Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit

Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit
© Bonnie Cash

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill say their offices are getting flooded with calls and questions from family members or individuals stuck in Afghanistan amid a chaotic U.S. exit.

Several members of both the House and Senate say they and their staff are getting calls from relatives in the United States, U.S. citizens in Afghanistan and Afghans who aided the U.S. military effort as they scramble to get a flight out of Kabul after the Taliban quickly advanced into the Afghan capital over the weekend.

“My staff and I are doing everything we can to help with the evacuation of Americans, as well as [special immigrant visa]-eligible and other at risk Afghans, to get them to safety as quickly as possible. ... I urge any Virginian in need of assistance for themselves or a loved one to contact my office," Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KainePanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B Democrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

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Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckHillicon Valley —Apple is not a monopoly, judge rules Judge rules Apple is not 'illegal monopolist' in high-profile Epic case Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit MORE (R-Colo.) said that as of Wednesday evening his office had gotten 219 calls over 48 hours related to Afghanistan, including fielding questions from 18 Afghans who are under the special immigrant visa program and calls from individuals around the United States.

"It is essential that the United States protect our citizens as they seek to immediately and safely return home. My office will do everything we can to assist Americans during this dire situation," Buck said.

Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Officials want action on cyberattacks Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook Trump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham MORE (R-Utah) and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight MORE (R-Utah) said in a joint statement that their staff had "been working around the clock" and "engaging with those who have requested assistance — both U.S. and Afghan citizens — for evacuation, as well as visa and refugee application assistance."

"We have put in inquiries with the State Department on these requests. We and our teams will continue doing everything in our power to assist our citizens and our partners," they added.

The calls to lawmakers and their staff come after the Afghan government and military collapsed over the weekend, with the Taliban quickly advancing into and taking over Kabul on Sunday.

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Though the Taliban has claimed that it will not prevent civilians from leaving, it has also set up checkpoints throughout Kabul. That has sparked reports of violence on the road to Kabul's airport, and videos show massive crowds in chaotic scenes outside the airport.

The State Department has urged people to go to Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is in Kabul, “as soon as possible” but warned that it can't guarantee their safe passage.

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Debt ceiling fight pits corporate America against Republicans MORE (R-Ark.), during an interview with the "Ruthless" podcast, said "Americans who cannot reach our State department have been contacting our office."

"I simply posted online that any American or anyone who knows an American stuck in Afghanistan should contact our office. ... In less than 48 hours our office has been flooded with hundreds and hundreds of calls," he said.

Cotton acknowledged that while he "can't set the manifest on an aircraft down at the Kabul airport," his staff was giving out numbers and emails and taking down names and locations of individuals in Afghanistan "in case they turn up missing."

Between 10,000 to 15,000 Americans are estimated to be in Afghanistan, and an estimated 80,000 Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort and their family members are trying to leave the country through the special visa program.

Government officials from the National Security Council and the Department of Defense told congressional staffers on a call Thursday that they have evacuated 6,741 individuals since Saturday, of which 1,792 are American citizens or lawful permanent residents. 

Alex Sarabia, a spokesperson for Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles Harris's delayed trip to Vietnam ratchets up Havana Syndrome fears Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit MORE (D-Texas), said they had received more than 200 calls.

"We’re working — pushing the State Department to get them on evacuation lists and other agencies — USAID, Department of Homeland Security, we’ve of course reached out to the White House and National Security Council, basically a full court press on the constituent services to try and help them and their families," he said.

Biden's handling of the U.S. withdrawal has sparked broad, bipartisan frustration and criticism on Capitol Hill, even among Democrats who agree with his ultimate endgame of removing the U.S. military from Afghanistan.

Lawmakers, including high-ranking Democrats, have been publicly pushing Biden to move faster to get Afghans out of the country, after warning for months that they didn't think the special immigrant visa program was moving fast enough.

Fifty-five senators sent a letter this week to Biden urging him to quickly implement recent legislation meant to streamline the visa program and for him to quickly evacuate applicants who they worry will be targeted by the Taliban.

"As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, these individuals face increased danger at the hands of the Taliban that has sworn retribution. For this reason, Congress provided additional authorities to improve and expedite the application process while maintaining the program’s security and integrity," the senators wrote.

"Anything short of full implementation results in grave security implications. You have the strong support of both chambers of Congress to ensure that no additional Afghan lives are needlessly lost," they added.

Laura Kelly contributed.