The American era in Afghanistan ended much faster than nearly anyone expected. I have been following events in Afghanistan since 1978 and include myself among those who were taken aback by the rapidity with which the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani and the US-trained Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces lost one provincial capital after another. Now the Taliban have entered Kabul, and Ghani has fled. Any hope of the Afghan government regrouping and mustering forces for a counteroffensive is fantasy. It’s time for Washington to turn its attention to a post-American Afghanistan. That will require charting a new course—and it won’t be easy.
An immediate challenge involves the parlous predicament of thousands of Afghans who worked with American civilian and military agencies. Many of these individuals fear, and rightly, that they will be rounded up and imprisoned, or worse, once the Taliban consolidates control. Not surprisingly, they are desperate to leave their country. The United States has an obligation to provide them safe haven within its own borders, and it must not shirk the responsibility by cajoling countries, such as Qatar, to open their doors to them. We won’t be able to resettle in this country every Afghan who worked with the United States, but we should find a way to admit as many as possible.
This has been done before. Consider Operation New Life, the post–Vietnam War program that involved various government agencies, including the State Department and the Defense Department, as well as private organizations, and resettled some 140,000 people from Cambodia and Vietnam in the United States and other countries. Although that initiative can’t simply be grafted on to the circumstances of current-day Afghanistan, it can serve as a guide. Afghans’ eligibility for starting life anew in the United States could be determined by the length of their employment with American agencies and the nature of their jobs: the longer the duration of employment and the more sensitive the job, the higher the priority.
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A resettlement program for Afghans would have up-front costs. But they ought to be weighed against the ethical obligation owed to people whose lives are in danger because of their association with the US government, the total expenditure that will be required in relation to $2.3 trillion the United States has spent in Afghanistan since 2001, and these skilled individuals’ potential to earn incomes, pay taxes, and become self-sustaining.
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