Kozachik: U.S. dedication to 'protocols' is risking lives of Afghan refugees
Roughly 20 years ago, under the guise of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' the U.S. government had a hand in propping up the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was being pushed out – a move we supported – and Talibs were our on the ground enforcers at the time. Fast forward to last August and we see what that association bought us. In the words of the old Al Wilson song, 'you knew darn well I was a snake before you brought me in.'
As I watched the Kabul evacuation, visions of Saigon emerged. People chasing our transport planes down the runway, hanging from wheel wells, getting run over and left behind. We learned nothing in the past 50 years. Taliban took control of the country within weeks of our retreat. There are thousands of people who had relied on the presence of the U.S. military for the stability of their nation who are now being starved, abducted, tortured and murdered at the hands of Taliban.
Our refugee resettlement program was largely dismantled in 2020. At the time we reduced the cap on how many international refugees we'd allow into the country down to 18,000. That was the lowest in the history of the program.
Now, two short years later we're absorbing more than 70,000 refugees from Afghanistan alone, and the cap is six times what it was previously. The systems that were marginally effective when we were 'processing' 18,000 refugees is now under water. With few exceptions, representatives in the U.S. House, Senate, members of the State Department and the administration have failed to adapt to the new reality.
That reality is, relying on policies and protocols is getting people killed. People who trusted this country for their survival.
I began working with Judge Ahmad last December. He was an Afghani judge who worked on the U.S. Bagram air base. His job was to adjudicate cases involving members of the Taliban and ISIS. As such he was involved in the imprisonment of hundreds of terrorists.
In the course of his work, his house was hit with a rocket propelled grenade – he spent 20 days in a coma. His car was bombed – he spent 15 days in the hospital. Taliban turned their attention to his young wife so they moved her into Turkey as safe haven.
The judge continued crossing the border doing his work in support of our efforts. On his last trip in Talibs hunted him down and shot him. He was left on the street for dead.
When the attack happened he was on the phone with his wife – she heard the whole episode, contacted relatives and they got Ahmad to the hospital. He lost a kidney in that attack, and upon release found the government had fallen.
Ahmad was caught up in the August evacuation. He's now here – his wife and two-year-old daughter are stuck in Turkey.
Shortly after Taliban took control every one of the people the judge had a hand in imprisoning was released. He and his family are now very high-profile targets. My work has been to reunite that family. The frustration of trying to get the people managing our broken system to think outside of their policy boxes is beyond description.
In the course of working for this reunification I've been in touch with two congressional offices, one senator's office, one senator, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Refugee Assistance Project and our State Department.
I'm told the judge's wife and two-year-old are on a 'family reunification list' and that there are 155 other families in Turkey who were displaced during the Taliban take over who are also on that list.
There is no plan for getting them out of Turkey in terms of timing or process that I can share with the family. There's just a list.
Another piece of the mess is working for Humanitarian Parole for the wife and daughter. That involves yet another federal agency; the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. We have twice filed for HP status – a precursor to getting the family reunited under 'normal protocols.'
The cost for filing is $575 per person. On the first application the request for a fee waiver was denied and the application returned. These are refugees, not people who are rolling in cash. But we resubmitted, this time with a credit card authorization. It too was denied based on 'insufficient funds.'
In fact they simply preferred a different mode of payment.
Later I was told by the one congressional aide who has stepped up to help in this that she believes the application is still live in the system. We simply don't know, and nobody can tell us. What we do know is the rejection rate by USCIS is well in excess of 95%.
They're very happy to deposit the fees. Approving the applications? Not so much.
Factoid – one page of that USCIS application was the birth certificate of the little girl. It was printed in Turkish. They required that we send the judge's wife out into public in Turkey to get that one page translated into English. The woman is a high-profile target of the Taliban. She was a trooper and got it done. It left me wondering if nobody in the State Department knows Turkish – or Google Translate – for a one-page birth certificate of a 2-year-old little girl. It's one example of dozens demonstrating the dehumanizing approach this whole effort has become.
The process I'm describing is what this one family is experiencing. I am also in touch with a former colonel in the Afghan military – he flew fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in support of our effort in that country. He too was caught up in the evacuation. He's here. His wife, 2 daughters and mother (father was killed) are stuck in Kabul.
Then there are the 13 families who were associated with the International Refugee Committee, U.S.-funded Literacy for Life project. That work taught young Afghani girls literacy and numeracy. When Taliban took over, the program folded. Now I receive emails from participants describing abductions into forced marriages with Talibs, people starving, freezing for lack of fuel, and people being taken from their homes with no trace.
Similarly there's the group of female journalists who are now in hiding – or dead – after that work was disbanded when we retreated and left them behind.
To be clear, the time and effort I'm investing in trying to reunite one family could be multiplied by thousands of similarly situated people.
Last week, Taliban entered the judge's home in Kabul looking for him and his wife. They ransacked the place and left with his elderly father in custody. That is the reality for those we abandoned.
I do not for a moment believe we are bound by our 'protocols' and have to simply force people to file the usual paperwork, pay the fees and sit in line. That mentality is killing people.
We demonstrated during the last two weeks of August that when peoples' lives are on the line, we can think and act outside of our bureaucratic boxes, get them on planes and to safe haven at one of our domestic military bases. Proper vetting can take place there – it did. We can do it again, but we seem to lack the political will.
I'm told the hold up in getting the 155 families in Turkey reunited is the Turkish government. Their focus is on Syria, their failing economy and their own porous border.
It's that porous border that is placing the Afghan families who are hold up in Turkey at risk. Turkey has no idea how many Taliban are in their country. Each of the Afghan families are at risk of being tracked down and slaughtered. I have said to our State Department people that if 155 families are not a priority for Turkey, then they won't miss them if we fly them out.
Our failure to do that is the ongoing part of the legacy of the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan that ignores the humanitarian crisis our actions created.
For every Judge Ahmad there are hundreds of others who deserve the immediate attention of the U.S. State Department's Afghan Post. I spoke to a State Department official recently, and he confirmed for me that the Afghan Post is focused on the people I'm describing, and they are not caught up in the Ukraine issue.
So the answer is really very simple. Get them on a plane and out of there. We did it before and therefore showed we have the capacity – if not the will – to do it again.