How the U.S. Can Still Save Allied Afghans Left Behind

America has worked with hostile countries in the past to get our friends out of harm’s way. It can do so again.

Following President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized him for “abandoning” the Afghans who fought and worked with us during the two-decade war. While nearly 125,000 people were evacuated by August 31, an estimated 100,000 to more than 200,000 Afghans did not make it out.

But it’s not true that the United States has abandoned them; it’s way too early to make such a determination. These friends and allies of America can still be resettled safely in the coming months and years. We successfully helped hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cubans escape repressive regimes after the fall of Saigon and Fidel Castro’s seizure of power, respectively.

I should know. I worked for the State Department on programs to resettle refugees as well as the Afghanistan portfolio.

There is no reason we can’t do the same with Afghans. We hammered out orderly resettlement programs with the Vietnamese and Cubans even though our relations were hostile and we did not recognize their governments diplomatically. Those deals were reached because each side had an interest in coming to a compromise—much like the U.S. and the Taliban do now. We can follow a similar course with the new Taliban regime, conferring neither approval nor diplomatic recognition.

In recent weeks, many commentators have made comparisons between America’s chaotic withdrawals from Saigon and Kabul. In my view, the former was far messier and demeaning to the U.S. than the latter. In both cases, though, critics charged the United States with abandoning its friends.

At first glance, this might have seemed true. Indeed, we do have to worry that allied Afghans in the country will face brutality. But many of them can still be saved—so long as the U.S. deploys an effective diplomatic program to get them out. To do that, the Biden administration can look at past successful missions as a lodestar.

In the case of Vietnam, thousands of U.S.-affiliated Vietnamese who were left behind were persecuted, imprisoned, and denied gainful employment and education by their new Communist masters. In response, tens of thousands of desperate Vietnamese took to rickety boats to flee their country by sea, many drowning in the process. Those who managed to reach neighboring countries languished in refugee camps. Those nations eventually ran out of patience, and the authorities began refusing to accept any more refugees, thus endangering more lives. The refugee situation in Southeast Asia reached a crisis point. Something needed to be done.

So the United Nations brokered an agreement in 1979, a key element of which was the Orderly Departure Program, which allowed Vietnamese to safely leave for resettlement abroad. Between 1980 and 1997, the ODP resettled 623,509 Vietnamese in other countries; 458,367 of these came to the United States. Many, if not most, of those we had “abandoned” in 1975 were among them. The U.S. owned up to its moral obligations. It was late, to be sure, but it came. This time, the U.S. doesn’t need to be so slow to act. It can start now.

A similar scenario played out in the Caribbean over decades.

After Castro came to power, an estimated 1.4 million Cubans fled their nation, many by sea. Just like the waves of Vietnamese who left by boat, many perished. In 1980 alone, some 125,000 “Marielitos” fled to the United States by sea from the Port of Mariel. In 1994, more than 37,000 arrived on Florida’s shores. Again, something had to be done.

The U.S. and Cuba agreed in 1994 and 1995 to normalize migration. A key provision involved the U.S. accepting no fewer than 20,000 migrants annually through normal processing in Havana, while the Cuban government committed itself to trying to prevent illegal departures by sea.

I was involved as a U.S. diplomat on the refugee resettlement projects in both countries, which included interviewing refugees about their claims of persecution. Before the establishment of diplomatic relations with Hanoi, the U.S. regularly sent teams of consular and immigration officials to Ho Chi Minh City to conduct interviews, working closely with the UN and other agencies to arrange flights of eligible Vietnamese, initially to Bangkok and Manila for further processing, and then on to the U.S.

My duties in Cuba were twofold: to coordinate with the Cuban military on refugee matters during monthly meetings at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, and to travel the island visiting Cubans who had been interdicted at sea and repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard, to ascertain whether they were being persecuted for trying to flee their country.

While these migration agreements were being negotiated and then implemented, both countries were hostile to us. Though the United States does not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, we can still seek to negotiate a migration accord with them. Ideally, we would do so quickly, giving us the best chance of fulfilling our moral obligation to the Afghans who are in danger because of their past association with us.

It’s too early to tell whether Taliban 2.0 has changed its stripes. But the new Afghan rulers have been sending a message that things will be different going forward. “The Islamic Emirate wants a good and diplomatic relationship with the Americans,” the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in late August. That statement alone reflects a major change; for most of the group’s existence, the U.S. has been one of its avowed enemies.

Senior Taliban representatives also have been assuring the world that they seek reconciliation with fellow Afghans who worked for the previous government or foreigners, that terrorist groups will not be given safe haven, and that those wanting to leave the country may freely do so. They have also said that women’s rights will be respected, albeit “within sharia law.” None of these assurances can be taken at face value, of course. But the fact that the Taliban is even stating them warrants attention.

There’s another reason to believe we can negotiate with the Taliban: We already have been for some time—in years of (fruitless) peace talks in Qatar and throughout the hectic evacuation last month, during which Taliban fighters, coordinating with U.S. military and civilian officials, safely escorted American citizens to the airport. CIA Director William Burns even held a meeting with the Taliban in Kabul on August 23. This week, after State Department interventions, the Taliban allowed two charter flights with American and other foreign passengers to depart.

In an interview, the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Doris Meissner, said she believes that an orderly departure program should be established for Afghans in the future. “Migration is one of those issues where governments need to be talking with one another,” said Meissner, now a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. Early preparations should begin with the National Security Council tasking agencies with basic steps such as soliciting candidates for evacuation from nonprofit organizations and government agencies, all of which hold the names of Afghans who worked for them. These lists would then be vetted and distilled into a master list, and diplomats would work with Taliban officials to ensure departure for the U.S.

Lessons learned from successful past programs should be adapted to a nominal Afghan resettlement model. Other considerations would have to include guaranteeing the security of U.S. processing personnel and cooperation from Afghan government agencies.

Meissner pointed out that the orderly migration of Afghans “would be in everybody’s interest”: For the U.S., it would fulfill its moral commitment to the Afghans who sided with us. For the Taliban, it would rid the country of compatriots the regime regards as traitors while also burnishing their image before the world. Neighboring states like Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Iran, meanwhile, would see fewer refugees streaming across their borders. Domestically, President Biden’s image would incur a much-needed boost. (The State Department did not respond to my request for a reaction to these ideas.)

Upon completion of the Kabul evacuation at the end of August, Biden said, “We will continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk. And we’re far from done.” There is still a lot more work to do. But evacuating at-risk allies is a mission the United States is well equipped to carry out. We have done it before—and we can do it again.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.