The “Forever War” Without a “Forever Solution”: The Failed Promise to our Afghan Allies

By Emi Houghton, J.D. Class of 2022

In April of 2021, President Biden announced from the steps of the White House that it was “time to end the forever war,” and withdraw from Afghanistan.1 The deadline would be September 11, 2021, 20 years after the event that started the United States’ intervention in the country. Biden assured that the withdrawal would not be “a hasty rush to the exit,” but would be “responsibl[e], deliberate[], and safe[].”2 Unfortunately, looking back months later, it can be said with certainty that the United States’ departure from Afghanistan was anything but responsible, deliberate, or safe, leaving thousands of Afghans in a perilous and uncertain situation.

Since the start of our “forever war” in Afghanistan, the U.S. has recognized that many Afghans have provided a great service to our country and military efforts. Because of this service, in 2009, Congress created a Special Immigrant Visa category for certain Iraqis and Afghans who’d assisted the U.S.3 However, even from the start, this program was incredibly ineffective, and left many Afghans in the lurch for over a decade as they petitioned and then waited for any response.4 To complete the application, several forms must be filled out, a recommendation letter from a supervisor and a letter of employment verification needed to be obtained, and a statement describing threats to the person needed to be written and substantiated with evidence.5 The letters often needed to be requested from people these SIV applicants hadn’t spoken to in years or had never met at all.6 Contacting them to get these letters was virtually impossible in many cases.7

However, even the Afghans who were able to complete their applications were failed by the U.S. Each administration in the past twenty years, both Republican and Democrat alike, has “failed to grant even half the number of visas allowed by Congress.”8 Additionally, the average time applicants waited to hear any response from the U.S. dragged on for years.9 By the time the U.S. announced its withdrawal, the number of SIV applications, including families of SIV applicants, was about 80,000;10 however, “a full accounting would reach the hundreds of thousands,” meaning that after our 20-year war, a large portion of the Afghan population had put themselves at risk for the U.S., and had nothing to show for it.11

Even as the U.S. began the withdrawal, SIV application processing still dragged. Some bipartisan members of Congress formed the “Honoring Our Promises Working Group” in late April 2021, with the purpose of bringing these Afghan allies safely to the U.S.12 Coalitions of veterans, humanitarian, and religious organizations formed a group called “Evacuate Our Allies” with the same purpose.13 Senators from both parties urged the White House to conduct mass evacuations from Afghanistan of SIV applicants, their families, and other Afghans who were at risk because they assisted or were associated with the U.S.14 Essentially, the White House did nothing to assist, and these groups were mostly unsuccessful in their efforts.15 One effort, called “Operation Allies Refuge,” was able to relocate just under 2,000 special immigrant Afghans to Virginia by August 2021, and while it should be applauded that so many of our allies are now safely in the U.S., that number is nowhere near the 80,000 SIV applicants, or the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who assisted us.16

In early August, the Biden Administration finally announced the use of a specialized existing program to bring Afghans to the United States, called Humanitarian Parole. Humanitarian Parole is not unique to the current situation and has been used in the wake of different humanitarian crises for several decades, for example, Cubans fleeing revolution in their country, and Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians fleeing southeast Asia following the Vietnam War.17 However, this program, like the SIV program, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan overall, has been chaotic and unsuccessful.18 Humanitarian Parole requires that Afghans who are either still in Afghanistan, or who were able to flee to a third country, file a petition with a U.S. Sponsor, showing that they “have a compelling emergency and there is an urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit to allowing [them] to temporarily enter the United States.”19 If the application is approved, the sponsored Afghan is allowed to enter the United States. Once here, they will have a short period of time, usually two years, to continue their immigration process and find a path to legal permanent residency, often through Special Immigrant Visa status or asylum.20

The Humanitarian Parole system has, like everything else about the withdrawal and immigration opportunities for Afghan allies, been a massive failure. Most every application has been denied.21 Of the 37,000 petitions filed between July and December 2021, only about 150 had been approved by late January 2022.22 The U.S. is charging $575 per application, only to deny almost every one of them.23 Most people would likely recognize that the Taliban, a terrorist organization, is an urgent humanitarian threat, especially to those Afghans with ties to the United States. However, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will not, and has not, in many cases recognized this threat. Even for those few Afghans granted Humanitarian Parole, a grant of Humanitarian Parole does not guarantee a plane ticket or any other way out of Afghanistan. It is up to Afghans granted parole to arrange travel out of Afghanistan and to a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in a third country for more processing and interviews before coming to the U.S.24 And, even when these parolees make it to the U.S., Humanitarian Parole status does not allow immediate work authorization, or health care access, or a pathway to permanent residency.25

What Now?

The U.S. Government estimates that, before the last American troops left on August 30, they airlifted 124,000 people out of Afghanistan.26 Human Rights First estimates that the U.S. left ninety percent of SIVs behind in Afghanistan.27 After a 20-year war in which we relied heavily on Afghans as interpreters, soldiers, and allies, we damned most of them to be left behind in a country now completely overrun by the Taliban, now living lives in which they often cannot leave their homes, or members of their families are brutally murdered because of their ties to the U.S.28 With the SIV program, we promised them hope at a safe life in the U.S., with the disaster of the withdrawal and our abandonment of them, we ripped that promise from them in one fell swoop. Humanitarian Parole gave a brief glimmer of hope for short-term safety while longer-term solutions could be developed, but has ultimately proven elusive. 

Now in the U.S., while the Biden Administration has seemingly moved on entirely from this issue, nonprofits, attorneys, and law school clinics, like our own, are relentlessly trying to figure out how to assist those Afghans still wanting to reach the U.S., as well as a secure pathway to permanent status for those who have made it here. Many immigration activists are lobbying Congress to create a “statutory path to citizenship for Afghans,” called the Afghan Adjustment Act.29 So far, Congress has done nothing. However, despite the failure on the part of Congress and the Biden administration to create an effective and efficient pathway to the U.S. for our Afghan allies, the hard work and advocacy of many immigration advocates in the U.S. on this front cannot be understated.30 The American people must do their part in urging Congress and the Administration to do their jobs, and assist those Afghan allies left behind and those who have made it to the United States in resettling and building a new life as Afghan-Americans.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the disastrous SIV and Humanitarian Parole immigration programs, have already become a huge blemish in U.S. foreign policy, with many now equating the entire situation to Vietnam.31 For 20 years, we developed strong ties with Afghans risking their lives to support the U.S. military’s effort in Afghanistan, and now we have almost entirely turned our back on them, first with the withdrawal, and now with an almost entire lack of viable immigration options in the U.S. Tens of thousands of Afghans over the past 20 years have risked their lives in the interest of the United States, and it’s time for the Biden Administration and Congress to actually do their part in ensuring that this enormous sacrifice is rewarded with what these allies want most: to become Americans.


[1] George Packer, The Betrayal, The Atlantic (Jan. 31, 2022), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/03/biden-afghanistan-exit-american-allies-abandoned/621307.

[2] Id.

[3] In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress recognized that Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, translators, and others assisting the U.S. faced serious threats because of the support they provided the U.S. military. Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program to allow these people to immigrate with their families to the U.S. The SIV program applies to: Special immigrant Afghan or Iraqi nationals who worked with the U.S. military as translators; Special immigrant Iraqi nationals who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government; and Special immigration Afghan nationals who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government or in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Policy Manual: Chapter 10 – Certain Afghanistan and Iraq Nationals, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, https://www.uscis.gov/policy-manual/volume-7-part-f-chapter-10..

[4] Packer, supra note 1; Ryan C. Crocker & Philip M. Caruso, Our Allies Deserve Better Than Starvation and a Life on the Run, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/opinion/afghanistan-immigration-visa-us.html.

[5] Packer, supra note 1; Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans – Who Were Employed by/on Behalf of the U.S. Government, U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/immigrate/special-immg-visa-afghans-employed-us-gov.html.

[6] Packer, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.; The Case for Expediting Special Immigrant Visas amid a Transition of Power in Afghanistan, Ctr. for Strategic & Int’l Studies (Aug. 16, 2021), https://www.csis.org/analysis/case-expediting-special-immigrant-visas-amid-transition-power-afghanistan.

[10] Packer, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.; Shaheen, Ernst Lead Bipartisan Effort Urging the Administration on Immediate Evacuation of SIV Applicants & Full Implementation of their SIV Legislation, Jeanne Shaheen – U.S. Senator for New Hampshire, https://www.shaheen.senate.gov/news/press/shaheen-ernst-lead-bipartisan-effort-urging-the-administration-on-immediate-evacuation-of-siv-applicants-and-full-implementation-of-their-siv-legislation.

[15] Packer, supra note 1.

[16] Anthony J. Blinken, Secretary of State Press Statement, Arrival of First Flight of Operation Allies Refuge (July 30, 2021), https://www.state.gov/arrival-of-first-flight-of-operation-allies-refuge/; Operation Allies Refuge, U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, https://af.usembassy.gov/operation-allies-refuge/; Packer, supra note 1.

[17] Andrea Castillo, A Los Angeles attorney found a novel way to get Afghans into the U.S. Will it work?, L.A. Times (Nov. 8, 2021), https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-11-08/afghans-humanitarian-parole-us-immigration-uscis.

[18] Jasmine Aguilera, Tens of Thousands of Afghans Who Fled the Taliban Are Now Marooned in America’s Broken Immigration Bureaucracy, TIME (Jan. 26, 2022, 4:22 PM), https://time.com/6141516/afghans-humanitarian-parole/.

[19] Humanitarian Parole, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, https://www.uscis.gov/forms/explore-my-options/humanitarian-parole.

[20] Information for Afghan Nationals on Requests to USCIS for Humanitarian Parole, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/humanitarian-parole/information-for-afghan-nationals-on-requests-to-uscis-for-humanitarian-parole.

[21] Miriam Jordan, Afghans Who Bet on Fast Path to the U.S. Are Facing a Closed Door, N.Y. Times (Feb. 16, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/16/us/afghan-refugees-humanitarian-parole.html.

[22] Marco Poggio, 83,000 Afghans Made It To The US. Now They Need Lawyers, Law360 (Feb. 6, 2022, 8:02 PM), https://www.law360.com/articles/1462197/83-000-afghans-made-it-to-the-us-now-they-need-lawyers.

[23] Jordan, supra note 20. A Fee Waiver (Form I-912) may be requested for those petitioners who are unable to pay the fee, although the fee waiver is not guaranteed and could cause longer preparation and processing times for an application. I-912, Request for Fee Waiver, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, https://www.uscis.gov/i-912.

[24] Aguilera, supra note 17.

[25] Id.

[26] Packer, supra note 1.

[27] Id.

[28]Jordan, supra note 20; U.N. says over 100 ex-Afghan officials have been slain since the Taliban’s takeover, NPR (Jan. 31, 2022, 2:11 PM), https://www.npr.org/2022/01/31/1077003325/united-nations-afghanistan-taliban-takeover-extrajudicial-killings.

[29] Packer, supra note 1. See also Explainer: What We Can Learn from Prior Adjustment Acts and What They Mean for Afghan Resettlement, Nat’l Immigr. Forum (Nov. 10, 2021), https://immigrationforum.org/article/explainer-what-we-can-learn-from-prior-adjustment-acts-and-what-they-mean-for-afghan-resettlement.

[30] See, e.g., Congressional Advocacy, Evacuate Our Allies (last visited Feb. 25, 2022), https://www.evacuateourallies.org/advocacy; Michael Breen, American Society Will Not Abandon Our Afghan Allies, Just Security (Nov. 11, 2021), https://www.justsecurity.org/79186/american-society-will-not-abandon-our-afghan-allies; Rebecca Kheel, Veterans Groups Asking Congress to Prevent Afghan Evacuees from Being Kicked Out of US, Military.com (Feb. 14, 2022), https://www.military.com/daily-news/2022/02/14/veterans-groups-asking-congress-prevent-afghan-evacuees-being-kicked-out-of-us.html; Austin Landis, Veterans, advocates ramp up calls to secure permanent status for Afghan evacuees, Spectrum News 1 (Feb. 14, 2022), https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2022/02/14/veterans-advocates-ramp-up-calls-to-secure-status-for-afghan-evacuees.

[31] Id. See also Eugene Lang, How Afghanistan is—and isn’t—Vietnam all over again, The Conversation (Aug. 24, 2021), https://theconversation.com/how-afghanistan-is-and-isnt-vietnam-all-over-again-166455; Marvin Ott, Afghanistan: Echos of Vietnam?, Wilson Ctr. (July 13, 2021), https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/afghanistan-echoes-vietnam; Colbert I. King, Opinion: We’ve always known this moment would come in Afghanistan, Wash. Post (Aug. 13, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/13/afghanistan-withdrawal-vietnam-embassy-saigon; Why is the Taliban’s Kabul victory being compared to the fall of Saigon?, BBC News (Aug. 16, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58234884.