After 20 years of destruction, the US has a moral obligation to let in 1 million Afghan refugees

After 20 years of destruction, the US has a moral obligation to let in 1 million Afghan refugees
People try to get into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 16, 2021. Stringer/REUTERS
  • 20 years of US war in Afghanistan has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Afghan deaths and the displacement of 5.9 million people.
  • The US government and US citizens have a responsibility to repair the damage caused by our war.
  • The US must resettle at least one million Afghan refugees in the US over the next decade and provide additional humanitarian assistance to Afghans.
  • David Vine is professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. Vine is co-author of the Costs of War Project's report "Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States' Post-9/11 Wars."
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Imagine how it would feel to have to flee your home tonight, perhaps forever, running for your life from an insurgent army sweeping to power. This is what around 30,000 Afghans were experiencing each week during the Taliban's military advance through their country. At that rate, the war was on track to displace as many Afghans in August as people live in Topeka, Kansas; Waco, Texas; or Flint, Michigan. Even more have tried to flee as the Taliban seized control of Kabul. Thousands have died from the fighting in recent months.

Those now in flight, as well as nearly 6 million forced to flee their homes since 2001, are part of what the US's 20-year war has brought Afghans. With lives hanging in the balance, the question now is what the United States owes the Afghan people. While some want to debate the US withdrawal, we must focus instead on making every effort to aid those whose lives have been so damaged and endangered by our war. One important place to start is for the Biden administration to welcome one million Afghan refugees to the United States.

The costs of the war

Before turning to the solutions, consider what we would ask for if another country invaded ours and waged a war that killed, injured, and displaced millions. I've been tracking the damage that our war has inflicted on Afghanistan as part of Brown University's Costs of War Project. The project has spent more than a decade documenting the human and financial costs of US wars waged since 2001.

Last year we worked with a team from American University to calculate the number of people displaced by the war in Afghanistan, as well as the US wars in Iraq and six other countries. We found the Afghanistan war has displaced at least 2.1 million Afghans as refugees and 3.9 million internally. That's about 15% of Afghanistan's total population today and nearly 30% of its pre-war population.

Try to imagine just 15% of the United States forced from their homes. We're talking 50 million people - or everyone in Florida and Texas combined.


Our war has also killed around 150,000 Afghan civilians and combatants through combat alone; factoring in deaths from disease, hunger, and the destruction of health and other infrastructure, the death toll is likely at least 600,000-750,000. Millions have been injured and traumatized.

What would justice look like if another country invaded the United States and waged a war that displaced 50 million and killed and injured millions more? The United States does not bear all the responsibility for the destruction in Afghanistan. Responsibility also lies with US allies, the Taliban, al-Qaida, other militant groups, and other foreign powers. Still, we bear overwhelming responsibility because the Bush administration chose to wage a war in a country whose people had no role in al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks. 20 years of US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have shown relatively limited gains and have been plagued by corruption, profiteering, and fraud. With lives hanging in the balance amid the Taliban advance, what do we owe Afghans?

Asylum for refugees

To start, the Biden administration and Congress must admit far more Afghans to the United States. Compared to the 5.9 million displaced, granting Special Immigrant Visas to only 71,000 translators and other former US government employees and their family members represents a tiny step. We must resettle no fewer than one million Afghan refugees over the next ten years. In the wake of our wars in Southeast Asia, we admitted more than 800,000 refugees fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. We owe a similar debt to Afghans.

And it is feasible: In one year, 1980, the United States admitted more than 350,000 refugees, including 125,000 Cubans. Given population and economic growth, we can absorb larger numbers today. In 2015­ and 2016, Germany admitted more than one million refugees, and their population is a quarter that of the US population.

Unfortunately, President Biden set a cap of 62,500 total refugee admissions for 2021 and 125,000 for 2022. The latter number sounds good but is misleading given that Biden acknowledged his administration wouldn't reach either year's resettlement goals. More than 80,000 refugees and asylees entered the United States during former President Trump's first fiscal year in office. Given that our Costs of War team found that US wars since 2001 have displaced at least 38 million people, Biden should set a global target of admitting at least 300,000 refugees annually.


The US government also must help Afghans return to Afghanistan once conditions allow. This means the Biden administration must remain committed to the country's peace process and to international development assistance that avoids the waste of prior US aid. Wealthy US allies should make comparable efforts at resettlement and repair. They should not, however, follow Britain's plan to resettle "skilled" refugees while ignoring the neediest. To support the resettlement of Afghans in other countries and the provision of immediate humanitarian assistance, Biden and Congress should triple annual US contributions to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to at least $6 billion, increased annually for inflation.

The costs of such efforts may seem overwhelming, but they pale compared to the $2.3 trillion spent on 20 years of war in Afghanistan and the obscenely bloated US military budget, which tops $700 billion annually and exceeds that of the next 11 countries combined. Congress should use money saved by withdrawing bases and troops from Afghanistan to resettle Afghans and provide additional aid.

If you don't agree our country has a moral responsibility to displaced Afghans, consider the economic benefits: Research shows that over time refugees and other migrants tend to contribute more to the United States economically than they take.

More than anyone, the US government and citizens like you and me have an obligation to repair the damage we have inflicted. Our leaders chose to wage 20 years of war. Our taxes funded it. Given the dead and injured, the 5.9 million displaced, and the 30,000 now being displaced each week, welcoming one million Afghans to our country is just the start of making good on what we owe. If war forced us to flee, wouldn't we expect the same welcome?