in the United States or a third country handled by the United States or possibly the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Second, the United States should open pathways other than the SIV process for Afghans. In a previous 2019 brief, “Preventing Catastrophe in Afghanistan,” CSIS looked at the historical precedent of ebbs and flows of Afghan refugees over the last 40 years, including the 6 million refugees in the 1980s, and concluded that there was a possibility of millions of refugees leaving Afghanistan in a crisis scenario like the one occurring right now. It is possible, if not probable that there will be continued mass refugee flows out of Afghanistan due to either a collapse of the new Taliban government, a continuation of a food security crisis, or resumption of conflict in the country. Congress also needs to allocate significant additional funds to the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR to ensure that they can fully support the potential influx of Afghan refugees in the short term and possible long term. These Afghans will likely go to Pakistan or Iran, two countries where Afghans have historically fled to in the past. They may also migrate to places such as the Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia), Turkey, neighboring central Asian countries, India, and several European countries. Countries that have traditionally accepted refugees in the past as well as regional players should work together to share the charge of accepting Afghan refugees.

To address this potential refugee crisis, the United States should establish a new “humanitarian parole” category that would allow a large number of Afghans into the country. If such a parole program were to be created, it would need to have access to United States Refugee Assistance Program (USRAP) funding. USRAP funding allows beneficiaries to find housing, get children into schools, and help with job placement. Last week, a bipartisan group of 46 senators proposed that the Biden-Harris administration create such a program. This should be rapidly pursued by both Congress and the Biden-Harris administration. 

Third, the Biden-Harris administration has the ability to raise the refugee cap. Congress should strongly encourage the administration to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 for this fiscal year, of which 62,000 should come from Afghanistan. When President Biden entered office, he raised the cap from 15,000 to 62,500. However, during his campaign, Biden had promised that he would raise the cap to 125,000. Given the precedent set with Vietnam and Cuba and given that 2021 is not an election year, President Biden, with support from Congress, should let 62,000 Afghan refugees into the United States.

Fourth, the United States needs to expand and expedite the SIV process to include Afghans who have not worked under contracts but rather under grants or cooperative agreements. For a variety of bureaucratic reasons, the State Department has interpreted the SIV legislation as including only those who have worked directly on contracts. This current interpretation excludes those who have worked for subcontractors and, more importantly, large grantees and subgrantees in Afghanistan such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Catholic Relief Services, WorldVision, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that worked specifically with women on political and economic issues. There are easily thousands of women leaders also excluded from the SIV program because they did not work for the U.S. government—including elected leaders, activists, academics, NGO leaders, journalists, and mid-senior government officials—who fear for their lives and need assistance. The House of Representatives explicitly tried to address this issue of exclusion in legislation earlier this summer, but a different version of the same bill drafted by the Senate (before the fall of Kabul) did not allow for this fix. The Senate bill was the final version signed by President Biden. The current SIV process is an enormously time-consuming process and set up to operate in a non-crisis environment. In its current form, the process is an inadequate way to assist U.S. partners in a high-stakes environment. Ultimately, the current crisis in Afghanistan will require a radically different approach. 

Finally, there will be critics who push back against these priorities. They may argue that “bad actors” will arrive in the United States and that some will falsify working with the United States in Afghanistan or in other contexts. While the government should use existing processes to screen people, it should first help evacuate Afghans from danger and then proceed with the appropriate procedures. The United States’ Afghan partners should not spend one to three years waiting in danger while the government sorts out the paperwork. In an era of great power competition, the United States will be judged not only by its words, but by its actions. It is in the United States’ long-term interest to get this issue right and to ensure that it maintains global and local partnerships in the future.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The author would like to thank John Mahoney for his excellent research assistance.  

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development