Afghanistan War Asia Diplomacy & International Relations History Terrorism

“A Profound Moral Obligation”

Biden’s Responsibility to Afghan Refugees Dates Back to Vietnam

Twenty years ago, President George W. Bush declared The War on Terror and brought the United States into Afghanistan to pursue al Qaeda and the Taliban—an endeavor which eventually came to include humanitarian aid and nation-building. Military action in the name of retribution was a popular idea post-9/11, but the tribulations of dismantling the Taliban, facilitating cooperation among Afghan communities, and supporting democratic governance have only put into question the effectiveness of a military presence in the region. President Biden’s public announcement of complete withdrawal from the Afghanistan War in August was not unexpected, but it was sudden enough to send many Afghans into a whirlwind of panic. 

Afghans frantically rushed to Kabul Airport to catch departing U.S. military planes with little success, a frightening sight that instantly ignited comparisons to the plight of the South Vietnamese forty-six years ago following disengagement from the Vietnam War. And while the events of Afghanistan differ from Vietnam in a number of ways, managing the refugee crisis at hand requires a careful look at the past–specifically of where the U.S. succeeded and fell short in its commitment to Vietnamese refugees. Ensuring efficient channels for refugee admissions and asylum seekers in the foreseeable future is pertinent as the Taliban have advanced quickly into formerly U.S.-occupied territory, bringing with them a history of human rights violations and infringements on free civil society that give more than enough reason for concern about the future of Afghanistan.

The United States government found in both cases that two decades of boots on the ground in the name of peace and democracy did not yield the outcomes they had hoped for. Caught in the crosshairs of the Afghanistan War are innocent civilians who can no longer look to the U.S. for immediate assistance and are left to defend themselves against the Taliban lest they risk their lives by uprooting their lives in search of refuge elsewhere, which many have. As it was with Vietnam, the U.S. is now faced with the challenge—and obligation—of coordinating resettlement efforts for Afghan refugees. The Biden administration must commit to relocating and resettling Afghan refugees as quickly as possible by maximizing the possibilities of utilizing humanitarian parole, streamlining vetting procedures, and minimizing the trauma of displacement through community building.

A Look at Vietnam

Four and a half decades ago, President Gerald Ford stood before Congress and the American people to make a case for the immediate allocation of financial and humanitarian aid to U.S. allies in South Vietnam following the military’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War. He argued that the United States had a “profound moral obligation” to the leaders of the South Vietnamese cause who had spearheaded the fight for a democratic Vietnam, and that the fulfillment of our responsibility required decisive and unified action. 

His predecessor, Richard Nixon, had been preoccupied with the mounting pressure of anti-war protest along with the weight of the Watergate scandal, while Congress swiftly moved to prohibit further military action in Indochina. In light of the chaos and panic which defined 1974 and 1975 for the South Vietnamese as a result of these issues, Ford and a few Congressional colleagues sought to pursue legal provisions, gather public support, and work with the Communist Vietnamese government to manage resettlement for Vietnamese refugees displaced by war. This effort was not popular at first, given that the American public and many prominent politicians were more concerned with the implications of losing a war in the midst of prevalent domestic issues like rising unemployment. Even so, the tenacity of these few government officials to support Vietnamese refugees and recognize their struggles was relatively successful.

Ford’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Indochinese Refugee resettlement relocated 130,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. These individuals were met warmly and made up the first wave of refugees who were predominantly educated, wealthy, and English-speaking. Then, in 1978, there came the second wave of refugees made up primarily of the “boat people.” With this influx of refugees who were mostly poor, uneducated, single men who arrived from various refugee camps came a rise in xenophobia, notably amid an economic recession. Over the next 20 years, another 500,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. under the UN’s Orderly Departure Program, which primarily served former political prisoners and those in reeducation camps. Many of these individuals in the third wave of resettlement had not only faced considerable trauma before they set foot in the United States but also became subject to further antagonism and discrimination upon arrival. 

Parallels With Afghanistan

 Since his declaration of withdrawal, President Biden and his administration have been rolling out various policies to cope with the Afghan refugee crisis. He acted on a campaign promise in September by raising the refugee admission cap from 62,500 (up from 15,000 under the Trump administration) to 125,000 people. The U.S. Air Force reported airlifting 124,000 Afghan refugees and American citizens outside of the country to U.S. military bases on a temporary basis until vetting procedures had been completed and transportation could be arranged to the United States. At least 100 American citizens and thousands more Afghans were unable to secure transport out of Afghanistan at this time.

Congress has allocated $6.4 million to spend on refugee assistance for Afghan allies at President Biden’s request, while his administration has been expanding priority for resettlement for individuals with Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), Priority 2 (P-2) designation, humanitarian parolee status, and sponsorship by former veterans with ties to Afghan allies. Still, the rate of evacuation has dropped significantly since the initial air, with Afghan allies unable to depart Afghanistan as processing centers overseas are at capacity awaiting for the completion of vetting and medical procedures. As for international assistance in taking in refugees, E.U. officials have announced they will assist the countries neighboring Afghanistan rather than open their borders to the refugees themselves. France and Germany’s governments, however, have expressed a readiness to accept refugees at this time.

SIVs and P-2 designees have risked their lives to serve the United States in the Afghanistan conflict, making them an immediate target for retaliation by the Taliban. The Afghan Allies Protection Act mandates that an SIV application review be completed by the State Department within nine months, though reports indicate that wait times can be up to 996 days. The Biden Administration has utilized humanitarian parole to get Afghans physically to the United States while awaiting completion of visa processes and refugee status approval. During Operation New Life in 1975 amidst withdrawal from Vietnam, 130,000 people were transported to U.S.-operated military bases under this designation which forged new paths for resettlement. In order to best meet the needs of parolees, the Department of Homeland Security should create multiple programs within the humanitarian parole definition which address the various challenges faced by individuals as they move through the resettlement process from processing to arrival to permanent status. Along with SIV applicants, journalists, activists, female leaders, and other at-risk groups not eligible for SIV or P-2 designation must also be prioritized for immediate resettlement, starting within the humanitarian parole policy. 

Withdrawal from both Vietnam and Afghanistan have been characterized by chaos, panic, and tragedy. In 1979, there were so many “boat people” seeking refuge in neighboring countries of Vietnam that boats would not be allowed to dock and get pushed back to sea. To ensure safe, timely, and peaceful immigration out of Vietnam, the U.S. government established the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) which required cooperation with the Communist Vietnamese government via the UNHCR as an intermediary. Applicants received approval from the Vietnamese government and were screened on Vietnamese soil beforehand, streamlining the resettlement process by avoiding delays during stopovers at secondary locations prior to arriving in the U.S. Achieving such a goal with Afghanistan comes with additional complications, but is viable with some modifications. 

Having an international organization like the UN coordinate with the Taliban on emigration issues risks offering recognition to the terrorist organization and the government it has put in place. However, the Taliban had previously agreed to allow emigration after U.S. withdrawal, giving the Biden Administration the ability to call on such promises. Amerasians, children born to Vietnamese mothers and American military fathers, were allowed to leave Vietnam under ODP by leaving on immigrant visas while being eligible for refugee benefits once in the U.S. This policy avoided offending the Vietnamese government by suggesting that these individuals were refugees, but offered them the adequate support. In any interactions with the Taliban leadership, the U.S. representatives must tread lightly with their characterizations of the Afghan people they want to resettle in order to avoid further hostilities.

Upon arriving in the U.S., refugees must be provided with the resources, services, and connections they need to pursue education, employment, and healing. Refugees have historically been characterized as “welfare leeches” and face pressure to become independent of government assistance shortly after arrival, without the opportunity to reflect on the traumatic experiences they have faced. The notion of starting anew in a foreign place without speaking the language, understanding the culture, or having any connections to others can lead to retraumatization. Such sentiments will probably lead some Afghans to opt for secondary migration to areas with strong Afghan communities as was seen in the aftermath of Vietnam. To avoid retraumatization triggered by cultural isolation and by undergoing secondary migration, resettlement policy should attempt to build and uphold Afghan communities across the country rather than disbursing refugees without forethought. The goal must not be to force assimilation, but to facilitate growing, diverse communities wherever they shall fall.     

A Profound Moral Obligation

The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan has been a complex and ever-changing endeavor for the last two decades. Given the enormous responsibility of resettling such a high volume of Afghan refugees in the coming months, the Biden administration must be cognizant of such complexity and approach policy in a way that embraces the resilience of these communities while meeting their unique needs. 

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By Karina Ngo

Karina Ngo is pursuing a degree in Political Science and Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is particularly interested in developing more effective, equitable, and just public policy to address issues of racial and economic disparities in the United States through a career in law. On an international level, she is passionate about finding solutions to international refugee crises and facilitating cooperation among nations on climate change policies.

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