One of the things candidate Joseph Biden had been hammering away in the run up to the November 3, 2020 Presidential election was the crisis of credibility of the United States, especially a gaping hole in the moral leadership of a country that had always paid sufficient attention to the sufferings of the disadvantaged people. And President Biden will soon find his first test by way of large swaths of people trying to come to America soon after the last boots have left a small country called Afghanistan. The first crying call has already been sounded out by Afghan translators and language teachers pleading not to be left behind knowing full well what is in store.
It is not as if Afghans want to mechanically cling on to the coattails of the Americans as they depart; rather it is in a genuine fear of what the future beholds and in a general apprehension and conviction that the stage is being set for the return to the Taliban. There is also a throwback to the brutal past that led to the largest congregation of terrorists and terror outfits in that hapless country leading to 9/11 and eventual American intervention and bombardment in October 2001, some three weeks after Osama bin Laden’s terrorists attacked United States.
The intelligence assessment on the ground is that the Taliban will most certainly undo the gains that had been registered and that there is every prospect of an impending civil war leading to the resurgence of the al Qaeda and the ISIS in the same fashion Iraq was witness to after America’s formal withdrawal. But the President of Afghanistan, Asraf Ghani, is confident that his government and security forces are on a much stronger footing. Writing in Foreign Affairs recently he said, “The US decision surprised the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan, and it has forced them to make a choice. Will they become credible stakeholders, or will they foster more chaos and violence? If the Taliban choose the latter path, the ANDSF( Afghan National Defence and Security Forces) will fight them. And if the Taliban still refuse to negotiate, they will be choosing the peace of the grave”.
President Biden’s recent decision to raise the cap of refugees to be admitted to the United States to 62,500 annually and thereafter to a possible 12,500 each year was a shot in the arm to those yearning to have their status validated in the United States or those waiting for a ticket to enter. The substantial raise has to be seen in the backdrop of a consistent drop during the Donald Trump Presidency from about 54,000 in 2017 refugees settled to an all-time drop of 18,000 for fiscal 2020. The refugee resettlement law that came about in 1980 during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter saw decades of Democratic and Republican Presidents keeping the numbers on an average of 90,000 or more.
President Biden may not have had Afghanistan in mind when he announced the refugee cap numbers raise, but as a lawmaker in Washington DC for more than four decades and later on as Vice President to Barack Obama, he is quite aware of the painful process of America picking up the bags and leaving and what this means to the host country — locals by virtue of their association with American soldiers coming to be branded as traitors or informers and facing imminent death for themselves and families. This is precisely the reason why thousands of South Vietnamese left the country, many of them precariously clinging on to the under-carriages of helicopters making their final exits out of the American Embassy Complex in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, in April 1975. And thousands more, known as Boat People, eventually reached American shores.
It is recorded that in the final days of the American stay in Vietnam upwards of 130,000 South Vietnamese had been granted refugee status and allowed to enter the country, a magnanimous gesture on the part of Republican President Gerald Ford who took the decision knowing full well that only 38 per cent of the American people were in approval of bringing the refugees in. When President George Bush decided to start his campaign in Afghanistan to root out Osama bin Laden and the terrorist hordes he had the backing of 90 per cent in opinion polls; and today when President Biden has decided to pull the plug Afghanistan as an issue figures less than 40 per cent in opinion polls, it is maintained. Close to 59,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam over a span of some eighteen and a half years; and the toll in Afghanistan for about twenty years is around 2500, not including the hundreds of military contractors who are said to have been killed.
The plight of the Afghan refugees since the 1980s has been well recorded starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979 that lasted for about 10 years. The flight of refugees to Iran and Pakistan briefly subsided for about five years at the start of the 1990s only to resume when the Taliban stormed back and in 1996 and stayed on till the American intervention in 2001. In fact when the Taliban was thrown out from the scheme of things it is reported that hundreds of Afghans returned home; only now to be facing an uncertain future. The Afghans in Iran and Pakistan had started to slowly making their way to Europe via Turkey, their journey on foot and by sea being a nightmare. And now all their hopes are pinned on the Biden administration.
President Biden’s heart may be in the right place; but the environment on Capitol Hill is anything but conducive to refugees and asylum seekers. What used to be a bipartisan show of support to those who were with the United States has now come down to a hopeless political partisan game. In 2006 Congress came up with the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) specifically for Afghans and Iraqis who were with the United States’ operations. But this program is now said to be backlogged taking up to three years for Afghans for processing; and according to one media report some 18,000 Afghans waiting for approval for fewer than 11,000 slots. Any mass exodus from Afghanistan will need special programs of approval even if people are taken to third countries for processing; and Executive Orders alone may not be sufficient.
“The Taliban call us an infidel, they call us a spy for Americans… If the US forces leave Afghanistan… I cannot guarantee one minute what’s going to happen with me, with my family,” a linguist working for the US Army in Kabul has been quoted in USA Today. And the linguist is certainly not speaking only for himself and his family.
(A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai)
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