“No one left behind” is a phrase inextricably linked with our military culture. The concept is a pillar that supports the platform of what it means to serve, analogous to “defending those who can’t defend themselves” and “protecting our freedom.” Like all military axioms, no one left behind means many different things, depending on the service member or veteran you ask.
The most prominent examples of this are in the Medal of Honor citations of U.S. troops braving enemy fire to bring a wounded comrade to safety without regard for their own well-being. Not as thoroughly illustrated in Hollywood, however, are veterans who are determined to bring home the remains of U.S. troops lost in foreign wars, or those working to help other veterans with challenges in employment, physical disabilities, and mental health. All of it can be traced back to “no one left behind.”
The time has come for the U.S. to embody this core principle yet again.
Close to 18,000 Afghans (and their 53,000 family members) who provided assistance to the U.S. as interpreters, security guards, contractors and more, now face a future that is uncertain at best. These people who fought alongside our men and women in uniform are running out of time, as the U.S. Department of Defense now estimates its withdrawal from Afghanistan is 95% complete as of July 12th.
One man with a wealth of knowledge and experience on the subject is General Joseph Votel (Retired). The former commander of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and US Central Command (CENTCOM) was one of the first troops on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11, conducting a rare combat jump with his fellow Rangers on Objective Rhino, near Kandahar.
“I was in the first wave of troops, October of 2001,” General Votel told Sandboxx News. “And I think between 2001 and 2019 — when I actually left service — I’d been to Afghanistan for some part of every year, sometimes just a few days and sometimes for a whole year.”
General Votel’s extensive time spent in theater, dating back to the very beginning of U.S. operations there, makes him as qualified as any expert one could find on the war-torn country and its looming humanitarian crisis.
These thousands of Afghans who aided or sympathized with U.S.-led forces in the 20-year war against the Taliban have been imperiled as the American presence dwindles. The slow trickle of departing troops turned to a hasty exit at the beginning of May, and the U.S. has assumed a much more defensive posture. As a result, the Taliban has seized territory at an alarming rate and now control over half of the districts in the country. There was already plenty of support for their strict interpretation (and enforcement) of Sharia in more conservative, rural areas, but they are now are closing in on major cities that have been more secular and progressive in terms of things like women’s rights.
“I’ve invested a lot of time in this like many have, and I feel like I got to know the Afghan people. I certainly got to know their story quite well. I feel sad that we are not leaving them in a better position,” General Votel said.
The Taliban are determined to improve their image with the U.S. government and avoid any entanglements that would prolong the withdrawal. Multiple Taliban spokesmen have been dismissive of human rights abuses in territories they’ve re-captured, and recently stated that Afghans who worked with the U.S. will not be harmed if they “show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country.”
Many Afghans put little stock in the statement from Taliban leadership, and have no intention to stay and find out if they keep their word. There are countless stories of retaliation against these Afghans that the Taliban has past referred to as “traitors” and “slaves.” Whether all of the more recent violence has been sanctioned by the Taliban or not, those who fear further reprisals without the U.S. presence do so justifiably.
“These interpreters and others that helped us, they did this at their own personal risk. We recognized this and we set up programs. The Special Immigrant Visa program, SIV program… is specifically designed to give those who’ve spent time with us a leg up in the immigration process — to come to the United States and have an opportunity to become a citizen, because we knew that their jobs — what they were doing for us –would put them in danger down the line.”
The sheer volume of SIV applications coupled with staffing issues and lack of a central database has created an enormous backlog at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that could take several years to sort through. An outbreak of COVID-19 killed one and infected 114 staffers at the embassy last month, grinding operations to a halt. Further complicating the issue, many SIV applicants do not live in Kabul. Transportation and communication would already be an issue, particularly in rural areas, even without Taliban militants’ ever-increasing presence.
“It’s really important, I think, for us to follow up on that, follow through on our promises and, and do the right thing for these people. It’s literally a life and death situation for many of them,” General Votel explained.
Operation Allies Refuge, announced earlier this week, will begin the massive task of evacuating all SIV applicants out of Afghanistan by the end of the month. When asked at Wednesday’s briefing, DOD Press Secretary John Kirby was non-committal about potential locations for the soon-to-be displaced Afghans while their pending immigration is processed. There is precedent, and therefore hope, for such a large undertaking. CONUS installations have not been ruled out, such as in 1999 when the U.S. airlifted 20,000 Kosovo refugees to Fort Dix, NJ. International U.S. assets like Guam seem more likely, as that is where 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated to in 1975.
Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, General Votel has a personal connection to that operation as well. Many Vietnamese Hmong ended up immigrating to that area, and the connection to the present-day crisis is not lost on him:
“They have integrated so well and they have become a very integrated, important and contributing part of our community right here. And whenever you see Hmong, and the different influence they have in here, it makes you think of America doing the right thing, even in the wake of a disaster like Vietnam was,” he said.
“We did the right thing. We stood by people that stood by us, that were going to be persecuted because of their association and support to us. And we brought them to our country and then made them part of our society.”
While the U.S. government has acknowledged the problem and is putting things in motion to get these Afghans to safety, General Votel said that the American people can also help. No One Left Behind is a non-profit at the forefront of the issue, one that Votel supports himself. They have already raised over $1 million dollars for their cause of evacuating our Afghan allies from Kabul, and now the General is helping to spread the word far and wide.
While Americans can certainly offer their financial support to No One Left Behind, General Votel was just as quick to mention the importance of people using their “time and talent” to help. He says one of the best ways Americans can help right now is to be aware of the problem, make others aware of it, and especially, put pressure on Congress and keep the plight of the Afghans in the public eye and a high-priority for President Biden’s administration.
General Votel’s own experience with interpreters, in particular, speaks to why ensuring the safety of these Afghans is not only a question of American morality and doing the right thing, but also crucial to the safety of U.S. troops and the security of the American people. What interpreters provide troops on the ground is invaluable, and is not just translation of the language (though it is certainly that, as well).
“What I deeply valued was the cultural aspects that I really picked up from them… They understand the country. They understand things that are just so difficult for us as Americans to appreciate that they can share that with us, and they give us an understanding of the society and how things there work.”
The estimated cost of approximately $699 million to execute Operation Allies Refuge is a relatively small price to pay for a mission that will enhance security and save American lives in the future. However, General Votel emphasized to Sandboxx News more than once that there’s also the moral obligation that the United States has to the Afghan people who helped us.
“They become comrades. They begin to appreciate our values, as well, and are really good representatives for our country. So they’re just so much more than somebody that translates words from one language into another.”
- To learn more about No One Left Behind, visit nooneleft.org.
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