Commentary by Jack McCain, December 6, 2022, View Original
As a Navy pilot and Afghanistan veteran, I know what it means to come down to the wire.
On many occasions throughout my career, I’ve had only a few seconds to make the right call for myself and those aboard my aircraft. And as the son of former Sen. John McCain, I understand the pressure that senators face in the last few weeks of the year as they scramble to address many critical pieces of must-pass legislation. But there is one priority, deeply personal to me and morally deserving of consideration: doing right by the Afghans who helped us during our 20-year war in their country.
In August 2021, during the shambolic final days before the Afghan government collapsed, I, like many other veterans of the war, worked the phones, leaned on my networks, and logged 20-hour days for weeks to ensure the safe evacuation of Afghans who had been my friends, colleagues and co-pilots.
I volunteered for a combat deployment in 2017, serving as an “Afghan hand” with the aim of forming lasting relationships in Afghanistan. For a year, I trained and flew alongside Afghan helicopter pilots throughout Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Helmand provinces, getting as close as I could to my counterparts. These Afghan Blackhawk pilots were people I counted on to protect me, to fly with me through fire, and who proved themselves brave beyond measure in every mission they were assigned.
One senior ranking officer who I was close with saw the writing on the wall as the United States set the date to withdraw our forces. He flew his aircraft home to the Panjshir Valley, scrounged up enough fuel for one last flight, gathered his troops and their families, and flew them back to Kabul to ensure they got out. Once he knew his people were safe, he turned to leave, intending to fight what he must have known was a losing battle for his country. Fortunately, other U.S. soldiers he had worked with told him that his war was over and convinced him to evacuate as well.
The evacuation of Afghans who were promised our support was a disastrous scramble. The security vetting of those who came to the United States during the weeks following the fall of Kabul was deeply imperfect. Too many valuable human assets were left behind. Some are still hiding in Pakistan in purgatory, unable to go back, lacking a way forward.
Those who made it to safety are languishing in uncertainty. Afghan Air Force combat pilots, who the United States paid millions of dollars to train, make ends meet by driving for Uber and doing other precarious jobs they’re massively overqualified and overeducated for — all because they don’t have a pathway to permanent status in the United States that would allow them to return to the skies.
It is too late to fix the dysfunction our withdrawal unleashed in Afghanistan. But there is still time to make it right. The Afghan Adjustment Act protects those who worked directly for the U.S. military as interpreters or liaisons. Additionally, all Afghans seeking status will be subject to the gold standard of security vetting — the same vetting that people seeking to resettle as refugees in the United States are required to pass. The bill will also help ensure that no one is left behind by establishing an office outside of Afghanistan where those who remain there or are stuck in third countries can go to have their cases processed, a critical step in ensuring that Afghan heroes can restart their lives with dignity.
In its current iteration, this bill also expands Special Immigrant Visa eligibility to Afghan military veterans like my fellow pilots, and beyond to those who worked directly for the U.S. military as interpreters or liaisons.
The Afghan Adjustment Act is what men and women in our Armed Forces are asking for. And we’re not alone: A majority of Americans feel that the United States should take in Afghans who risked their lives to support our military.
I will never forget the names and faces of pilots who were killed when I was in Afghanistan. To those who survived, we made a promise to bring them and their families to safety. I cannot, and will not, believe those who say we can’t fulfill this essential promise. The moral injury of continuing to fail them wears on our fighting forces every day.
It is now up to Republican Sens. John Cornyn, Jerry Moran, Thom Tillis, Pat Toomey, Roger Wicker, Dan Sullivan, Marco Rubio and Mike Rounds to ensure we keep our word. These men served in Congress with my father, a prisoner of war who understood that it was important to extend safety to people who fought alongside us. These final few weeks of the 117th Congress are our best chance to keep our promise. We’re down to the wire, and it’s time to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Jack McCain is a reserve naval aviator and son of the late Sen. John McCain.