The way a country winds down a war in a faraway place and stands with those who risked their own safety to help in the fight sends a message to the world that is not soon forgotten.
As President Obama announced last week, the U.S. will withdraw all but 9,800 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and by the end of 2016, only a small force will be left at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As the withdrawal proceeds, the United States is in danger of sending the wrong message to Afghan interpreters and others who risked their lives helping our troops and diplomats do their jobs in Afghanistan over the last decade.
The State Department and other government agencies have over the last year improved the path to safety for record numbers of our Afghan allies, but now we need urgent help from Congress to continue that progress and fulfill our obligation.
The Afghan special immigrant visa program was established by Congress in 2009 to help Afghans whose work for the U.S. government put them in danger of retaliation. The program, modeled after one for Iraqis, was designed to identify people who faced genuine threats and to speed their entry to this country.
The effort got off to a slow start. Delays in processing applications and lack of transparency in making decisions created problems. Bluntly stated, the process wasn't keeping up with the demand. A full-scale State Department review revealed statistics and anecdotes that highlighted unconscionably long processing times for applicants, including on background checks conducted by other U.S. agencies. Some deserving people were simply falling through the cracks. This was unacceptable to me and to the president.
To fix it, the State Department first looked inward. We identified and dealt with inefficiencies and gaps in our own operation. We mobilized additional resources, particularly at the embassy in Kabul where staffers volunteered for extra duty and cut processing times in half.
We made the system easier to use for Afghans. U.S. diplomats moved around Afghanistan, explaining the rules and procedures to potential applicants. We encouraged people to apply early to maintain a steady flow of cases and minimize wait times. Congress helped by clarifying the rules about how applicants can demonstrate that they face threats.
Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times.