America’s Ronin Refugees: Forgotten Allies of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

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 U.S. military draw-down 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 The international refugee resettlement paradigm is based upon antebellum systems which are no longer valid amid the volatile security situation on the ground throughout the Middle East.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 U.S. 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.  

Chase Millsap
June 06, 2016


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 “master-less” 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 Taliban.12 While the number of potential Ronin refugees from Afghanistan remains relatively stable for now, the potential for a massive security force implosion as seen in Iraq is possible without continued U.S. support in the region.


After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. military began operations known as Foreign Internal Defense to rebuild the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). Under the direction of Special Operation Forces (SOF), military advisors, and private security contractors, the U.S. government helped rebuild the Iraqi army and Iraqi police to meet a growing insurgent security threat. From 2012-2014, the U.S. government spent approximately $26 billion on military support to the ISF.13

When the U.S. military mission in Iraq officially ended in 2011, the ISF numbered approximately 200,000 soldiers and 325,000 police.14 Subsequent internal corruption fostered by Iranian influence in the predominantly Shia-led government, and the threat from the Sunni-led ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, decimated ISF ranks. By July 2015, approximately 50 percent of the force was unaccounted for. As many as 263,000 ISF personnel were lost from 2014-2015.15 The lack of accurate personnel records from the ISF presents a challenge of adjudication. Some of the soldiers were most likely casualties, while others may have turned sides or deserted. Since assuming control of Iraqi territory, ISIS has publically executed Iraqi police and soldiers; including the most notable instance, a massacre of nearly 700 ISF personnel near Tikrit in June of 2014.16 Some ISF losses were due to individuals fleeing in response to legitimate threats against themselves and for their families. Since 2003, there have been no reports of ISF insider attacks against U.S. forces. However, this type of attack should not be ruled out given ISIS’s demonstrated past brutality. The current instability in Iraq presents a growing challenge in identifying and protecting ISF personnel.

Combined, the ANDSF and ISF have lost nearly 270,000 personnel from their ranks. Within this figure, there are an unknown number of Ronin who have a history of dedicated service with U.S. forces. Yet, there are also foreign individuals who may intentionally infiltrate into foreign military units in order to strike at U.S. forces in safe zones. The dangerous nature of combat operations in the Middle East presents challenges for refugee protection, but the basic information required to identify wartime allies is currently available and underutilized by the U.S. government.

While foreign interpreters and contractors of the U.S. government are offered a separate path in the refugee resettlement process through the SIV, the military service of the Ronin is not similarly counted. In contrast, their military background may reduce their chance of passing a security screening and hinder their ability to receive support, because of the difficulty proving their service and the real threat of insider attack. Under the current system, the Ronin are not provided an opportunity to present their military service to a DoD adjudicating body. Simply, a international component similar to the domestic witness protection program does not exist for the Ronin. Without a DoD support mechanism, their best hope is to seek refugee resettlement through other venues.

As a result of hasty recordkeeping practices and an emphasis on protracted combat operations, the U.S. military is unable to identify and protect a major human capital resource in the current fight against non-state actors. With the proper protection and support systems, these former allies could provide vital intelligence for ongoing military operations. Instead, the Ronin are left to find asylum within a broader international refugee system, while the U.S. increases the number of American troops on the ground in the Middle East. Currently, the lack of effort in identifying friendly allies such as the Ronin from real threats inhibits future collaboration with the U.S. military. Both conditions reflect outcomes that threaten U.S. military ideals and strategic interests in the region.


Today, 59.6 million people are displaced globally, the largest population forced to leave their home countries since the Second World War.17 The international community responded by developing systems under the United Nations to respond to future refugee crises, but the international refugee system was built upon two assumptions that have failed to hold true in the current state of world affairs.

First, the international community envisioned that wartime resettlement would never again reach the same levels as in the Second World War and as such the international refugee system was built to respond to limited regional conflicts.18 The Syrian civil war tipped the scales, increasing displacement figures back to levels not seen since the Second World War. Since 2011, nearly 11 million Syrians have been displaced or fled as far as Europe seeking refuge.19 As a result, the international response system has struggled with questions of legality and appropriation to meet the needs of a growing refugee population. The Ronin are now entering a system that is overwhelmed and limited in resources.

Second, the international refugee system was designed primarily to help non-combatants resulting from inter-state conflicts.20 Wars today are far more unconventional, and the ability to distinguish between a legitimate armed conflict and civil unrest is extremely difficult. The United Nations’ ability to respond to a crisis is dependent on international funding and limited by nation-states’ hesitancy to become involved in conflicts that appear to be internal affairs.

Even in cases of intervention, the United Nations’ response is significantly underfunded, and often augmented by direct U.S. funding or funding from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).21 Further complicating the issue for the Ronin is that their plight is relatively unknown and marred by the complexity of unconventional conflicts. Their options for help range from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) to independent NGOs, and there is no clear roadmap forward.


UNHCR is the primary coordinating body for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide. Given that the Ronin may be hiding within their countries of origin or living as refugees abroad, their ability to seek help from the UNHCR depends on the size and availability of local UNHCR resources. Within each country the funding requirements vary and the UNHCR’s ability to support those in need is based upon available resources.

In Afghanistan, UNHCR projects that 1.3 million people are internally displaced, but the organization has raised only 13 percent ($20.3 million) of the funds required to support them.22 Throughout the country, there are 12 UNHCR offices manned by 277 local staff.23 The UNHCR also reports that nearly 2.5 million people have fled Afghanistan, with the largest number moving to the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan.24 For the Ronin, these countries are unfavorable for long-term safety due to the presence of Taliban and other nonstate actors, strained diplomatic relations with the United States, and linguistic and cultural barriers.

The scope of UNHCR’s response in Iraq is significantly larger. The UNHCR projects 3.1 million IDPs, and has raised 48 percent ($270 million) of the funding requirements.25 The UN presence in Iraq includes five offices, as well as 18 Protection Assistance and Reintegration Centers with a total staff of 347.26 Since 2014, the UNCHR has registered approximately 600,000 Iraqi refugees with the largest populations in Syria and Turkey.27

However, both of these efforts pale in comparison to the UNHCR response to the Syrian crisis. Since 2011, the UN has raised $2.1 billion to support 4.2 million Syrian refugees diverting available resources to Syria.28 The opportunity for the Ronin in Iraq and Afghanistan to receive assistance from their closest UNHCR center is limited by the global response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Nonetheless, after registering with the UNHCR, some Ronin could seek resettlement in the United States through the USRAP.


The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) consists of a variety of government agencies. In general, identification and adjudication processing of refugees overseas is administered by the DoS, while security screening and domestic resettlement is primarily conducted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Under the current U.S. system, the president authorized an annual quota of 70,000 refugees to be admitted into the United States.29

The USRAP process begins with a referral from UNHCR or other affiliated NGO (see Figure 2). DoS receives a resettlement claim, and prioritizes it as level 1, 2 or 3 based upon the individual refugee’s status. Priority 1 is a referral from the UNHCR. Priority 2 refers to a group designated by DoS as one of humanitarian concern. Priority 3 is for refugees who have family already living within the United States.30 For the Ronin, the majority of those seeking resettlement in the U.S. will fall into a priority 1 ranking, since they have not been officially declared a group of humanitarian concern.31

Refugees are then screened by the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) for security concerns such as terrorist group affiliation, criminal history, foreign military service or financial trouble.32 On average, the resettlement process can take up to two years, and it can be particularly challenging for refugees (including those who worked with the U.S.) to pass the security screening.33 The DoD does not have a direct role in the USRAP. A Ronin’s record of wartime service is not considered in the adjudication process. The implementation of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters or contractors has shown that even with formal recognition of service, the process is neither expedited or adequate for those under an immediate threat of harm.

In 2007, the SIV was designed to provide a shortcut within the USRAP system for those wartime allies under threat as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The SIV removed the need to apply for refugee status with the UNHCR and bypassed the longstanding requirement that an individual must be located outside their country of origin to qualify. Additionally, even once registered in USRAP, certain Afghans and Iraqis were provided Priority 2 status.34 SIV applicants are still subject to the same screening process under the USCIS that applies to all refugees. Of the 25,000 SIV quotas, less than 50 percent actually passed the screening process and were resettled into the U.S.35 The program officially stopped accepting applications in 2014 for Iraqis and extended the program for Afghans into 2016, yet the program continues to be characterized as inefficient and inadequate to meet the needs of the target population.36 While the SIV does not apply to Ronin refugees, it demonstrates the challenge of security screening in resettlement cases.


Non-governmental organizations have historically filled the gaps between international capabilities and direct nation-state intervention. NGOs outside of the USRAP system can provide the Ronin with some of their needs, such as legal consultation and emergency support. Both UNHCR and USRAP have relied on NGOs to support refugee assistance and resettlement. However, these NGOs vary in scale and resources, making partnerships for specific refugee populations extremely difficult.

For the Ronin, there are three types of organizations that are able to provide services across the spectrum of resettlement. First, large-scale international NGOs operate outside UNHCR constraints to provide emergency humanitarian support for refugees. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC), with an annual budget of $500 million, have the ability to support refugees while they wait for UNHCR services.37 With their budget and resources, the IRC provides refugees with food, shelter, cash assistance, and international advocacy.38 Medium scale organizations such as the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) are also capable of providing high-quality legal services to niche populations. Since 2008, IRAP has supported 1,500 refugees stalled in the SIV process, and has since expanded their operations to include refugees within the broader USRAP system.39 Small-scale NGOs, like No One Left Behind, provide small numbers of refugees in the SIV program with financial support and career skills once they arrive in the United States.40 While some of these organizations cater to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters in the SIV program, they could be capable of supporting some Ronin. Thus far, the DoD has not coordinated with NGOs for direct support to partnered forces. However, the potential for future collaboration exists.

Currently, the DoS relies heavily on NGOs to provide information related to human rights vetting under the Leahy Law provisions. NGOs are required to provide credible information of human rights violations and “have reputation for accurate and impartial reporting.”41 These reports are in turn used by the DoS in partnership with the DoD to determine if the U.S. government can support foreign military forces. The existing relationship between DoD and NGOs in the vetting and identification process is limited. Their collaboration with the context of Leahy Law provisions provides a precedent that can be leveraged on behalf of the Ronin.


Current DoD policy on refugees and IDPs is focused primarily on humanitarian missions.42 Since the Vietnam War, the United States has established a precedent of resettling wartime allies, such as the South Vietnamese, Montagnards, and Kurds, under certain conditions. Resettlement operations of this scale have historically occurred under executive order.43 In addition, the DoD must be able to distinguish friend from foe; in Iraq and Afghanistan today, the distinction is incredibly difficult.

Under wartime conditions, a perfect solution is neither realistic nor feasible given the nature of combat operations, yet some action is preferable to inaction. In each potential policy option, there are consequences, intended, and unintended that effect both the Ronin and U.S. military. It is not possible to save every single Ronin dispersed throughout conflict zones or abroad, and safety of U.S. forces must also be weighed. A policy is needed that can identify Ronin who can be supported, without shifting the military’s focus from combat to humanitarian aid operations. Currently, there are three policy options available: Status Quo, Limited Exodus, and DoD inclusion in USRAP.

Option 1: Status Quo

Without a policy change, America’s wartime allies will be at the mercy of a broken international refugee system. The Ronins’ only option is to seek refuge with UNHCR and apply for resettlement to the United States or other countries participating with UNHCR. At best, some of these refugees may wait for years for resettlement, and at worse, some will die before being resettled.

The international refugee system provides the Ronin with limited resources, and their record of military service could result in denial of refugee status instead of helping. In this case, there is no incentive for those who worked with U.S. troops to identify themselves. Under the status quo, the political and security impacts to the U.S. home front would be minimal; however, the degradation of the American reputation would be disastrous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are classic contests of wills and values. Placing wartime allies at the mercy of a broken system would only further support the rhetoric that the United States cannot be trusted.

Indeed, U.S. long-term strategy to defeat international terrorist threats is based on the assumption that large numbers of local security forces will offset the need for further deployments of U.S. ground troops. Under the status quo, the message that we would be sending to our current allies and potential future partners is that the U.S. will not support you if you are targeted as a result of your service. As witnessed with growing concern in Afghanistan, foreign distrust of the American military may actually exacerbate “green on blue” attacks among partnered forces.44 Lastly, the failure to act on behalf of Iraqis and Afghans who have displayed dedicated service degrades long-term relationships that are vital to supporting U.S. interests abroad.

Option 2: Limited Exodus

The DoD-led movement of noncombatants to safe havens outside conflict zones are officially classified as “humanitarian assistance” operations, and unofficially as “exodus” missions. Historically, the majority of these operations occurred after U.S. military involvement, when threat of a humanitarian crisis was imminent. These “exodus” operations involve the large, resource intensive use of U.S. military aircraft and ships. For example, in Operation “Frequent Wind,” conducted after the fall of Saigon in 1975, some 50,000 people were evacuated to Guam.45 In this case, the refugees were merely required to be designated “at risk” before being flown out of threat areas.46

Exodus has been the primary U.S. response for decades, and would remove the refugees from the threatened area to a safe location, while they wait for their individual case to be adjudicated. Functionally, the Ronin who are internally displaced in Iraq or Afghanistan would be the primary focus of these operations given the available U.S. military resources in country. Exodus missions require three significant phases: identification, airlift, and resettlement. Despite DoD use of the INVEST system, the status of each individual would still have to be adjudicated and verified in a timely manner. In Vietnam, the U.S. military relied upon the verification of wartime allies from U.S. service members themselves. This concept could be replicated relatively easily by allowing military members to vouch on behalf of partnered soldiers/refugees who are facing significant threat. Additionally, the use of biometric data would alleviate the risk of insider threat by screening each individual for previous reports of criminal activity. Given the security situation abroad, Afghanistan would be an ideal place to conduct a proof of concept, as individuals or small groups could be transferred, instead of mass number of distressed refugees.

Military air resources would be required to transport the Ronin and their families to a safe location. The scope and scale would depend on the number of refugees. As a baseline, the transfer of the 7,000 soldiers lost in Afghanistan would require approximately 70 C-17’s for a one-sortie airlift.47 Most importantly, the refugees would require an area for long-term custody while they await repatriation. Historically, overseas U.S. military bases such as those in Guam or Diego Garcia have been used to hold refugee populations.48

Exodus is subject to issues of selection and diplomatic consequences. The criteria for resettlement must be clearly defined in order to disincentivize mass desertion within the host nation’s security forces. In Afghanistan, this can be mitigated by a process of verification of threat, and service member vouchers. Yet, in Iraq the already strained ISF and the small number of U.S. SOF on the ground limits the ability to completely verify a Ronin status. The protection of foreign military personnel in a third location would signify a formal U.S. government acknowledgement that the Iraqi and Afghan governments are unable to protect their security forces from the threat of non-state actors. This could have serious diplomatic and security concerns in the long-term relationships between these countries and the United States. However, with proper messaging operational security and even a plan for repatriation, these concerns could be mitigated.

Option 3: DoD in the USRAP

Within this option, the Ronin would be required to register with the UNHCR and request resettlement through the USRAP. Additionally, the Ronin would have to pass a USCIS security screening, but the DoD would be able advocate for the Ronin based upon threat and distinguished service.

Both the U.S. Department of Justice and intelligence agencies have established policies for protecting human sources. These policies are based upon a tiered system assessing the source threat and the importance of the individual’s role in achieving U.S. policy objectives.49 While the DoD has classified policies related to human intelligence collection, these typically do not extend to partnered military forces. At present the DoD’s influence within the USRAP system, especially the security screening, is negligible. The DoD is required to provide documentation of military service or training for a resettlement applicant as requested by the USCIS.50 Yet, the DoD cannot advocate or be present in official capacity during the screening. A change in the DoD and USRAP relationship would require executive direction, and implementation would occur within the embassy of a specific country. This option would not require a change to existing Congressional legislation, as the U.S. ambassador currently has the ability to direct USRAP process within their country of responsibility. Additionally, there would not be a need to raise resettlement quotas, as this would simply become a matter of wartime need to prioritize high-risk individuals in the USRAP system.

Under this option, the identification and verification process would be limited by the U.S. military presence in the country of refuge. The Ronin in Afghanistan and Iraq would have better resources adjudicating their cases than the refugees already abroad. However, utilizing DoD-NGO affiliates in locations outside of conflict zones could help in collecting records of Ronin service. The resettlement process would take time, given the need to conduct internal changes in the USRAP process. Unless the security situations in Afghanistan or Iraq stabilize, the likelihood of a Ronin refugee repatriating on their own is low. Thus, their ability to receive support would depend on the availability of refugee relief agencies in their vicinity


The nature of conflict today is complex and volatile, requiring a unique approach to assist America’s Ronin. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is responsible for sourcing funds to support humanitarian crisis and foreign economic development. The majority of USAID funding to support refugees is provided directly to UNHCR and is therefore limited in its ability to directly assist refugee populations of interest to the United States. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, USAID has provided $4.5 billion to support refugees.51 Through UNHCR, U.S. funds have been used to provide food, health care, logistical support, and resettlement opportunities for the approximately 12 million Syrians in need.

While U.S. aid to Syrian refugees is admirable, these funds have failed to stem the flow of refugees abroad or support a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict. Instead, the U.S. has spent approximately $5 billion just in the last year to support DoD military operations against threats in both Syria and Iraq.52 Given available funding, a DoD-led approach focused on refugees is politically feasible, economically viable, and strategically important if the programs are used to support future operations against ISIL and Al Qaeda in the near term and the Taliban in the years to come. The best policy option to meet U.S. interests and the needs of the Ronin is based upon three tenants; Identify, Protect and Repatriate (see Figure 3).


A DoD directed effort to identify the Ronin is a necessary first step. The DoD can rely upon the INVEST system, UNHCR, NGOs, and the Ronin themselves to collect required documentation. The mass number of soldiers who before 2010 were not catalogued in the INVEST system pose a greater challenge for identification in Iraq than Afghanistan, where the DoD has maintained records. However, the DoD will have to establish criteria for Ronin status. Using the DOJ precedent, a tiered system of threat and value to long-term U.S. goals will provide a basis by which the Ronin are provided DoD protection. The collection and use of biometrics can help alleviate some of the associated  risks  Once the Ronin and their families are identified, they can then be protected by the DoD.


The implementation of protection is one similar to battlefield triage. Ronin and their immediate family members under the greatest threat will need protection first. For those requiring immediate protection within Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military could utilize the airbases at Bagram and al-Asad as safe havens. However, there will be Ronin in need of long-term protection outside of conflict zones.

The use of a limited exodus mission is required to completely remove those under extreme threat. The U.S. military base in Incirlik, Turkey provides the most accessible safe haven near both Afghanistan and Iraq. Turkey is also a major hub of refugee support; a program at Incirlik would allow those Ronin refugees a single point where they can self-identify. Since the spring of 2015, the U.S. has been training Syrian rebels in Turkey to counter ISIS.53 This would suggest the appropriate level of security exists to protect Iraqi or Afghan allies and their families. The exodus, collection and protection of Ronin and their families could be authorized under the existing authorizations for the U.S. military activity in the region.


The timing and details of repatriation will depend on the individual Ronin and the security situation within their country of origin. The external security of Afghanistan and Iraq will be determined by the current ANDSF and ISF ability to counter nonstate threats. The U.S. has already committed both financial and military support to both these countries. In order to successfully repatriate the Ronin, the DoD will have to work with the DoS to counter internal threats and corruption in the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Future U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq will be determined by successful repatriation of the Ronin, and the global message of support for wartime allies will counter the ideologies of nonstate actors. Groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are strengthened by political propaganda aimed at undermining the legitimacy of U.S. military efforts in the Middle East. To abandon the Ronin in their time of need is not only a loss of a valuable human resources, it is a strategic defeat in the battle to counter extremist ideology. President Obama has declared that to counter nonstate actors the U.S. government will “mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”54 The Ronin have demonstrated their commitment to the U.S government before; with the proper policies in place, they may be able to do so again.


The existence of the Ronin are a consequence of unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American national security interests depend upon stability in the Middle East using the best human resources possible. The international refugee system is incapable of providing America’s wartime allies the level of protection they require. Assisting the Ronin achieves both military and political objectives. Identifying those in need of U.S. protection should be balanced against the safety of the DoD personnel who will assist them. Despite threat of insider attack, the risk of inaction is too great a burden to bear. To do nothing risks throwing away the time and money spent training our wartime allies.

More importantly, the United States is risking partnerships in the long war on terror. Many of the Ronin are crucial in supporting a stable future in Iraq and Afghanistan, and could be valuable sources of future leadership. The leadership of a post-conflict Iraq or Afghanistan may very well be in hiding for fear of their safety. Without protection and support from the U.S. military today, their long-term impact is unclear. Given a war-weary U.S. population, and the rise of nonstate actors, foreign allies are a vital resource. We must make every effort to identify, protect, and repatriate Ronin allies not just for their safety, but for the long term stability of the Middle East.


1 Gregory Ball, USAFR, “Operation Babylift and Frequent Wind,” Air Force Historical Studies Office, 2012,

2 Nina M. Serafino et al. “Leahy. Law,” Human Rights Provisions and Security Assistance: Issue Overview, Congressional Research Service, January 29, 2014, 7-9.

3 “Leahy Vetting: Law, Policy, Process,” U.S. Department of State, April 15, 2013,

4 Serafino et al. (2014), 9-10.

5 “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” Department of Defense, Report to Congress, December 2015, 26-27.

6 Ken Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, October 15, 2015, 33.

7 Department of Defense (2015), 27.

8 Lauren McNally and Paul Bucala, “The Taliban Resurgent: Threats to Afghanistan’s Security,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2015,10-23.

9 Bill Roggio and Lisa Lundquist, “Green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan: the data,” The Long War Journal, August 23, 2012,

10 Bill Roggio, “US Special Forces soldier killed by Afghan commando,” Long War Journal, April 26, 2012,

11 Katzman (2015), 27.

12 “Fact Sheet: Wales Summit—NATO’s Changing Role in Afghanistan,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 4, 2014.

13 Ken Katzman and Carla E. Humud, “Iraq: Politics and Governance,” Congressional Research Service, November 13, 2015, 36.

14 Anthony H. Cordesman, Sam Khazai, and Daniel Dewit, “Shaping Iraq’s Security Forces US-Iranian Competition Series,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2013.

15 “An Assessment of the Counter-ISIL Campaign One Year after Mosul,” testimony by Linda Robinson, U.S House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Committee on Armed Services, June 24, 2015, 2-5.

16 “Iraq: ISIS Execution Site Located,” Human Rights Watch, June 26, 2014.

17 “Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase,” UNHCR, June 18, 2015,

18 “An Introduction to International Protection,” UNHCR, August 1, 2015,

19 “Total number of Syrian refugees exceeds four million for first time,” UNHCR Northern Europe, July 9, 2015.

20 An Introduction to International Protection, UNHCR (2015).

21 “UNHCR warns of bleaker future for refugees as Syrian conflict enters 5th year,” UNHCR, March 12, 2015,

22 “Afghanistan Fact Sheet,” UNHCR, August 2015.

23 Ibid.

24 “Population Database,” UNHCR, (accessed 10 December 2015).

25 “Iraq Fact Sheet,” UNHCR, September 2014.

26 Ibid.

27 “Population Database,” UNHCR.

28 Syria Regional Refugee Response, UNHCR, (accessed 10 December 2015).

29 “Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY 2015,” Department of State Report to Congress, (accessed December 6, 2015).

30 “The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Consultation & Worldwide Processing Priorities,” USCIS, (accessed 10 December 2015).

31 “Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY 2015,” DoS Report to Congress.

32 “Refugee Screening,” USCIS, (accessed 10 December 2015).

33 Devon Cone, “The Process for Interviewing, Vetting, and Resettling Syrian Refugees in America Is Incredibly Long and Thorough,” Foreign Policy, November 30, 2015.

34 Andorra Bruno, “Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Programs,” Congressional Research Services, January 2015, 9.

35 Ibid., 11.

36 Ibid., 14-16.

37 “International Rescue Committee,” Charity Navigator, (accessed December 2015).

38 “Iraq,” International Rescue Committee, (accessed December 2015).

39 “IRAP Donor Report,” IRAP, (accessed December 1, 2015).

40 “About Us,” No One Left Behind, (accessed December 10, 2015).

41 “Leahy Vetting: Law, Policy, Process,” DoS, April 15, 2013.

42 “Commander’s Guide to Supporting Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons,” Department of Defense Center for Army Lessons Learned, September 2012.

43 Ball (2012).

44 Holly Yan, “Insider attacks: Why do some Afghan forces turn and kill allies?” CNN, August 6, 2014.

45 Ball (2012).

46 Ibid.

47 “C-17: Fact Sheet,” U.S. Air Force, (accessed December 2015).

48 Jennifer Rikoski and Jonathan Finer, “Out of Iraq: The U.S. Legal Regime Governing Iraqi Refugee Resettlement,” Rutgers Law Record, Spring 2009, 48.

49 “The Attorney General’s Guidelines regarding the use of FBI confidential human sources,” Department of Justice, (accessed December 10, 2015).

50 “Terrorist Exploitation of Refugee Programs,” testimony by Barbara Strack, U.S. House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Committee on Homeland Security, December 4, 2012.

51 “Complex Emergency: Fact Sheet #8,” USAID Syria, September 2015, (accessed December 10, 2015).

52 “Operation Inherent Resolve,” Department of Defense, (accessed December 2015).

53 Micah Zenko, “Your Official Mission Creep Timeline of the U.S. War in Syria,” Foreign Affairs, October 2015.

54 “Statement by the President on ISIL,” White House Press Office, September 10, 2014.