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This Veterans Day, Remember to Salute Our Afghan Allies Too

4 minute read

Zeller is a U.S. Army veteran and a Senior Advisor to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He is also co-founder of No One Left Behind, Advisory Board Chair of the Association of Wartime Allies, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project.

My phone vibrates with yet another plea for help.

“Nasir” (not his real name), a former interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, writes to tell me the Taliban has arrested his children. The crime? Recording a video via cell phone.

The Taliban have instructed Nasir to come to their police station to retrieve his children. But before he can bail them out, Nasir needs to submit his biometric information. As we feared, the Taliban have the database of everyone who used to work for us and the legitimate Afghan government and are using it to hunt down and kill anyone they can identify.

Nasir wants to know if I can help get his kids back and then get him and his family out of Afghanistan.

My phone is filled with requests for help like Nasir’s and I am powerless to assist most of them. While the Afghan evacuation may have ended for the U.S. government on August 31, 2021, it remains a daily reality for the 185,000+ Afghans we left behind and the veterans and frontline civilians determined to keep our nation’s promise to see them to safety. With each passing day it feels as if we have abandoned our allies to the very enemies we asked them to help us fight. They are paying the price of our withdrawal with their lives, and the rest of us are left with moral injuries from knowing that we’re letting this happen. The longer we are unable to get these allies to safety, the more the moral injury we have suffered continues to fester. Moral injuries are the most insidious and difficult to heal for they are injuries of the soul.

We must make a profound course correction. The vast majority of our allies are still alive—for now. Winter is coming and with it will come starvation and exposure that will kill more Afghans than the Taliban could ever hope to kill with their bombs and bullets. The Taliban are even more dependent on the global community to feed and heat Afghanistan than the previous government. We should make a deal—food and fuel through the winter in exchange for all the people we left behind.

We must legally obligate our country to complete this final mission—the task should not be left once again to the veterans who have already shouldered the vast burden of our recent wars. Congress must pass legislation that makes the evacuation of these Afghan wartime allies a matter of law. They should also reform the process so that it doesn’t take Herculean efforts combined with a miracle to get someone out. Congress needs to expand the evacuation to include anyone who worked in any capacity for the U.S. or previous Afghan government. Finally, they should enact the Afghan Commission proposed by Senators Tammy Duckworth and Todd Young to ensure that a proper accounting of the war and its aftermath occurs. We must do all we can to learn from this experience and never repeat our mistakes and failures.

To those of us who served with these Afghans, they are our fellow veterans—the upcoming holiday is as much theirs as it is ours. One’s place in the birth lottery doesn’t matter. What counts in this life is what you do with your time. Our Afghan wartime allies are as much of a veteran as I am. While we had the luxury of going home, they went on to the next unit and next mission time and time again. When we say our Afghan wartime allies stood “Shoulder to Shoulder” with us, we mean it literally. They are our brothers and sisters in arms. We’ve been forged together through combat. Our bond is unbreakable. We cannot leave them behind.

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