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America's Afghanistan withdrawal plans didn't include Afghan translators

How was this not a planning priority in almost 20 years of war?

It’s official: After just shy of 20 years of war, the United States will be ending military operations in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, President Joe Biden said Thursday. Still up in the air, though, is what will happen to thousands of Afghan translators who will be in harm’s way once the U.S. withdrawal is complete.

U.S. officials indicated ahead of Biden’s address that talks were ongoing with several third countries to take in some of the Afghans still awaiting a decision on their special immigrant visa applications. Among the countries still in discussion to house the Afghan nationals and their families include United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Guam, a U.S. territory, The Wall Street Journal reported. Once there, they may have to wait months — or years — for the backlog to clear.

Yes, it’s great that, as Biden said, the State Department is working to speed up the visa approval process. "We've already approved 2,500 special immigrant visas to come to the United States,” he said, noting that “fewer than half have exercised their right to do that.” But the backlog of translators, drivers, security guards and others who aided the U.S. is reportedly around 18,000-applicants deep already.

As CNN reported last week, while “the immediate focus will be on getting about 9,000 of the 18,000 applicants out of the country — people in the final stages of the visa process — the effort could extend to upwards of 50,000 people, as Afghans who applied for visas will be given the opportunity to bring family members.”

That means the planning for an affair that’s expected to require airlifting tens of thousands of people out of the country in less than two months is still incomplete. It’s almost too apt a metaphor for the war as a whole that there’s still a question mark about any of this.

It’s almost too apt a metaphor for the war as a whole that there’s still a question mark about any of this.

How is it that planning is still incomplete for what happens to the Afghans who’ve risked their lives to aid America’s military when we went through the same thing in Iraq almost a decade ago? In almost 20 years, was there no contingency planning done for what would happen to them absent a total victory? The Pentagon has plans collecting dust on its shelves for what starting a war would look like with almost any country, but it has none for how to end one it’s spent two decades fighting?

It’s a failure of foresight that helps explain why we’ve spent 20 years insisting that the end of the war is just around the corner — until now. There was never any assumption that we might not be able to achieve the goals that years of mission creep had etched into place — only pleas to stay the course. And there was never any planning for what happens to these American allies if the Taliban recaptures the kind of territory it has in the last few months ahead of the U.S. exit.

That isn’t even getting into the hurdles that Afghans have to jump through to get an SIV issued in the first place. The New York Times reported that many translators whose applications have been denied have been left in the dark about why that is the case. And there’s a congressionally mandated cap to contend with that currently means there are under 11,000 visas even available — so about 7,000 fewer than the applicants already waiting.

This isn’t a slight against the people doing the work of actually evacuating these civilians or processing their applications. And it isn’t an argument that the war needed to continue on for another year, let alone extending what until recently was an open-ended commitment. It’s past time that the U.S. stopped trying to “split the difference between going and staying, unable to commit to either,” as I wrote last November.

But as we head for the exits, it's telling how far down the list of priorities this planning apparently was. If the last 20 years were about protecting the Afghan people, why is this one last major effort to safeguard a discrete, known, quantifiable number of civilians such a scramble?