Washington Whispers: An Open Letter to President Biden
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Dear Mr. President:
Where is your characteristic empathy? What happened to your usually straightforward explanations that face up to difficulties and lay out a best-effort strategy to address them?
That’s what we needed from you last week. Not simply your oft-repeated defense of withdrawing from Afghanistan—a decision with which most of us agree—but a sense that you are leading us in a sincere all-out effort to evacuate not only all Americans, but the Afghan allies who have stood with our soldiers during the last 20 years, and the female Afghan leaders whose lives are now in grave danger.
Whether we should withdraw from Afghanistan and how we should do it are two separate questions. Both needed to be fully addressed.
You have defended the need to withdraw well—pointing out that we initially went into Afghanistan to “bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell;” and to eliminate Al Qaeda’s ability to conduct more attacks on the U.S. from that country. As you have said, we accomplished those missions long ago.
Concerning the limitations on when we withdraw, you have explained you inherited a deal that former President Trump negotiated with the Taliban for U.S. forces to leave by May 1, 2021—only a little over three months into your term of office. Apparently, this agreement originally included a ceasefire that was to end on that date, after which our soldiers would be fair game for attack again. Trump drew down U.S. forces from about 15,500 to 2,500 troops, hugely increasing their vulnerability.
This presented you with a stark choice between following through on Trump’s withdrawal agreement, albeit at a slightly later exit date, or sending thousands more U.S. troops back to war with the Taliban. As you have wisely said, you are not willing to “send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
From the 19th century “Great Game” between Britain and Russia (a subject of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim), to the later doomed Soviet-Afghan war from 1979-1989, to our invasion and 20-year stay, Afghanistan has earned its title as the “graveyard of empires.” The majority of Americans agree with your decision to withdraw. And so do I.
However, your initial failure and subsequent delay in addressing the critical challenges obstructing a safe exit for Americans and Afghans who aided the U.S. armed forces has been perplexing and deeply disappointing. Not to mention the fact that the impending fate of Afghan women has barely been addressed at all, let alone adequately.
First, you disappeared at Camp David and said nothing for days.
Then, at your first briefing on the Afghan evacuation crisis on Monday, August 16th , you all but ignored the plight of the Afghans who aided our forces.
In your interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos two days later, while we still had pictures in our heads of panicked multitudes mobbing planes at the Kabul airport, you said, “…the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens.”
Mr. President, I understand that the important thing now is to get people out. It is not yet time to do an autopsy of what could have or should have been done to prepare for our exit. But to keep public confidence, we needed you to acknowledge the situation and tell us what is currently being done to improve it, including getting out our Afghan allies. Instead, you seemed to throw up your hands, maintaining it couldn’t have been avoided, thus suggesting there’s nothing to be done about the situation. By the time you finally gave us some feedback on mitigation measures last week on Friday, August 20th, it became difficult to regain faith that we were getting more than empty words.
Thousands of Afghan translators, drivers, and others who assisted the U.S. armed forces may be murdered by the Taliban after we leave. These people risked their lives for us and it is imperative that we get them out.
In July, you stated that 2500 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for such Afghans had been approved since January, but fewer than half that number had exercised their right to come to the United States. You’ve suggested, therefore, that our government didn’t begin evacuating most Afghan civilians before August because many of them did not want to leave earlier.
But individual veterans, veteran organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been trying every avenue for months—even years—to help the interpreters and others eligible for SIVs to obtain them. Some veterans maintain they have been banging on a closed door for months, trying to get your administration to see the urgency of getting these people out of the Taliban’s reach—to no avail.
According to retired Army Colonel Steven M. Miska, director of the organization First Amendment Voice, hundreds of veterans are in contact with Afghans who aided the U.S. mission, and are desperately trying to find a way out.
Last week, the Wilson Center reported that, since August, there has been an 18,000-person backlog for the SIVs. Lawrence Montreuil, the current legislative director of the American Legion and a retired Marine Corp officer, said last week that there was a backlog of about 20,000 applicants—and once one adds their families, about 70,000 men, women and children needing evacuation.
The veterans working to rescue the Afghans who fought beside them are moved by a noble desire to save those who saved them. Montreuil, speaking from personal experience, told Air Force Magazine, “I was an Afghan National Army advisor in southern Afghanistan, and I can tell you that they were essential to not only mission accomplishment but our survival on a daily basis. So I think it’s that moral necessity that veterans feel.”
Given the large visa backlog and the veterans’ Herculean efforts, your statement that few eligible Afghans were relocated earlier because they weren’t interested earlier sounds like a lame excuse. And with at least 18,000-plus families waiting for visa processing, only 2,500 by July was, frankly, pathetic.
When a member of the press asked why the U.S. can’t evacuate Afghan translators to the United States to await their visa processing, you responded only: “Because the law doesn’t allow that to happen.”
I assume you were referring to the law establishing the SIV program for Afghans. I am surprised you didn’t explain how our government’s ability to timely act under that program was hampered by your predecessor.
Afghan war veteran and former CIA analyst Matt Zeller, whose life was saved by an interpreter, and who has strived during several presidencies to bring Afghan interpreters and support personnel to the U.S., recently told The Daily Beast, “The visa program created to get them here, it was purposely shut down by the Trump Administration for the last four years.” Zeller said he’d had meetings with Trump aide Stephen Miller, who told him that he, Zeller, was doing nothing but letting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists into our country, and that it was the Trump Administration’s job to stop him.
Furthermore, as reported by Stars and Stripes in July 2020, a State Department Inspector General (IG) determined that the Afghan SIV program was understaffed, uncoordinated and reliant on outdated technology. The IG’s report said staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016 when Trump was elected, despite a 50% increase in the number of visa applicants, and that at least 50 more staffers were urgently needed. There was only one analyst in Trump’s State Department to conduct all the security checks on applicants, along with that person’s other duties. In addition, the position meant to oversee the program was left unfilled from January, 2017—the beginning of Trump’s term—until March, 2020.
Perhaps, President Biden, the eight months you had until the planned exit from Afghanistan were not enough time to repair the damage Trump did to that program. But what was done? Were employees added to process visas? Could the forms have been simplified? Under the current exigent circumstances, could the forms have been bypassed in favor of soldiers or veterans vouching for the Afghans with whom they had worked?
And why, when a full withdrawal by September 11 was announced in April, did your Administration seemingly do nothing to prepare in advance, but wait until the last minute? Preparations were needed regardless of whether or not the Taliban took over.
Finally, the women of Afghanistan are in as great danger as those who worked with the American armed forces. When the Taliban previously controlled the country, women were banned from receiving an education after age eight, from working, or even leaving the home unless accompanied by a male family member. Punishment for disobeying these rules ranged from beatings and mutilation to execution.
Over the last 20 years, under U.S. auspices, many Afghan women have been able to get an education, and have become lawyers, doctors, scientists, journalists, and politicians. Thirty percent of Afghanistan’s civil servants are women, and women have been actively serving in the Afghan Parliament.
With the return of the Taliban, women—in particular, educated, professional women—are in grave danger.
The Taliban’s propaganda arm now claims that under its new regime, “no prejudice against women will be allowed, but the Islamic values are our framework,” and that “women will be allowed to participate in society within the bounds of Islamic law.” But if its recent moves in Herat, Kandahar and Kabul are any indication, by “Islamic law,” the Taliban really means its same old reactionary version of Sharia law. The Taliban’s actions in those cities are surely a harbinger of what is to come. There are reports that in Herat, gunmen have prevented female students and instructors from entering its university. In Kandahar, women’s health care clinics have been shut down. And at Kabul University, women students have been told they are not allowed to leave their dorm rooms unless accompanied by a male guardian. According to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, the physical survival of female leaders is under threat.
We—the United States—raised their expectations. We encouraged Afghan women to become open activists for their rights and to participate fully in Afghan society. To leave them at the mercy of the Taliban at this point would be a deadly bait-and-switch.
But since the SIV program applies only to Afghan allies who worked directly with the U.S. armed forces or at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, these brave women do not appear to be eligible for visas under this program.
Mr. President, you have insisted that “human rights must be the center of our foreign policy.” These words will ring hollow if our country effectively abandons these Afghan women and girls to the Taliban. A solution beyond speaking out for them must be found.
In your Friday briefing, you finally gave us more information about what is being done—or at least, attempted.
You not only said that you will mobilize every source necessary to get Americans home, you committed to bringing out Afghans who assisted in the war effort. You added that you’re trying to get out as many NGOs and women’s organizations as you can. I hope you will be as good as your words.
As far as ending the current chaos, you informed us that the U.S. is working in close operational coordination with NATO on the evacuation. You noted that 6,000 troops have been added to provide security at the Kabul airport, to guard its perimeter, and to assist civilian departures. You stated that 13,000 people have been evacuated since the military airlift began on August 14, and that thousands more have been evacuated on private charter flights facilitated by the U.S. government. You claimed these numbers include American citizens, permanent residents and their families, and SIV applicants and their families.
But you also said, with commendable bluntness, “Make no mistake. This evacuation mission is dangerous. It involves risks to armed forces and it’s being conducted under difficult circumstances. I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or that it will be without risk of loss.”
That is what the nation wants from you, President Biden—plain statements acknowledging the difficulties we face and your best effort to address them.
We can’t know whether this evacuation is a success or failure until it is over. But I hope that our country’s action will not be a case of “too little, too late,” but of “better late than never.” Those of us who support your decision to end our military involvement in Afghanistan fervently hope that your administration will recover from its initial, seriously mishandled effort and rise to the occasion. Many lives depend upon it.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.