Veterans pressing Congress to allocate more visas for Afghan interpreters see a potential ally in retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who is likely to become secretary of defense in the Trump administration.
Members of Veterans for American Ideals have been pushing for more visas under the State Department's Special Immigrant Visa program, arguing that the 1,500 new visas allocated by Congress for fiscal year 2017 are not enough. The veterans recently held several dozen meetings with lawmakers to lobby for more visas for Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S. military.
The veterans see potential allies in military generals who have been floated as possible choices to fill out Trump's cabinet, particularly Mattis, given his service in the Middle East. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, has also been rumored as a potential pick for secretary of state.
"Mattis as a secretary of defense? We can have him be an advocate," Scott Cooper, a Marine Corps veteran and the founder of Veterans for American Ideals, told reporters at a meeting alongside 28 other veteran members on Friday. "Certainly, he worked with terps the five years that he was over in Iraq. We are hopeful that could be something where you have DOD that has generally taken a pass on this and said this is a State or Department of Homeland Security issue."
"DOD needs to be involved in this as well because this is about protecting soft networks, wartime allies," Cooper continued.
Cooper told the Washington Free Beacon that two members of the veterans group are meeting with Defense Department officials this week to discuss the need for the Pentagon to insulate America's soft networks, or local national partners, in conflict zones.
"This is strategically really important," Cooper said. "That's what we're pitching to DOD, that this makes strategic sense. We're always going to rely on local national forces, those kinds of folks, and keeping faith with them is good strategic sense. We're trying to convince DOD that they've got a dog in this fight and they need to embrace it."
"DOD needs to be part of the interagency on this program," he added.
The compromise version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, approved overwhelmingly by the House last Friday, includes 1,500 additional visas for Afghan interpreters and renews the State Department's SIV program for four more years, but also imposes new restrictions on individuals eligible for the visas.
The number of Afghans waiting for visas is estimated to be over 10,000.
"That's completely insufficient," Cooper said. "Our goal is to remind Congress that's a good first step, but insufficient. How do we get there in other ways?"
The veterans on Friday expressed concerns about their prospects for increasing the number of visas made available for the U.S. military's Afghan partners under the Trump administration, given the president-elect's rhetoric on immigrants and Muslims on the campaign trail.
Trump has tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a top lawmaker who has been critical of the program, as his attorney general.
However, the program has garnered bipartisan support, with veteran lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, and Reps. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.) and Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) advocating for it in both chambers of Congress.
The members of Veterans for American Ideals said Friday that the visa program is crucial to national security and America's leadership and success abroad.
"It is a national security issue because if our local national partners on the ground that are indispensable to our counterinsurgency mission cannot trust that we will protect and provide for them on the back end, it undermines our ability to do the mission, and puts service member's lives directly at risk," Travis Weiner, an Army veteran who deployed twice to Iraq, told the Free Beacon. "It will affect us in future missions down the road, as word spreads that the Americans cannot be trusted and cannot protect you."
Chase Millsap, who served as a Marine infantry and Army Special Forces officer, told the Free Beacon that Mattis will see the value of both extending and expanding the program.
"I served under him in the 1st MEF from 2006-2007. He’s an infantryman at heart which means that he operates under the principles of shoot, move, communicate," Millsap said. "Interpreters/Linguists who are potentially eligible for the SIV program are the ones who help us communicate on the battlefield. I believe that as a good tactical leader the general would see the value in not just extending the SIV program but also expanding it."
"There are terps on the ground with Special Forces teams right now who are scared to go outside the wire with the teams because they will become ‘marked men,'" Millsap said. "The Afghans specifically understand the SIV backlog and it's reasonable to understand why they would be hesitant to support U.S. troops right now. This severely limits our troops ability to maintain security on the ground."
Cooper said that his organization plans to implement a "sophisticated strategy" to push for more visas when the new administration takes hold, which will include scheduling meetings with members of the Judiciary Committees and other lawmakers in addition to reaching out to the Defense Department.
"Our next focus is figuring out how do we get beyond 1,500 because we are going to run out," he said.