As U.S. troops exit Afghanistan, 'leave no one behind' must include military interpreters

·4 min read

Last month President Biden announced plans to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan ahead of the 20th Anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Reasonable people can and have disagreed about the wisdom of the withdrawal. What isn't up for debate, however, is this: as the United States brings its sons and daughters home from Afghanistan, we have a moral and practical obligation to protect the thousands of Afghan interpreters and other critical allies who’ve supported our military and diplomatic efforts there.

The risk is critical. If America does not develop a strategy to safeguard our “soft networks,” the Taliban will ruthlessly hunt down and butcher them, as they have done for years. In turn, the United States will have compromised not only existing friends and allies, it will have compromised future relationships with allies elsewhere whose interests align with our own. Make no mistake, the world is watching how we treat those who sacrificed and suffered alongside our service men and women for nearly two decades.

Do not abandon our allies

I spent months serving in Baghdad with the U.S. Army, and as a commander during a 2006-2007 deployment, I personally experienced the loss of interpreters and friends who were targeted and executed by insurgents and militia thugs who painted them as “traitors” and “collaborators with the American enemy.”

Later, after serving in the Obama White House as Director for Iraq on the National Security Council, I welcomed the President’s decision in 2011 to withdraw from Iraq. In the months and years that followed, however, I witnessed our former interpreters, their families, and other allies in a fight for their lives. Some of them were forced into hiding in Iraq by ISIS, Iranian-sponsored militia, and other bad actors. Others languished as refugees abroad, men and women without a country. Untold numbers didn’t make it. To this day, I don’t know what became of many of my friends.

U.S. Army soldiers return from Afghanistan on Dec. 10, 2020, in Fort Drum, New York.
U.S. Army soldiers return from Afghanistan on Dec. 10, 2020, in Fort Drum, New York.

Service members take seriously the oath to “leave no one behind.” Our interpreters aren’t just allies, they’re brothers and sisters. They help keep us safe, and — in many cases — save our lives. We owe them and their families safe refuge.

I welcome President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, just as I did President Obama’s decision to end U.S. engagement in Iraq. As a country, we have asked our service members and their families to bear the brunt of conflict for two decades as the American public has become increasingly disillusioned.

Many Americans recall the iconic footage of South Vietnamese clinging to helicopter skids over Embassy Saigon in 1975. We can leave gracefully and prevent a human tragedy on a large scale by taking care of our closest partners from the conflict in Afghanistan.

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Standing by those who stand by us is not only the right thing to do, it also reinforces relationships with interpreters in other conflict zones, builds trust during terrorism investigations where witnesses and informants can be vital, and galvanizes our uniformed service members who live by a code of leave no one behind. Do we want our young men and women leaving their time in service feeling as if they violated an oath and feeling ashamed of their country’s failures and broken promises?

Standing strong to protect our soft networks

Time is of the essence. A 2019 State Department Office of the Inspector General found 18,800 Afghan SIV applicants in the backlog. Of course, many of these allies have family members who are at risk and would also need to be relocated. If an interpreter makes it to safety alone, family members quickly become extortion targets, or worse, they’re used to force the interpreter back on honor.

Of course, nobody in the national security community wants to rush the process of vetting and drop our guard, letting a potential threat into the country. Threats from former interpreters, however, are statistically nonexistent. The government could relocate the tens of thousands to a safe third country location to complete screening. Or we could send a special interagency task force to accelerate in country screening in Afghanistan. It is only a matter of political will.

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Our adversaries use ruthlessness to undermine our values. We need to stand strong behind those values. Protecting soft networks is one of the cases where there’s an overlap between doing what’s right and doing what best serves our national security interest.

If we don’t honor a commitment to our closest Afghan partners, who will stand by our young men and women in uniform in the next conflict?

Steve Miska, Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army, is a leading advocate for Iraqi and Afghan military interpreters and the author of the upcoming book Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: withdraw but still protect our allies there

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