By Monica Chen
The shocking chaos and destruction in Afghanistan has escalated in recent weeks as the Taliban rapidly occupied the country following the sudden and poorly planned withdrawal of the U.S. military. But this withdrawal did not have to happen.
For months, an Iraq War veteran pressed the Biden administration and members of Congress to implement an organized plan to evacuate Afghan allies to Guam. The plan, called “Evacuate Our Allies,” identified 18,000 Afghans who had helped the U.S. military, as well as their families, totaling 70,000-80,000 people who needed to be evacuated. It worked out logistics and gathered support from more than a hundred veterans and humanitarian organizations. The governor of Guam also supported evacuation to the U.S. territory.
Chris Purdy, who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2011 and is the program manager of Veterans for American Ideals, put together “Evacuate Our Allies.” VFAI is a project of New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First.
“Our plan was pretty reasonable, we thought,” Purdy said this week. “We were asking not to create any new statutes, but to just take the people in the pipeline for the SIVs (Special Immigrant Visas) and expedite their removal to Guam. We chose Guam because that was a historic refugee collection point. It was used for Vietnam. We weren’t asking them to do anything that they weren’t going to do anyway, but just do it in a much more rapid timeframe.”
Guam is a U.S. territory and was where about 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated to in 1975 for Operation New Life before coming to the U.S., according to the web site for Evacuate Our Allies. In 1996, it was also where 6,000 Iraqi Kurds first went before coming to the U.S.
But “Evacuate Our Allies” was never implemented. Instead, the Biden administration waited until the last minute to evacuate both U.S. citizens and Afghans, stumbling over logistics and even relying on the whims of the Taliban as gatekeepers of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The result has been a shocking escalation of violence culminating in the deaths of 13 U.S. Marines and 170 Afghan civilians on Thursday.
On Thursday, during Biden’s address to the nation on the deaths, a reporter asked: “You say that what America says matters. What do you say to the Afghans who helped troops who may not be able to get out by Aug. 31?”
“I say we’ll continue to try to get you out. It matters,” Biden replied, and then added, “Look, I know of no conflict as a student of history, where when a war was ending, one side was able to guarantee that everyone that wanted to be extracted from that country would get out.”
But then Biden skirted the issue of helping Afghan allies and said: “I know that American people get this in their gut. There are, I would argue, millions of Afghani citizens who are not Taliban, who did not actively cooperate with us as SIVs, who when if given a chance…, the vast majority of people in communities like that want to come to America if given a choice. So getting every single person out, can’t be guaranteed to anybody because there’s a determination of who wants to get out as well.”
When asked if VFAI ever heard back from the Biden administration on the plan for Guam in the months leading up to the withdrawal, Purdy said the reaction was “mixed.” Department of Defense, for instance, wanted to withdraw interpreters, but other departments were not receptive.
“Unfortunately the State Department, they have been very resistant for a very long time, even with this situation going on. From our perspective, there was a lot of internal dithering that resulted in where we are now,” Purdy said. “Even we were surprised at the speed (of the Taliban takeover). We were not shocked by the massive capitulation of the Afghan forces. But I am quite confident that if the Biden administration had acted differently and quicker, you wouldn’t see people falling off C-17s.”
“We had conversations with them and no, they did not totally reject our plan. But there was a clear divide in the administration to move forward wholeheartedly with it,” he added. “When they opened the Fort Lee arrivals in July, we thought, ‘OK, that was the compromise.’ It was clear that they were going to slow-roll this if they were going to enact it at all. And that caused a lot of anxiety and angst on our end. They have the infrastructure to do this.”
“They waited until July 29 for these first arrivals. But they should have had them in early June,” Purdy added.
This was not the first time Purdy had worked on helping Afghan allies. In 2016, he worked on countering the Islamophobia during that time to secure ongoing funding for the visa program.
This time, he stepped up efforts in building a coalition of veterans groups, nonprofits and also national security advisors from previous administrations in urging President Biden to evacuate allies. The most recent letter was sent to Biden on Monday with the backing of more than 70 organizations.
On Friday, a senior staff member from the White House finally met with him to talk about an evacuation plan.
A bipartisan group in Congress also formed “Honoring Our Promises” in April, a working group to help Afghan SIV applicants. Along with Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who is on the working group, Purdy held a press conference in June for “Evacuate Our Allies” on the steps of The Capitol.
Moulton traveled to Afghanistan this past week to oversee evacuation efforts at the airport in Kabul.
“It’s a reminder of why America’s values – when we live up to them – matter to people all over the world,” Moulton wrote on Twitter. “I’ve never talked to more public servants, from salty Marines to the most seasoned State Department officials, who came to tears describing their work.”
In June, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero of Guam also wrote a letter to Biden in support of a plan to evacuate allies to Guam.
According to The Guam Daily Post, Guerrero pledged the island’s support for use as the evacuation site. “Guam has stood ready to serve as a safe and secure route for this type of humanitarian effort throughout our history. And today, it is no different. I assure you that my administration is prepared to assist in executing your plans on this matter should Guam be chosen,” Guerrero wrote.
There is increased military presence on the island this summer. According to Stars & Stripes, a military publication, the U.S. Air Force sent more than 35 aircrafts, some of them stealth fighters, to Guam and Tinian in July for the military exercise Pacific Iron 2021.
“If such a decision is made, I respectfully ask that I be part of critical discussions concerning Guam’s role and any related task force should one be established,” Guerrero added in her letter, according to The Guam Daily Post.
Guerrero was not part of the Honoring Our Promises working group.
To Purdy, the violence that has resulted from the withdrawal from Afghanistan was predicted.
“This was not unknown before last week. This was a known. We’ve written letters. This should not have come to a shock to anybody,” he said.
“It’s America’s responsibility to fix this mess. We should as a country be available to accept the burden,” he added. “These people, everything is taken from them. They’re totally devoid of possessions. The most welcoming thing we can do is to take these people in.”
Reactions this week
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., led the “Honoring Our Promises” working group. The Spring Magazine contacted Crow to ask why “Evacuate Our Allies” was never implemented despite being proposed months ago. Crow’s office did not respond to an e-mail. When reached by phone, a staffer commented but wanted to stay anonymous: “It’s just more complicated than that though. I don’t think he’s been citing this specific website (Evacuate Our Allies) in the media. He’s definitely talked about Guam … for months now. Ultimately, responsibility for that lies with the Biden administration. That’s something that you’d have to ask the Biden administration.”
Women for Afghan Women, a New York-based nonprofit, was one of 70 organizations to sign a letter in June from Purdy to Biden in support of “Evacuate Our Allies.”
The Spring Magazine contacted the nonprofit about the plan this week, and asked if Biden’s new plan for a civilian fleet to send Afghan refugees to dozens of countries around the world might further traumatize refugees by scattering them, or worse, expose them to further attacks.
WAW spokeswoman Mona Rayyan said in an e-mail that Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of the nonprofit and chairwoman of the board, would not be available to comment until Monday. On social media, the organization thanked AirBnB for offering to house Afghan refugees, urged for the evacuation of people affiliated with WAW and asked for donations.
Gov. Lou Guerrero and her communications director Krystal Agustin did not respond to media inquiries on Thursday, when the violence in Afghanistan reached its peak.
When reached by phone, Logan Reyes, digital engagement manager for Guerrero, said their office was “busy” – when pressed on busy with what, Reyes said COVID-19.