White House pressed on evacuating Afghan allies as time runs out
The Biden administration is facing increasingly urgent calls to evacuate Afghans who helped the United States during the 20-year war and are at risk of being hunted down and killed by the Taliban after U.S. troops depart.
The top general in the United States confirmed this week that the military is drafting plans for an evacuation should President Biden order one.
But advocates and lawmakers, including some who support Biden’s withdrawal, are pressing for more concrete actions and details amid dire warnings that time is running out to help those who helped the United States.
“We are aware and appreciate that the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and the State Department are very rapidly planning to figure out how to best help these allies, but with only six to eight weeks left before potential full withdrawal, it’s really time for action,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former Homeland Security Department official in the Trump administration, said on a call with reporters this week, referring to reports the Afghanistan withdrawal could be complete as soon as July.
Neumann now works with an organization called the Council on National Security and Immigration, which sent Biden a letter this past week urging him to “swiftly devise an evacuation strategy for the Afghan nationals and their family members who have risked their lives to serve alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan.”
“We acknowledge this will be a complicated undertaking, requiring extensive resources and bureaucratic coordination in a challenging environment. But time is limited. We believe it is a moral imperative to move as quickly as possible to protect the lives of the Afghan nationals who have sacrificed alongside our American servicemembers and government officials,” read the letter from a group that included former George W. Bush administration National Security Council official Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and several former Homeland Security officials.
The letter was one of the latest calls in a growing chorus for the administration to do more to help those who served as interpreters or otherwise assisted U.S. troops during America’s longest war.
At the heart of the issue is what’s known as the special immigrant visa (SIV) program, which allows Afghans who helped U.S. troops to apply to come to the United States.
Even before Biden announced his plan to withdraw, the SIV program had faced criticism for slow processing, which leaves Afghans vulnerable amid threats to their lives.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing this month on the Afghanistan withdrawal, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger, recounted the story of an interpreter who was killed this year while waiting for his visa to be processed.
“On Jan. 27 of this year, Mohammed was driving to work with his 10-year-old son when a Taliban vehicle stopped in front of him. Assassins jumped out and gunned him down in front of his son,” Crow said. “All the while, those assassins yelled out, ‘Where are the American forces to save you? Where are their helicopters? Where are their airplanes? You helped them for a decade. Where are they now?’”
“Mohammed is dead. A couple weeks later, his eldest son received this death threat from the Taliban,” Crow continued. “He and others like him will soon die unless we act.”
More than 18,000 Afghans are already awaiting a decision on their applications. And the process, which by law is supposed to take no more than nine months, on average takes about four years.
The State Department said this month that it has increased resources to the program to help clear the backlog.
But lawmakers and others are warning there’s not enough time left to process applications before U.S. troops are gone and that applicants won’t be safe waiting in Afghanistan without a U.S. military presence. Among the options advocates have pushed is evacuating people to Guam to wait safely for their applications to be processed.
Amid the mounting pressure, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley confirmed this past week that the military has started planning how it could evacuate Afghan interpreters and others, even as the Pentagon has stressed it has not been tasked with carrying out such an evacuation.
“There are plans being developed very, very rapidly here for not just the interpreters but a lot of other people that have worked with the United States. So there’s a prioritization of categories of these folks,” Milley told reporters aboard his plane after a trip to Colorado.
“We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection and, if necessary, get them out of the country if that’s what they want to do,” he added.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby had earlier declined to confirm reports that the military was planning for such a scenario but stressed that “we’re a planning organization, and we plan for contingencies all around the world.”
“Noncombatant evacuations is a mission that the military often has to be ready for in many places around the world,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “But, as [Central Command chief] Gen. [Frank] MacKenzie said himself, there’s been no tasking of this kind. We’re not at that stage and at that point. And, if we are so tasked, we believe that we have the capabilities and the resources to execute those missions.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced bills to bolster the SIV program. One from Crow and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) seeks to expedite visa processing by waiving the requirement for applicants to undergo a medical examination while in Afghanistan.
Another bill from Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) would add another 4,000 visas to the 26,500 Congress has approved since 2014.
“While we may have differing opinions on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we can all agree that it would be wrong to abandon the Afghan men and women who supported the US mission for nearly two decades — doing so would essentially hand them a death sentence,” Kinzinger said in a statement on the bill.
Lawmakers have also sent a flurry of letters to the administration about the issue and questioned administration officials on it at several hearings on Afghanistan this month.
“We made a promise to those Afghans who supported our efforts and it is imperative that we keep our word to them. No one who qualifies for a SIV should be left behind — and potentially at risk — after U.S. forces exit,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) wrote this month in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to “take every action within your power to address the backlogs.”
Another issue is that some Afghans who helped the United States may not qualify for the SIV program, which is specifically geared toward interpreters and translators.
David Helvey, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that the administration is looking at other measures to help those Afghans, including significant public benefit or humanitarian parole, which are programs used to bring otherwise inadmissible people to the United States temporarily during an emergency.
The Pentagon is also working to provide the State Department with data such as biometrics to verify whether applicants qualify for visas, Helvey said. But the Pentagon’s database of biometric data has “gaps,” he added, including Afghans who helped U.S. troops before the department started collecting it.
“A year or two from now, [if] anybody who cooperated with our military forces in Afghanistan is being hunted down or killed, this will be a horrible thing, of course,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said at the hearing, comparing the situation to the end of the Vietnam War. “And if we have the ability to prevent that in the way we tried to in Vietnam on a bigger scale, I think it’s in the interest of our nation to do that. I think it goes to the honor of our country. These are people who have sacrificed, risked their lives to help us when we were there.”