In downtown Washington, D.C., a few years ago, I stepped into an Uber and came up short: The hand on the wheel was missing a few fingers and part of a thumb, the face in the mirror was etched and scarred. Yet I knew those eyes.
I first met my Uber driver in a jagged, unforgiving extremity of Afghanistan in 2005. He was part of an auxiliary force of Afghans recruited and trained by U.S. Special Forces, and I was a young captain on my second tour.
We gained an understanding of each other during a desperate multiday climb to rescue the remnants of a SEAL recon team ambushed in the mountains above the Korengal Valley, propelled by a shared vow to never leave one of our own behind.
In the decade that followed, I came home, left the Army, went to law school, started a family and launched my career. The Afghan man had kept working as an interpreter, year after year, campaign after campaign, protecting and enriching American lives.
He became known and marked for his service, and the Taliban came for him. They took his fingers, burned his body and scarred his face. He came with all he had left to America. No rewards or medals – not even a job – awaited him. Just the midnight shift in a battered Uber, emblazoned with an Afghan flag, and the tough-minded hope that he could recompose his life through hard work.
We don’t leave our own behind
Embracing on the side of the road, it was clear that our lives had taken very different paths, but they were inextricably bound. In every way that matters, he was and is one of our own. And as everyone who has worn the uniform knows, we don’t leave our own behind.
For the past 20 years, two generations of Americans have served, fought, strived and died in Afghanistan. Along the way, we have asked and promised much. We asked Afghans to serve as interpreters alongside American troops and pledged their safety in return. Many thousands more directly supported the American mission in various capacities, to say nothing of the generation of Afghans who heard our call for a future based on democracy and human rights and stood up to build a government, teach girls at school, and other civil acts of bravery we take for granted here in the USA.
Allies fighting for their lives: As U.S. troops exit Afghanistan, 'leave no one behind' must include military interpreters
Now America’s war in Afghanistan is ending even as Afghanistan’s war goes on. Whatever one thinks about President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw, one thing is clear: Those who have stood with us are at grave risk, and time is short.
As a nation, we believe in honoring our commitments to those who serve. And like Abdul, these Afghans served. Fortunately, there is a clear path forward for us to keep our word to them.
Use Guam as a staging ground
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program has covered our Afghan allies since 2009; there are an estimated 17,000 applicants, not to mention their dependents, waiting in Afghanistan for these visas. There are several options available, but one would be for these American allies to be flown from airfields that the U.S. military controls in Afghanistan to Guam, a U.S. territory, where they would be treated as guests by a grateful nation.
With the Departments of Defense and State as active partners in the interagency process, these SIV holders would be transferred to the mainland USA and connected with a refugee resettlement agency.
This is not a new idea. In 1975, the Ford administration evacuated 130,000 Vietnamese to America via Guam, where refugees were screened before entering the United States. In 1996, the Clinton administration airlifted to Guam 6,600 Iraqi Kurds and others who had assisted American agencies in northern Iraq.
Biden must make it explicitly clear to the Defense Department that safeguarding our allies is as essential a component of the withdrawal as protecting and redeploying U.S. troops and equipment. He must commit America’s full diplomatic and logistical might so that this mission is completed by the time the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan.
How we conduct ourselves in these next few months will define the memory and meaning of America’s longest war, as surely as final images of fleeing helicopters or somber flag folding ceremonies defined previous ones.
Leaving allies behind would strike at the very core of who we believe ourselves to be and fly in the face of our most sacred creed. What faith would we have left in ourselves? Who would ever stand with us again?
But a final act of honor would in some measure redeem the war’s meaning for Americans, for those who look to America and especially for those who fought there.
Two decades of war have inextricably bound the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and Americans together. We served honorably together too long and shared too much for a final act of betrayal to define America’s longest war. At the end of so many years of sacrifice and heartbreak, we must do this last right thing.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: Evacuate Afghan interpreters when the US leaves region