Help Afghans Directly: Raise the Refugee Cap

Image by Sohaib Ghyasi via Unsplash

By Ethan Azad

Since the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, the Biden administration has come under bipartisan pressure from Congress as well as the media. Scenes of Afghan civilians desperately running alongside an Air Force C-17 at the Kabul Airport, and heart-wrenching stories of people falling off planes and being found in landing gear, have sparked massive outcry and criticism of the Biden administration’s lack of foresight and preparation for what is currently unfolding. Much of the critique has had the underlying implication that the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a mistake. What has been absent from the discourse, however, is that the war in Afghanistan, now 20 years in the making, was almost always set to end in the Afghan government’s collapse, the Taliban’s eventual return to power, and people fleeing the nation known as “the Graveyard of Empires.”[1]

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has cost trillions of dollars, and the lives of thousands of servicemembers and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.[2] The oft-cited Brown University Cost of War Project calculates the total cost of the post 9/11 wars at over $8 trillion (including costs of veteran care),[3] an amount that can barely be fathomed even by experts who regularly deal with figures of such magnitude. More importantly, the war has had a tremendous human toll; let us recall that the objectives of the war were to capture Osama bin Laden and degrade Al Qaeda’s ranks. Both were accomplished in time, but in the process, thousands of young Americans who enlisted with the hopes of building their future and serving their nation paid the ultimate price. Far too many others have been lost to the epidemics of suicide and opioid addiction that in no small way are enabled and perpetuated by the shameful state of the support and care network available to America’s veterans.[4] Most horrifying perhaps, are the tens of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians who came to be collateral damage. It is infuriating that after two decades, pundits and lawmakers have suddenly found compassion for Afghan civilians in an attempt to score political points.[5]

It is not a new phenomenon for beltway talking heads to claim that progress is steadily being made and that if U.S. forces stay just a little longer, the tide of war will turn for the better. Just in 2019, Craig Whitlock’s Washington Post exclusive investigation, known as the Afghanistan Papers, uncovered that U.S. officials had been pressured by the Obama administration to intentionally mislead the public by painting a positive view of the disastrous events that were unfolding in Afghanistan.[6] Indeed, top officials were deliberately picking the best data points, statistics, and stories to make it appear as if the Obama administration’s 2009 surge of 33,000 troops was working and that the Afghan government was finally starting to establish consensus and secure the country.[7] Whitlock’s investigation made it painfully clear that the opposite was the case.

To be sure, the Biden administration can and should do more for Afghans who seek to leave Taliban rule and live under their own terms, especially the thousands of Afghans to whom the U.S. owes a great debt for their invaluable assistance over the past 20 plus years. There is currently a backlog of just roughly 20,000 Afghan interpreters awaiting Special Immigration Visas (SIVs).[8] That number is around 70,000 if you (and you should) count their family members.[9] The Biden administration should call for USCIS emergency staffing and additional staff on the ground at the airport and surrounding areas to accelerate the evacuation. Additionally, the administration must dramatically expand the refugee cap in light of these events so that the most vulnerable Afghan nationals—most notably the elderly, disabled, and women with children, have an opportunity to enter the United States. As Stephen Wertheim, Senior Fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently noted in New York Magazine, “Biden’s initial increase of the cap to 62,500 per year still pales in comparison to the high of 231,700 in 1980.”[10] The U.S. can directly assist Afghans and even European allies by raising this cap.

What is happening in Afghanistan is devastating. Under Taliban rule, Shariah law will be the law of the land, and women will lose access to the gains they have made since the Taliban was deposed in 2001.[11] Further, according to a UN threat assessment, the Taliban are already searching for Afghan civilians who have assisted the U.S. military, and these Afghans will likely risk reprisal from the Taliban in upcoming weeks and months. But the U.S. military – and the U.S. defense industry –will not be the fix to the problems that plague Afghanistan. If anything, U.S. forces have aggravated grievances so much that many among the Afghan public would rather support the Taliban than foreign invaders who have propped up a corrupt and often violent Afghan government.[12]

The U.S. bears significant responsibility for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan after a 20-year-long military campaign. We owe the Afghans who worked to protect our people. Instead of intervening militarily, the U.S. should focus on helping Afghans by giving them a chance at a better life here. It is not a perfect solution, but it is one that is within U.S. capacity to accomplish. If anything, it is a debt that must be paid.

Ethan Azad is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Digital Media Editor for Berkeley Public Policy Journal. Prior to coming to the Goldman School, Ethan was the 2020 Young Fellow for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and served as a Legislative Fellow for U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib. Ethan received his BA from the University of California, San Diego, where he majored in International Studies – International Business.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

[1] Nordland, Rod. “The Empire Stopper.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 29, 2017.

[2] Suliman, Adela. “Nearly 20 Years of War, 10 Days to Fall: Afghanistan, by the Numbers.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 20, 2021.

[3] “Costs of War.” The Costs of War Project. Brown University. Accessed August 24, 2021.

[4] Suitt, Thomas Howard. “High Suicide Rates among United States Service Members and Veterans of the Post9/11 Wars.” The Costs of War Project. Boston University, June 21, 2021.

[5] Lobe, Jim. “Three Major Networks Devoted a Full Five Minutes to Afghanistan in 2020.” Responsible Statecraft, August 23, 2021.

[6] Whitlock, Craig. “Confidential Documents Reveal U.S. Officials Failed to Tell the Truth about the War in Afghanistan.” The Washington Post. WP Company, December 9, 2019.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lawler, Dave, and Stef W. Kight. “Exclusive: Inside the White House Scramble to Protect Afghan Allies.” Axios, August 18, 2021.

[9] Copp, Tara, and Jacqueline Feldscher. “Austin Asks Top General for ‘Options’ to Evacuate Afghans.” Defense One. Defense One, June 3, 2021.

[10] Wertheim, Stephen. “Joe Biden’s Perfect Foreign Policy Storm.” Intelligencer. New York Magazine, August 19, 2021.

[11] Maizland, Lindsay. “Backgrounder: The Taliban in Afghanistan.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, August 3, 2021.

[12] Gossman, Patricia. “How US-Funded Abuses Led to Failure in Afghanistan.” Just Security, July 6, 2021.