WASHINGTON — Afghan civilians who assisted the American-led coalition as interpreters, firefighters and construction workers are in danger of being harmed or killed by the Taliban if Congress cancels a program that allows them to resettle in the United States, according to the top American commander in Afghanistan.
The warning from Army Gen. John Nicholson comes with the future of the so-called special immigrant visa program in doubt as the Senate opens up debate Wednesday on the annual defense policy bill.
The program's backers, who include Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it's unconscionable to deny entry to Afghans who are considered traitors by insurgent groups for siding with the coalition. Nicholson's remarks, outlined in a May 20 letter to McCain, underscore that concern.
Opposition to the program centers on the potential $446 million price tag of expanding the program and concerns that issuing visas to the thousands of Afghans who aided the U.S. and its allies will drain Afghanistan of much needed talent.
Nicholson told McCain that abandoning the special visa program would "significantly undermine" U.S. credibility and 15 years of enormous personal costs made since U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan.
"Failure to adequately demonstrate a shared understanding of their sacrifices and honor our commitment to any Afghan who supports the International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support missions could have grave consequences for these individuals and bolster the propaganda our enemies," Nicholson wrote.
Congress has added 7,000 visas to the program over the last two years alone to meet the demand and the Obama administration requested 4,000 more for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Since December 2014, the State Department has issued 3,200 special immigrant visas to Afghans who worked for the coalition. Thousands more visas are being processed through a pipeline that can take 270 days from start to finish.
"We're going to run out of visas by the end of the year," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D.N.H., who plans to offer an amendment in the Senate with McCain to extend and expand the visa program.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the additional 4,000 visas would cost $446 million over the next 10 years. Afghans who resettle in the U.S. become lawful permanent residents and are entitled to federally supported benefits such as Medicaid, subsidies for health care and food stamps.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who objects to increasing the number of visas, cited the future expense and said it's not clear more visas are needed when so many haven't been used. He also cautioned that the visa program could lead to a brain-drain in Afghanistan.
"We just need to be careful about this," he said. "Just because you've got applicants doesn't mean every one of them is deserving of acceptance."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has raised questions about how well the program is being managed and the severity of the threats facing the Afghans.
Shaheen, a member of the Armed Services Committee, called objections over the cost a "red herring." The expenses would be offset by cost-saving measures found elsewhere in the Defense Department budget, she said.
"What they're trying to do is divert attention away from the importance of the program," she said.
In the GOP-led House's version of the defense bill, lawmakers refused to provide the 4,000 additional visas. They did extend the program for a year, but restricted eligibility for visas only to Afghans whose jobs took them outside the confines of a military base or secured facility.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who helped start the Afghan visa program, said without indigenous employees the cost of the war in Afghanistan would be much greater and the odds of winning would be much lower.
"It's shocking," he said of attempts to scuttle the program. "We have a moral obligation to help people who risked their lives to help us."
Betsy Fisher, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said the costs projected by the budget office may end up being much lower. Many of the Afghans coming to the U.S. are educated, productive members of society who will get jobs and pay taxes, she said.
"I'm optimistic an agreement will be reached," she said.