'I Want the White House's Hair on Fire:' Senator Calls for Action to Save Afghan Interpreters

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Pvt. Mohammad Nadir Afghan interpreter
Pvt. Mohammad Nadir, who worked for three years as an interpreter with ISAF in Afghanistan before immigrating to the U.S., holds a photo of himself at Marine Corps Recruiting Substation Anaheim, June 1, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Jessica Quezada)

A Maine senator is calling for the U.S. to house tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and their family members in territories held by NATO countries while their visa applications are being completed.

"I want the White House's hair on fire" over the pressing need to ensure Afghans' safety, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a telephone briefing with reporters. "The time is short, and getting shorter all the time."

King said he has not discussed his idea to temporarily house Afghans in NATO territories with President Joe Biden, but added that he is "trying to think as creatively as possible about how to solve the problem."

U.S. troops have a mandate to depart Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11, 2021.

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King later clarified in the roundtable that he was not suggesting Afghans stay in NATO nations themselves, but territories they held, similar to how the United States holds Guam. This, he said, would give the Afghans a safe place to stay while not compromising the NATO nations' security.

"Afghanistan is a NATO operation, and there were NATO allies involved along with us in Afghanistan, pretty much from the beginning," King said. "I think we need to call upon our NATO allies to help with this process, and perhaps to provide a waystation for some of these people."

He also said the military may need to detail some Washington D.C.-based personnel to the State Department to help plow through a backlog of roughly 18,000 Afghans awaiting processing for their Special Immigrant Visas.

But the State Department's handling of the Special Immigrant Visa program is troubled and slow, taking more than 900 days on average to process applications for Afghan allies and their dependents. At this pace, by the time the vetting process for many is finished, King said, the Americans will be long gone -- and their lives are in danger.

A rapid military evacuation of Afghans would be complicated, King said. Because Afghanistan is landlocked and there is no sealift option, the evacuation would almost certainly have to be done by air.

Further complicating matters: The U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sunday suspended all visa operations, due to an intense outbreak of COVID-19 throughout the country.

"It's not only a moral issue, it's a national security issue," King said. "This can't just be business as usual at the State Department. ... History judges you for how you go into a war, but also how you leave it."

King noted that after the Vietnam War, the United State temporarily housed Vietnamese refugees in Guam while similar immigration issues were resolved. Today, some advocates for Afghans are vociferously pushing the government to take the same step now.

King said he's not specifically recommending Guam as the waystation for Afghans, but that NATO nations may fill that role today, and allow the time for proper processing.

King did not spell out exactly how he envisioned detailed Defense Department personnel might help out with Afghan visas. It could be, he said, that as personnel are transitioned out of remote areas in Afghanistan, they could do a stint in Kabul to help with visa processing.

He cited the need to get the chief of mission at the U.S.'s embassy in Kabul to sign off on visas, helping to alleviate one major backlog.

The U.S. also has a practical motivation for acting here, King said: if it does not help Afghans now, will potential allies in future conflicts risk their own lives to assist America?

"The signal it sends is, do not help the Americans, because when the crunch comes, they're going to abandon you," King said. "You cannot operate in a foreign theater without the cooperation and assistance of residents there, who believe in the cause that you're supporting. But they're going to have to think twice, if there's a major bloodbath after we leave Afghanistan and we didn't do everything possible to solve this problem."

King stressed that he isn't calling for lowering screening standards "or simply opening the gates," as that could possibly allow a terrorist planning an attack to sneak into the country. But, he said, "we've got to speed it up."

He said he has heard from service members who have depended on Afghans as interpreters and guides, and are now "gravely concerned" for their safety.

King said he was alarmed when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that planning to help Afghans is "working through the system right now." But in a conversation after the hearing, King said, Milley agreed that this is an urgent problem that requires an "all hands on deck" solution.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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