America's Ronin refugees: forgotten allies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AuthorMillsap, Chase

The dynamic nature of America's conflicts overseas have resulted in unintended and undesirable consequences. In the midst of a global refugee crisis, the displacement of thousands of U.S.-trained Iraqi and Afghan security forces poses a threat not only to these wartime allies themselves but also to U.S. national security interests. These wartime allies represent some of the "best and brightest" needed to lead Iraq and Afghanistan during the next decade of US. military drawdown in the region. The international refugee resettlement paradigm is based upon antebellum systems which are no longer valid amid the volatile security situation on the ground throughout the Middle East. While the US. government has made some effort to assist high risk individuals, the majority of our wartime allies turned refugees must navigate a system plagued by bureaucratic backlogs and strained diplomacy in the region. Historical precedence suggests a unique military and diplomatic approach to protect American allies is warranted.



    The United States is at war around the world, and the need to protect our partnered forces is critical. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars, and hundreds of American servicemen and women have given their lives to train our wartime allies. The threat posed by nonstate actors like ISIS, the Taliban, and al Qaeda against fragile and sometimes corrupt U.S.-Supported governments in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to mass attrition of local security forces. These Iraqi and Afghan forces are a critical component in the current fight against nonstate actors. They represent a future cadre of pro-U.S. allies in a post-conflict world, provided they are supported in their most dire time of need.

    An unknown number of U.S. wartime allies have gone into hiding or fled their homes as refugees. Many have decades of distinguished combat service with and without the U.S. military's direct support. They have saved American lives and received awards for valor. However, their service with the U.S. has put them at additional risk not only from nonstate actors, but also from rival government factions.

    In many cases, these allies must hide their identity as former soldiers to receive any chance of help from the international refugee system. They have become a "masterTess" shadow force; they have become popularly known as "Ronin."

    Ronin is a word derived originally from the ancient Japanese concept of Samurai warriors left without a home or a future after the death of their master. Today, America's Ronin include thousands of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers and policemen who, despite legitimate threats against their safety, are excluded by the U.S refugee support system. The U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) was designed to provide wartime allies such as interpreters and contractors with a path to resettlement outside the standard refugee process. Unlike the Ronin, these individuals signed contracts with the U.S. government and their successful resettlement has been widely discussed in policy and media. Yet current U.S. refugee resettlement policies are vague and incomplete for threatened allies from foreign security forces. Even the Department of Defense (DoD) has excluded Iraqi and Afghan allies from their limited humanitarian assistance efforts. Thus, Ronin refugees are left with little support from the U.S. government.

    Current policy obliges many Ronin to wait years for resettlement into the U.S. and does not account for honorable wartime service with the U.S. military. These outdated policies do not properly recognize real threats facing wartime allies. In the past, massive U.S. military "exodus" operations, such as the helicopter airlift from the embassy in South Vietnam, saved lives but at great cost in political capital and resources. (1) Alternatively, allowing the DoD to participate in or assume the role of the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is time-consuming and ineffective for the Ronin under threat today.

    Instead, the best policy for the Ronin is to begin a DoD-led identification and protection process with the intent to repatriate allies to the safest location near their country of origin. In contrast to reactive and hastily executed policies, the DoD should look toward a post-conflict era and begin protecting wartime allies that are vital to U.S. national security interests. The U.S. military currently has installations in the Middle East capable of housing allies and their families, as well as the means to aggressively advocate for their safety under the governments of either Iraq or Afghanistan. Since World War II, the DoD has assumed primary responsibility for wartime allies, and today, they must again rise to the challenge through further collaboration with the international refugee system. Refocusing DoD policy to include Ronin refuges is critical to protecting both human rights and the long term security interests of the U.S. in the Middle East.


    The challenge in supporting America's Ronin Refugees begins with identification. The Leahy Law of 1997 defines the process by which the U.S. government vets foreign military members and their units. Under this legislation, both the DoD and the Department of State (DoS) are responsible for maintaining records to identify potential human rights violations. Since 9/11, every foreign unit the U.S. military has partnered with has been assessed and catalogued. (2) These records include names, ranks and military backgrounds of individuals within each foreign military unit. Prior to 2010, these records were collected and maintained by various U.S. embassy staff throughout the world. After 2010, the DoD and DoS jointly utilized the electronic International Vetting and Security Tracking (INVEST) system to securely collect information on military allies. (3)

    Accordingly, every Ronin should have a record of their participation with the U.S. military. However, these records typically do not include documentation for distinguished or heroic service. (4) Like U.S. military members, foreign partners are provided official correspondence and awards for exceptional service. The difference is, these documents are retained by the U.S. military units or the foreign military soldiers themselves. The DoD does not compile these documents into a single database, making it challenging to count of the number of Afghan and Iraqi soldiers with a history of dedicated service since 9/11. The scope of this problem can be explored by examining the total number of foreign forces trained compared to how many have recently left military service. Within these figures, the number of Ronin can be identified by military units and/or personal records of service. Yet, the challenge of identification varies by conflict zone and the accuracy of reporting from the host nation.


    In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. military conducted an assault against the Taliban and al-Qaeda using a limited number of Special Operations Forces (SOF) supported by massive airstrikes. After Leahy Law vetting, U.S. ground forces initially partnered with local tribes to increase combat capability. After cessation of combat operations, these local tribesmen were transitioned into the formal Afghan National Defense Security Force (ANDSF) composed of both Army and Police forces. After 14 years, the ANDSF has increased to approximately 350,000 personnel at a cost of nearly $5.4 billion annually. (5) These forces include 5,300 elite commandos who have been trained and served with U.S. SOF. (6)


    While the security situation in Afghanistan has stabilized since the height of the fighting from 2009-2013, the recent drawdown of U.S. military forces and resurgence of Taliban activity have caused an increase in ANDSF attrition rates. The Ronin's continued military service puts them at risk from anti-Afghan forces. From 2014 to 2015, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police suffered an average attrition of 2 percent monthly (see Figure 1) (7) These losses were due to a variety of factors including poor leadership, financial concerns, combat casualties and voluntary departure. It is unknown how many of these 7,000 individuals fled or have become refugees as a result of threats to themselves or their families. Since 2014, the Taliban has only increased the number of attacks upon the ANDSF and has been known to utilize death threats as means to infiltrate or attrite security forces. (8)

    Years of distinguished military service are not solely an adequate indicator of a foreign soldier's true motivation. Foreign soldiers are subject to cultural, tribal and economic factors that can influence their allegiances. Since 2008, there have been 91 insider or "green on blue" attacks by the ANDSF against the U.S. military. These attacks peaked in 2012 and were determined to be the cause of death for 148 coalition forces. (9) Even vetted Afghan commandos have been known to commit these heinous acts. (10) Therefore, extra care must be taken when identifying Afghans who are in need of DoD protection.

    Within the ongoing Operation Resolute Support, the United States plans to keeps approximately 10,000 military advisors and trainers in Afghanistan through 2016, at which point the force is expected to decrease by half. (11) U.S. ground forces will be critical in limiting attrition rates within the ANDSF. The U.S. has also pledged $1.25 billion annually until 2017 to prevent the collapse of the ANDSF against a resurgent...

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