The Biden administration announced today that it intends to relocate thousands of Afghan nationals who have worked alongside the U.S. in the past two decades of the war in Afghanistan. Members of the military, diplomats and journalists have been lobbying for years to get translators and other support staff from Afghanistan to be allowed into the United States. One of those who's been working hard on the campaign is Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, himself a Marine veteran who served four tours of duty in Iraq. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of GBH’s interview with Rep. Seth Moulton.
Aaron Schachter: I'd like for you to lay out the problem for me, if you would.
Rep. Seth Moulton: Well, these Afghan interpreters and drivers and advisors, they're not just Afghan heroes, they're American heroes because they've risked their lives, not just for Afghanistan, but for America, for our troops. And they were willing to risk their lives because we told them “we have your back.” And because we said that they now have a target on their backs, so we got to get them out. We made them that promise. We said “if you come to work for us, we will keep you safe,” and that's why they were willing to do it. So, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said to me yesterday in the hearing, we have a moral imperative to get them to safety. But I would add, we have a moral imperative, not just to these Afghan American heroes, but to every future U.S. soldier, Marine, airman, sailor who is in a position where they need help and they need to make that same promise to a partner or ally that, “come work for us because America will have your back.”
Schachter: I’m glad you brought that up, that this is a message for the future, because certainly it has not always been the case that America took care of those who helped out in various conflict zones across the world. Why should this occasion be different?
Moulton: Because it's fundamental to our values. Sadly, the last time that we betrayed our allies in the battlefield was just a few years ago, under President Trump, when he abandoned our allies in Syria. The Kurds were fighting right alongside us, and then Trump made this unexpected deal with Turkey, and suddenly we had to pull out. And our troops were appalled, they were devastated. We heard from them on the ground: how guilty they felt, how terrible they felt, at literally abandoning our allies on the battlefield. We can't make that mistake again. We've got to show that we're good for our word, and that America keeps our word. Making sure that these Afghans get to safety is the most basic thing we can offer them for all that they've done for us.
Schachter: Clearly, it's a dangerous situation — it was and is a dangerous situation — but surely the people who take these jobs know that they're getting involved in a dangerous situation. I mean, they're compensated fairly well, certainly paid more than folks in their army or military or police. Are they not participating in a contract when they sign on?
Moulton: Look, you can say the same thing about me as the United States Marine. I knew that I was getting involved in a dangerous situation. But would I ever expect the U.S. Government to leave me behind just because I knew it was a dangerous job, that I knew I was taking on a hard mission? No, of course not. And just to be clear to people what's at stake here, the Taliban will kill these Afghan friends and allies. They will hunt them down and kill them.
Schachter: That is not a theoretical scenario.
WATCH: Rep. Seth Moulton on keeping a promise to Afghan translators
Moulton: No, this is already starting to happen. This is how the Taliban operates, this is what they've made clear they will do. They are trying to hunt our allies down today.
Schachter: Now, I've written letters, and colleagues of mine have written letters, and I'm happy to say that, in two cases in which I was personally involved — I didn't do this on my own — we did get people out of Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder why, given what you've said, it takes this kind of campaign to make this happen?
Moulton: Well, what's different is that we're suddenly withdrawing in the space of a few months. And sadly, the expectation from many national security experts is that the Taliban will take over large swaths of the country and potentially very quickly. So, while we had a presence in Afghanistan, we had the luxury to a certain degree of letting this process play out. There's an existing program called the Special Immigrant Visa program to do exactly what you described, to get translators out to safety — I've used it to get several of my translators out to safety, and to help some other veterans get theirs home to America as well. But that process takes an average of 800 days for a single application. We're pulling out of Afghanistan in less than 80 days, so that's why an evacuation is necessary now.
Schachter: As you mentioned — and it's been shown, we don't have to rely on your word for it — the Taliban is a ruthless organization. And the contention was, for four years at least and I imagine for much more than that, that they would be perfectly happy to try and infiltrate the U.S. in whatever way they possibly could. How do we know who is friend or foe in this situation?
Moulton: Well, we have to have a screening process, and that's fine. That's why we're saying, don't bring these folks to America right away, bring them to a place like Guam where they can be processed. And Guam is a great option, because, one, they've agreed to it, we secured the support of their delegate to Congress, which was a huge win for this effort. Two, It actually stands to benefit their economy, which is reliant on tourism and has been devastated by the pandemic, so there are actually a lot of empty hotel rooms on Guam to help house the refugees. And, three, it's a place where, because it's a U.S. territory, we have the time to go through the careful vetting process — once these refugees are safe — to make sure that they can come to the United States. And, you know what, if the administration wants to put forward a better plan, I'm all ears. But we have laid out a detailed operational Plan for how they can make this work in Guam, a place we've used in the past, both for Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War and for Kurds in 1996.
Schachter: And it's an island, so there isn't really anywhere they can go is there?
Moulton: No, they're not going to swim out to San Francisco from Guam. So it's a safe place to do this, we have the capacity and the experience to do this. We just need to make it happen, the administration just needs to make this happen.
Schachter: Now, as you say, you have not seen a plan but there is a pledge, right? It must be uplifting to see that there's a willingness at least to get these people out.
Moulton: Absolutely, it's a huge step in the right direction. Let's remember: the Trump administration originally set an even earlier withdrawal date, and it's very clear that they made no plans whatsoever — not only plans to take care of our allies, but plans to simply execute the withdrawal, and ensure that we can still support our diplomats on the ground and help the Afghan government when we leave. So, the Biden administration has had to scramble here.
Schachter: I do want to point out, just to be fair, from 2008 on — after many years of war — not a whole lot of people were allowed into the U.S. then either. It wasn't as if a flow of our Afghan allies were coming in and suddenly stopped. This has been a problem for a long time.
Moulton: Look, the program has been backlogged for some time, and we have made continual efforts in Congress to speed it up. There are efforts that might be coming to a vote soon in the House of Representatives to further improve the speed and the reach of the Special Immigrant Visa program. Those are good legislative improvements to make, but they're not going to deal with the immediate crisis here. We have a crisis because of the quick withdrawal timeline that's been put into motion, and carried through by the Biden administration, and so that's why we have this sudden urgency and need to get it done now.
Schachter: And finally, we're talking about 17,000 people right, from Afghanistan?
Moulton: No, that's not an accurate number. The 17,000 are the people who are in the queue for the Special Immigrant Visa, so that's our best estimate for the exact number of interpreters, drivers, staff assistants or whoever else has worked directly with the Americans. But they all have families — wives, husbands, and kids — and so we need to get them out as well. The estimate is that you multiply that number by about 3.5. So, let's just do round numbers math: say it’s 20,000 times 3.5 is 70,000. It's really about 70,000 people we need to get out. But that's just half of the number that we brought back from Vietnam after the Vietnam War. So we can do this: we've done it in the past, we can get it done today.
Schachter: I'm glad you pointed that out — 70,000 — because that is still, relatively speaking, a drop in the bucket when it comes to bringing refugees to the United States. What has been the problem over the past 15 years or so to bring these folks to the United States?
Moulton: Well, frankly, I think that there was a lot of hope, perhaps false hope, that we wouldn't need to conduct an evacuation like this because Afghanistan would be a peaceful and stable democracy by the time we left. I think it's clear now that we're not going to win the war in Afghanistan, but there are still devastating ways that we could lose, and if we leave our friends and allies to the hands of the Taliban, that's one of them right there.