By KIRK W. JOHNSON    |    Op-Ed Contributor
July 24, 2011

In May, the FBI arrested two Iraqis in Kentucky for attempts to ship Stinger missiles and explosives back to Iraq. Both had fought U.S. forces in Iraq; one boasted of carrying out hundreds of attacks over the years.

Even more shocking, they were resettled to America on humanitarian grounds as refugees.

During hearings two weeks ago on how these men were permitted to enter our country, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asserted that refugees are among the greatest security risks to America and that “there’s no reason to continue this policy” of providing a refuge to Iraqis.

For the past five years, I have wrestled with our government over its reluctance to uphold a basic obligation that anyone who has served in a war zone understands on a visceral level: We must not abandon those upon whom we relied. My organization maintains the single largest list of Iraqis who have worked for America — as interpreters, engineers and advisers. Thousands of these Iraqis have been forced into hiding or flight at gunpoint or by attempted assassination, torture, rape, kidnapping and extortion. I have lost former colleagues.

These Iraqi allies represent the most heavily documented refugees on the planet, having gone through extensive background checks, polygraph examinations and biometric scanning to serve alongside our troops. Despite their service to us, which has cost them a future in their own country, their petitions for resettlement to safety here have languished in a labyrinthine “security screening” process.

When two Iraqis who did not work for the United States made it here instead of the thousands on my list who have acted heroically for our country, I’d like to know, as much as Sen. Paul does, what went wrong. But to suggest that we must shut our doors to our Iraqi allies is a grave mistake that Congress and the Obama administration must avoid.

Nearly 10 years after Sept. 11, critical questions remain: Have we emerged from the past decade of trauma and war with a strengthened moral compass, or do we lose our bearing at any sign of threat? Will our country uphold its moral obligation to our Iraqi employees in the wake of an undeniable failure in the screening process, or will we consign the thousands of Iraqis working alongside our troops to the fate that awaits all those who collaborate with a foreign occupying power?

Let us countenance that fate: At least 1,000 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis have been slain for helping us. Many times that number have been chased from their country. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that al-Qaeda in Iraq has reconstituted its forces to its highest level in years. The militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr publicly threatened reactivation of his Mahdi militia, which is responsible for the murder of numerous Iraqi interpreters, and recently wrote that they are to be viewed as outcasts. The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization of terrorist groups, called in its most recent strategic plan for “nine bullets” for each “traitor.”

After British forces departed Iraq in 2006, their Iraqi employees were soon systematically hunted by militias. In one grisly act, 17 interpreters were publicly executed and their bodies dumped on the streets of Basra.

And despite then-Sen. Barack Obama’s condemnations of the Bush administration’s torpid pace of aiding U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, his administration is on track to admit the lowest number of Iraqis since Obama’s 2007 speech on the issue.

The United States is leaving Iraq. Whatever your thoughts on the pace of withdrawal, one truth is unassailable: We abandon our Iraqi employees at great moral and strategic cost. I was not raised to believe that America honors its moral obligations only in times of surplus. And who will step forward to help us in future conflicts if we turn our backs on those serving us now?

My organization worked with Congress last year on legislation requiring the administration to produce a contingency plan to protect U.S.-affiliated Iraqis if a campaign of violence unfolded upon our withdrawal. We sought to avoid the precedents of abandonment set by nearly every other departing power in history: There need not be another Basra, or Saigon, or Laos, if for once we planned ahead.

The executive branch agencies ignored Congress’s request, yawning as a four-month deadline lapsed. Only when the New York Times ran an article two weeks ago did the Pentagon release a report that appears to have been hastily stitched together. “Preparation of this report cost the Department of Defense a total of approximately $5,001” is emblazoned on its cover. (By comparison, the Pentagon spent roughly $15 billion on air conditioning last year.)

In 1975, as North Vietnamese forces were poised to take Saigon, the Ford administration realized belatedly that it had no plan or capacity to evacuate its South Vietnamese employees. Every American high school student has seen the final images of that war, of our betrayal.

Yet onto the rooftop of the history of withdrawal clambers the Obama administration, $5,000 contingency plan in hand.


The writer is founder and executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He was the U.S. Agency for International Development’s regional coordinator for reconstruction in Fallujah in 2005.