Operation Promises Kept
A plan to evacuate American affiliated Afghans
With the withdrawal of United States military forces from Afghanistan nearing completion, more than 18,000 Afghans who served American forces, and their families, are at risk.
There is bipartisan consensus that these allies have earned access to the safety of the U.S. The Department of Defense has announced that, if requested by the White House, it has plans3 to evacuate these allies. A successful evacuation must bring our allies to United States territory; Guam is ideal. From there, Afghans can be resettled into the mainland United States following the example of previous successful evacuations throughout American history.
The U.S. has a history of evacuating wartime allies:
Through Operation New Life, from April to November 1975 the Ford administration evacuated approximately 130,000 Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. through Guam, where refugees were initially screened before being welcomed into the mainland United States.
In Operation Pacific Haven, from September 1996 to April 1997 the Clinton administration airlifted from Northern Iraq 6,600 Iraqi Kurds and others who had assisted American agencies. The Iraqis were airlifted to Andersen Air Force Base, a contingency support base, in Guam. Their asylum cases were processed in an average of 90 to 120 days.
The Clinton administration conducted Operation Open Arms after Serbian forces attacked Pristina (Kosovo) in 1999. The U.S. airlifted approximately 20,000 Kosovar Albanians to Fort Dix, NJ, where the evacuees’ eligibility for refugee status was determined.
U.S. law provides for the evacuation of U.S. allies to safety in Guam where they can complete their visa processing.
U.S. agencies, including the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of State (DOS), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have the authority and capabilities to handle the legal and logistical issues involved.
DHS has statutory authority to parole people into U.S. territory for significant public benefit, which will allow applicants and their families to travel to and wait safely in Guam while they complete their SIV processing. The U.S. government can coordinate DOS, DOD, and DHS to issue parole authorization to Guam for eligible Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their dependents.
The potential for inaction to result in a massive refugee crisis surpasses the logistical challenges that might arise in carrying out an evacuation of our Afghan allies.
As of June 2021, there are between 17,000 and 18,000 individual applicants for Special Immigrant Visas. At a minimum, the evacuee population should include anyone who has officially begun the process of applying for a Special Immigrant Visa. That number excludes families and other American-affiliated Afghans who are at risk due to their service to the U.S. government.
In total, between 70,000 and 80,000 Afghans need to be evacuated from Afghanistan. DOS should identify and securely contact these individuals and immediately disseminate directions for accessing safe passage out of the country.
Contacting and Scheduling Evacuees
The DOS will need to confirm evacuees’ location and phone numbers. Due to the poor security situation, SIV applicants furthest from processing sites should be prioritized. This will enable those families to move to airports prior to insurgent groups learning of the evacuation and targeting these families.
For the same reason, families in rural areas should be notified 3 to 14 days prior to their scheduled flights so they can adequately plan for a departure. If they are located within 10 miles of the airfield, they should be provided notice 2 to 5 days before their flights.
Evacuating via Local Airfields
Organize Evacuation Sites:
Site Selection Requirements:
Centralized evacuation sites, situated at major airfields, will require local security, temporary accommodations for SIV applicants and their families, housing for U.S. Military Personnel, and space for the processing of SIV applications. Smaller sites could gather smaller groups of SIV applicants and their families before they are moved by U.S. Air Force (USAF) to central sites for evacuation from Afghanistan. All sites would require the requisitioning of buildings for housing and processing. Larger sites may require ground transportation (buses) to move personnel from temporary housing to airfields.
Major Civilian Evacuation Sites:
Large-scale evacuation sites could be located at civilian airports. These airports would need the infrastructure to handle substantial air traffic of heavier commercial aircraft. Kabul International Airport (KBL) and Kandahar International Airport (KDH) both have runways that can handle commercial and USAF traffic. In addition, both locations have capacity, if needed, to provide temporary housing.
Intermediate Processing Sites
An array of intermediate sites would provide security for U.S. personnel and allow more displaced persons to be processed in shorter time frames. In Kabul, for example, these locations could be at former U.S. military installations like Camp Phoenix and Camp Warehouse.
Smaller Evacuation Site
Most SIV applicants have limited resources and would be unable to afford airline tickets from smaller airports to Kabul. They will require USAF or cost-free commercial flights to move from smaller municipalities to larger processing sites. Due to significant Taliban control of major roadways, the safest method of travel by evacuees from their homes to larger evacuation sites is by air. Smaller airfields could be used as these staging locations:
Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport (MZR)
Herat International Airport (HEA)
Lashkargah International Airport, Helmand (BST)4
More than half of SIV applicants and their dependents are in centralized, government-controlled areas like Kabul, easing the logistics of evacuation.
Records show the number of individuals needed to exfiltrate is relatively static. Analysis of the capacity of military and civilian aircraft able to fly from Afghanistan to Guam suggests that between 315 and 330 flights between the two locations will be needed. This calculation excludes aircraft to ferry evacuees from smaller and intermediate locations to major evacuation sites at the large international airports.
Throughout the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military had many aircraft stationed at U.S. airfields in theater. Whether the evacuation operation uses larger strategic airlift capabilities like C-17, C-130, or C-5 for international flights or smaller troop transports for inter-Afghan ferrying operations, the military’s aircraft will be essential. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, airfields used throughout the war were turned over to Afghan control. To use the airfields necessary for the execution of this operation, the U.S. military must coordinate with the Afghan government that now controls them.
Private charter airline companies have long been contracted by the U.S. military to ferry troops back and forth from conflict areas including Afghanistan. The administration should coordinate with these companies to airlift evacuees from the major airfields around Afghanistan directly to Guam. Companies that have been chartered to carry troops include: National Airlines, World Airlines, North American Airlines, Kalitta Air, Atlas Air, and Omni Air International.
Private citizens have begun fundraising to purchase tickets for evacuees’ civilian flights to a designated entry point to U.S. territory. For this effort to be successful, a minimum of $50,000 to $100,000 will need to be raised. Complicating this course of action is ensuring the equitable distribution of funds to Afghans on the ground in Afghanistan. To ensure fairness and effectiveness, an organization dedicated to this task needs to be selected or established.
To help those who travel to U.S. territory using a diversity of civilian means, the U.S. consulate should issue “Boarding Foil,” allowing them to travel to a U.S. port of entry and request permission to enter the United States. Upon arrival, beneficiary evacuees must give Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer their passports (or other travel document) with boarding foil and their unopened/sealed travel packet envelope. If evacuees secure commercial civilian passage, the DOS or DHS will likely need to create a mechanism to pay for it in advance or reimburse the evacuee for passage.
This map shows territorial control5 of Afghanistan as well as where Afghan SIVs reside. More than half of SIV applicants and their dependents are in centralized, government-controlled areas like Kabul, easing the logistics of evacuation. As the Taliban encroaches into southern Kabul, time remains of the essence.
Over the last three months, the area the Taliban controls in Afghanistan has grown. Given the size of the SIV population in Kandahar and the Taliban’s control or contesting of that territory, this region will likely present the most challenges for evacuation.
Parole for Evacuees
DOS and DOD can request that the DHS urgently grant parole to Guam for SIV applicants and their dependents, and provide DHS with their biographical information and relevant documents. Once DHS grants parole to SIV applicants and their dependents, DOD can coordinate evacuating all individuals issued parole to Guam, where they can safely complete their SIV processing.
Guam’s part in this plan is critical. Moving Afghan evacuees to Guam, or another territory or state subject to U.S. immigration laws, allows maximum flexibility for a coordinated evacuation.
Guam As Port of Entry
The United States has evacuated its allies after major conflicts, and Guam has often been the route to the U.S. Guam has both institutional knowledge and infrastructure to host an evacuation. It was used to house and process 130,000 Vietnamese in 1975 and 6,600 Iraqis in 1996. With these precedents, it remains prudent to use Naval Base Guam and other government facilities on the island for the initial processing of Afghan evacuees.
On Guam, Afghan evacuees will have their initial medical and security screenings and receive COVID-19 vaccines. While these are administered, these Afghans should be quarantined to reduce the potential impact of COVID-19 on this population and Guam’s.
This screening process should take a few weeks but could lengthen for certain applicants should issues arise. If evacuees are anticipated to remain on the island for longer than one month, they should be transferred until their screenings are complete to temporary housing in one of the 8,0006 currently vacant hotel rooms. In the time between the end of their initial COVID quarantines and evacuees’ departures, Afghans should be treated as guests and allowed freedom of movement there until they are moved to the mainland United States.
Guam’s part in this plan is critical. Moving Afghan evacuees to Guam, or another territory or state subject to U.S. immigration laws, allows maximum flexibility for a coordinated evacuation. The Special Immigrant Visa program has been notoriously inefficient and subjects applicants to a high rate of erroneous denials which are often rectified on appeal. Having Afghan applicants in American territory offers them protections under American law and allows access to counsel and resources that can help to correct erroneous denials. Evacuees would further be protected by being able to apply for asylum should that be necessary.
Bringing Afghans to American territory like Guam is preferable to sending them to a third country like Kuwait, the UAE, or Bahrain. Sending our allies to countries that are not signatories of the Refugee Convention or do not have functioning asylum systems will cause serious long term problems for both the United States and Afghans evacuated there. There will be applicants found ineligible for Special Immigrant Visas, but may be saved from returning Afghanistan by earning asylum or refugee status. In countries that do not abide by refugee protocol, Afghans who would otherwise be eligible for protections as refugees or asylees under the American system risk being returned to danger.
Processing Centers on U.S. Mainland
Based on previous evacuations, the U.S. government has many options once initial processing is completed on Guam. After a short stay in temporary housing on the island, families that have cleared initial security checks, received vaccinations and health checks, and gone through a COVID quarantine should be transferred to military bases across the United States for further processing of their SIV visa or asylum claims.
Historically, domestic U.S. Military bases have provided exemplary service for allies facing similar threats to Afghan evacuees. Bases used in Operation New Life provide some details of these efforts.
Bases Used in Operation New Life (1975)
Fort Chaffee, Arkansas
Fort Chaffee, a 65,000 acre site near Fort Smith, AR, was one of four sites used in Operation New Life, later used in Operation New Arrival, and housed 25,390 Cuban and Haitian refugees in the early 1980s.7 The Army was notified on April 25, 1975, that Fort Chaffee would be used as a relocation center for Vietnamese refugees, and the first seventy arrived just seven days later on May 2. In total, 50,135 refugees were processed at Fort Chafee.8 On December 20, 1975, Fort Chaffee closed as a refugee center.
Camp Pendleton, California
Camp Pendleton was the first military base to operate as a relocation center during Operational New Life. At 7:20 a.m. on April 28, 1975, General Paul Graham, Commanding Officer of Marine Corps, Camp Pendleton, CA was told to prepare living spaces for as many as 18,000 refugees that would arrive the next morning. Refugees arrived within 18 hours and the camp provided housing, feeding, showers, washing, sanitation, recreation, education, child care, children's playground, and medical assistance.9 In total, 48,418 refugees were processed at this location.10
Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania
More than 21,651 refugees were processed and housed at Fort Indiantown Gap (FTIG) before they were processed for sponsorship in the area and across the United States. A group of 1,000 school children, the local high school marching band, and Governor Shapp welcomed the first arrivals.11 Five years later, in 1980, FTIG became a refugee camp again when more than 19,000 Cubans were brought to the post for processing and sponsorship.
Eglin Air Force Base, Florida
In 1975, Eglin Air Force Base built a tent city north of Nicebille to house and process 8,665 refugees. Between April and May 1980, Eglin again became an Air Force refugee resettlement center processing over 10,000 Cubans who fled to the U.S. in that time.
Historically, domestic U.S. Military bases have provided exemplary service for allies facing similar threats to Afghan evacuees.
Proposed Bases for Operation Promises Kept (2021)
Over the last 20 years, the United States military has built infrastructure at active duty and National Guard bases around the country to mobilize hundreds of thousands of troops headed to combat. These mobilization sites have the capacity to house, process, and feed our military personnel as they leave for theatre and as they demobilize upon return. Sites like these should be quickly retrofitted for evacuee processing. Operating in facilities that National Guard and Reservists are familiar has ancillary benefits. Because the evacuation may coincide with reserve components’ Annual Training (AT) requirements, National Guard and Reserve troops on Active Duty Operational Support or Title 32 orders may be used to process these Afghan allies.
Some domestic bases stand out as candidates for Operation Promises Kept:
Camp Atterbury, Indiana
Amenities at Camp Atterbury include 5,334 bed spaces; sustainment; laundry, food, and postal services; a gym, and more. A variety of wellness and fitness programs and services are available on post, including Morale, Welfare and Recreation, the Indiana Resilience Campus, and the Army Wellness Center.
Camp Roberts, California
Camp Roberts has 5,400-plus bed spaces and 16 open bays in 6 quads. There is also guest lodging including 14 units with more than 20 beds in each.
Camp Withycombe, Oregon
Owned by its state agency, the Oregon Military Department (OMD), the camp sits on approximately 77 acres, having been a much larger active military training site until active outdoor training activities ceased in 1993. Today, Camp Withycombe maintains a number of facilities dedicated to current training, logistics, and military equipment maintenance. The Armed Forces Reserve Center (ARFC), containing approximately 215,382 gross square feet (GSF) of space, currently serves as headquarters for military tenants that provide administrative, logistics, and training.
Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania
FTIG houses the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the Pennsylvania National Guard. It is one of the busiest National Guard Training Centers in the country, with more than 100,000 personnel training there annually, including reserve-component and active-duty service members and law-enforcement officers. Muir Army Airfield is one of the busiest Army airfields. Since the attacks of September 11th, FTIG has served as a mobilization center for troops supporting operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The installation has room for more than 6,000 personnel. The typical barracks on Fort Indiantown Gap hold 60 persons in an open-bay style with four cadre rooms per building and a common latrine. Base barracks are located close to amenities such as the Blue Mountain Sports Arena, Warrior Fitness Center, athletic fields, and PX.
Fort Drum, New York
The installation is home to approximately 10,000 soldiers and 15,000 members of their families. In the 1990s, 130 new buildings, 35 miles of road, and 4,272 units of family housing were built on the base. Wheeler Sack Army Airfield has been expanded to include a 10,000-foot main runway capable of supporting the largest military and civilian aircraft and a rapid deployment facility for efficient processing of passengers and cargo.
Since 1990, Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) has deployed units to combat and peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost 27,000 Soldiers in 985 Reserve Component units from across the U.S. mobilized and deployed from Fort Drum in support of the Global War on Terror.
Fort Dix, New Jersey
The installation was home to the 1999 Kosovar evacuation. Its 42,000 contiguous acres are home to more than 80 mission partners and 40 mission commanders, providing a wide range of combat capability.
Post Processing Resettlement
Afghan SIV holders are eligible for the U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) and will therefore be served by the Reception and Placement (R&P) Program. The R&P program is a public-private partnership funded by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) with additional resources leveraged from federal, state, nonprofit, private, faith-based, and community sources.
SIVs approved for admission to the United States are sponsored by non-profit resettlement agencies12 that participate in the R&P Program under a cooperative agreement with the DOS. The R&P program provides refugees and SIVs with resettlement services during their first 30 to 90 days in the United States and connects them with ongoing services to help them integrate into their communities, attain employment, and achieve self-sufficiency.
Representatives from the resettlement agencies meet frequently to review the biographic information and other case records sent by the DOS’s overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) and embassies, seeking to match the needs of each incoming refugee and SIV with resources in communities across the U.S. This process determines which resettlement agency sponsors each refugee or SIV and where they will be resettled in the United States.
Many refugees have family or close friends already in the United States, and resettlement agencies make every effort to reunite them.
Others are placed where, with the assistance of strong community services, they have the best opportunity for employment. Through their local affiliates, resettlement agencies monitor the resources that each community offers, like affordable and safe housing, school capacity, medical care, and employment opportunities. The agencies use a network of approximately 200 local affiliates operating in communities throughout the United States to place refugees in settings where they can be successful.
Initial assistance includes helping refugees secure affordable housing, locate employment services, and quickly achieve self-sufficiency. Local agencies also provide a variety of special services, including life-skills training, job counseling, and English classes that can help refugees smoothly transition into their new communities. Caseworkers assist SIVs in applying for Social Security cards, educate them on how the U.S. healthcare system works, and help register their children in local schools. They also provide cultural orientation to help refugees navigate their new communities and facilitate their integration in the United States.
Beyond DOS’ R&P Program, SIV recipients are eligible to receive up to eight months of cash and medical assistance through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and five years of ORR-funded integration-focused support services. ORR-funded benefits are independent of DOS benefits. More information about ORR-funded benefits can be found on the ORR website.13
Time is short to solve the Afghan interpreter crisis. The longer we delay action, the greater number of Afghan lives will be lost. There are logistical challenges that could arise during Operation Promises Kept:
Planners of 1975’s Operation New Life found a lack of adequate facilities on Guam to house and process an estimated 50,000 refugees.14 With a modernized U.S. Military presence on the island and the decrease in tourism in Guam due to the pandemic, we expect this issue to be mitigated with a mix of Military housing and hotel accommodations.
Guam’s monsoon season lasts from July to December, and heavy rains can cause flooding and other dangers.15
COVID-19 remains a real threat to communities where there are low rates of vaccination. The people of Guam must be protected by ensuring that all Afghans brought to Guam be vaccinated against the disease.
The potential for inaction to result in a massive refugee crisis surpasses the logistical challenges that might arise in carrying out an evacuation of our Afghan allies.
1 Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, Eric Schmitt, and Helene Cooper. “Pentagon Accelerates Withdrawal From Afghanistan.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 25, 2021.
2 Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung. “Biden Will Withdraw All U.S. Forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 14, 2021.
3 Starr, Barbara, and Kylie Atwood. “Pentagon Examining How to Evacuate Thousands Who Worked for US from Afghanistan.” CNN. Cable News Network, May 27, 2021.
4 Due to the poor security in Helmand, BST may be inaccessible
5 “Mapping Taliban Contested and Controlled Districts in Afghanistan,” FDD's Long War Journal, June 14, 2021, https://www.longwarjournal.org/mapping-taliban-control-in-afghanistan.
6 Haidee Eugenio Gilbert | The Guam Daily Post. “Hotels Gear up for Thousands of Arriving Military Personnel.” The Guam Daily Post, May 31, 2021.
7 Kapp, Lawrence, and Barbara Torreon. “History of Use of U.S. Military Bases to House Immigrants and Refugees.” Congressional Research Service, July 28, 2018.
8 Comptroller General, Evacuation and temporary care afforded Indochinese refugees--operation new life: report to the Congress § (1976).
9 “Library: Operation New Arrivals: Background.” Background - Operation New Arrivals - Library at MiraCosta College, October 2, 2017.
10 Comptroller General
11 King, Seth S. “Band and Applause Greet Refugees in Pennsylvania.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 29, 1975.
12 “R&P Agency Contacts.” Refugee Processing Center. Accessed June 18, 2021. https://www.wrapsnet.org/rp-agency-contacts/.
13 “Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).” The Administration for Children and Families. Accessed June 20, 2021. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr.
14 Legacy Resource Management Program, and Jayne Aaron, 09 Regional Cold War History for Department of Defense Installations in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands § (2011).
15 Gingerich, Stephen B., Victoria Keener, and Melissa L. Finucane. “Climate Trends and Projections for Guam.” USGS Publications Warehouse RSS, April 22, 2015.