Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam: How the U.S. Has Resettled Its Wartime Allies

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Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam: How the U.S. Has Resettled Its Wartime Allies

The United States has granted tens of thousands of special visas to Afghans who aided U.S. forces, but many others are still waiting. How does this compare with previous efforts?

With the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, U.S. authorities rushed to evacuate American personnel as well as tens of thousands of Afghans eligible for special visas given to allies who worked for the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) missions. But most of those eligible still remain in the country, in danger of retribution. Previous U.S. attempts to resettle wartime allies, including hundreds of thousands after the Vietnam War, highlight some of the challenges.

How many Afghans are being resettled?

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Afghans who actively aided the U.S. and NATO missions are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), which grant recipients immediate permanent residence in the United States. The exact number of SIV applicants included in the August airlift is still unclear, but the Joe Biden administration estimates that the operation included some 23,000 “at-risk” Afghans, out of more than 120,000 total evacuees. With an estimated seventy thousand Afghans still in the queue for SIV approval, the administration says it is likely that a majority of applicants were left behind. The number still eligible to apply is even larger; some independent estimates put it at upward of one hundred thousand additional Afghans. 

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Before the 2021 withdrawal, the United States had granted SIVs to about seventy-six thousand Afghans [PDF] over a decade. The August airlift also included tens of thousands of Afghans considered refugees, a separate legal category. 

What’s the purpose of the SIV program?

Congress passed an initial SIV program for both Afghan and Iraqi interpreters in 2006, and in 2009 passed a broader program for any Afghans employed by the U.S. government or NATO since 2001. The goal was to protect U.S. allies and their families from retaliation, as well as to incentivize cooperating with the United States’ counterinsurgency efforts.

The programs have drawn criticism for their onerous paperwork and long delays; in recent years, processing times have stretched to nearly two years. Some advocacy groups say this has led to hundreds of Afghans being killed while waiting, which could make it harder for the United States to recruit allies in the future.  

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Evacuees airlifted from Afghanistan wait at Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC, in August 2021.
Evacuees airlifted from Afghanistan wait at Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC, in August 2021. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Ahead of the withdrawal, Congress approved eight thousand additional SIV slots and reduced some of the program’s requirements to expedite approvals. The Biden administration has increased resources devoted to visa processing, but refugee advocates say more could be done to streamline the process. Meanwhile, former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have launched an initiative to fundraise and advocate for Afghan refugee resettlement.

What is the situation for Iraqis?

A similar set of SIV programs for Iraqis have resettled more than twenty-three thousand allies in the United States. But new applications mostly ended in 2014, and a backlog of more than fifty thousand applicants still remains, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s 2017 visa ban on entrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq. (Biden has since rescinded that order.) Those remaining, especially at-risk minorities such as the Yazidi, see the troubles of the Afghan SIV program as a bad omen for their chances.

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How does this compare with treatment of previous wartime allies?

The United States has carried out rapid airlifts on several other occasions. In 1996, Operation Pacific Haven flew nearly seven thousand U.S.-allied Kurds from Iraq, where they were under imminent threat from reprisals by President Saddam Hussein. In 1999, some twenty thousand Albanian Kosovars, at risk from Serbian forces, were similarly evacuated. In both cases, allies were brought to U.S. soil while their paperwork was processed; the Kurds were brought to Guam and the Kosovars to Fort Dix, New Jersey.

The end of the Vietnam War is another major example. The 1975 fall of Saigon to the communist North Vietnamese forces led to a hurried U.S. withdrawal that included some 130,000 South Vietnamese people who had aided the war effort. This initial evacuation was largely informal, with President Gerald Ford using executive power to admit many Vietnamese before their individual applications were processed. Millions of Vietnamese fled in the subsequent decade, and more than one million were eventually granted U.S. refugee status.

A related case involved the Hmong people, an ethnic minority that took heavy casualties fighting alongside the CIA in its so-called “secret war” in Laos. They faced brutal retribution after the communist takeover. In a scene echoed by the 2021 Kabul withdrawal, tens of thousands of Hmong fighters and their families crowded a U.S.-controlled airfield in May 1975 hoping to flee; the United States evacuated fewer than three thousand. Many Hmong fled the country on their own, and more than one hundred thousand were later accepted into the United States as refugees. 

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