The United States is apparently on the verge of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, its longest and costliest foreign war. Nearly 20 years in duration, at a staggering $2.3 trillion cost that mounts daily, the war is an albatross left over from the Bush administration. Brown University’s Costs of War Project calculated that the federal taxpayer has spent about $16,000 per person to keep this futile and seemingly endless conflict raging. The War Project consists of 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners and physicians who have been studying the Afghan War’s devastation since 2011.
Brown University further estimates that the $2.3 trillion cost is understated because the totals don’t include the funds the U.S. is obligated to pay in future healthcare costs for veterans or future interest payments on the money borrowed to finance the war, $600 billion in interest expense through 2023, and billions more to come in the following decades. The analysis also estimates that 241,000 people died in the Afghanistan War, a total that includes 2,442 U.S. military service members, nearly 4,000 U.S. contractors, and more than 71,000 civilians.
Now the U.S. is left to deal with Afghanistan’s aftermath, one of which is the country’s at-risk or displaced nationals anxious to migrate to America. Atop that list are Afghans who worked alongside and assisted U.S. troops during the two-decade war. Among them are 18,000 interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards and embassy clerks who are stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire. After applying for Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), available to Afghans who may face threats because of their work for the U.S. government, the applicants can often wait as long as six or seven years, far too long some observers claim given the danger the U.S. allies might encounter.
To speed up the SIV process, in late June the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed, 366-46, a bill that would waive the mandatory medical examination, allegedly a hardship, and replace it with a requirement that a physical be completed within 30 days of U.S. arrival. Whether this relaxed medical condition would be confirmed once stateside is uncertain.
But, as is standard operating procedure with immigration advocates, they’ve pressured their colleagues and President Biden to loosen the existing requirements, and issue more visas. Since 2014, the State Department has authorized 26,500 Afghan visas, but Rep. Jason Crow, (D-Colo.), who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, introduced the ALLIES Act that would increase the visa cap by 8,000, and remove judicious requirements like obtaining “credible sworn statements” that the applicants have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government. Crow wants to “streamline and strengthen,” words that in immigration parlance translate to open-wide-up and weaken. Predictably, given the nature of the legislation, the ALLIES Act has significant bipartisan support.
To be clear, fair-minded Americans want to help allies who have supported us in the extended Afghan War. But neither do Americans want the Afghan SIV to devolve into the fraud-ridden Iraqi SIV program. In breaking news, Reuters reported that 4,000 Iraqis are suspected of filing fraudulent resettlement applications. The State Department is re-examining 40,000 cases that involve more than 104,000 people, 95 percent of them still in Iraq, and has frozen those applications until further clarification. More than 500 already-admitted Iraqi refugees have been implicated in the fraud and could be deported or stripped of their U.S. citizenship.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice indefinitely suspended the Iraqi SIV program after it learned that foreign nationals from Russia, Iraq and Jordan stole from the State Department’s database files refugee applicants’ employment records, security checks, military history and their personal persecution accounts, all breached by the infiltrators. Prosecutors said that undeserving Iraqis could duplicate stolen information to gain approvals that they would otherwise have been denied, and may also have pushed some deserving refugees out of the queue.
When he learned about the fraud, Michael R. Sherwin, then-acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, said: “It is important to hold accountable those who would seek to defraud such programs [Iraqi SIV], particularly when the crimes compromise our national security and public safety, when they impose such high costs on taxpayers…”
Obtaining SIV means eventual U.S. citizenship, permission to petition nuclear and extended family members, legal and lifetime valid work authorization, and also represents, as Sherwin warned, a potential national security threat. In light of an SIV’s benefits, the existing requirements are reasonable, and didn’t deter the 60,623 Afghans who were admitted between 2007 and 2018.
Can the Biden administration be counted on to vet the Afghans properly and thoroughly? Or, will the administration instead greenlight all the applicants? Those are the questions of the hour. Judging from Biden’s nonenforcement of Southwest border policy, long-time immigration observers are wagering that, despite the inherent risks, he will welcome the Afghans with little, if any, oversight.
Whether dealing with SIVs or other immigration issues, the federal government never has been able to get immigration right. U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) understood. Jordan, now deceased, said in 1995:
“Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.”
Those straightforward guidelines could help avoid difficult uncertainties like the Iraq and Afghan SIVs.