Senate Armed Services member: Administration should have 'hair on fire' over Afghan interpreters

Senate Armed Services member: Administration should have 'hair on fire' over Afghan interpreters
© Greg Nash

The Biden administration must act as if its “hair [is] on fire” as time runs out to bring Afghans who helped U.S. troops to safety before the military fully withdraws from Afghanistan, a senator on key committees said Tuesday.

“I want the White House's hair on fire,” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada Senate falling behind on infrastructure MORE (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “I want them to do everything within their power to solve this problem.

“I'm not being critical of the administration, but I just think it's time to step up the game,” King added.

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King’s comments add to a growing chorus of lawmakers and others who have been pressing the administration to act with more urgency to grant visas to Afghans who helped U.S. troops and evacuate them to a safe location such as Guam amid delays in visa processing.

Lawmakers have sent letters to the administration and questioned witnesses at hearings, as well as introduced legislation aimed at improving the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghans who served as interpreters for U.S. troops during the 20-year war.

Administration officials have said they are working to speed up visa processing, but no evacuation has been ordered despite the growing pressure.

Among the legislative efforts, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill last week to add visas to the SIV program, as well as remove hurdles for applicants.

King told reporters Tuesday he backs that bill, but also expressed concern that there is not enough support to move legislation through Congress.

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“The likelihood of it passing and getting to the president's desk in the next, say, 60 to 90 days I think is that, just in the nature of this process, it may not be timely,” he said. “Much of what's needed could be done by the administration just applying the necessary resources, but it's going to have to be creative. This can't be business as usual at the State Department.”

One of King’s suggestions for speeding up visa processing was to detail Defense Department staff to the State Department to help work through the backlog of applications.

“In the U.S., we send military assets when there's a crisis, a natural event of some kind, a hurricane. We sent troops to Africa to help with Ebola. So let's get some of these well-trained, capable people to assist the State Department in their work, and try to figure out where the bottlenecks are and eliminate them,” King said.

King also suggested NATO allies who have been fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan help, including possibility with finding somewhere to evacuate Afghans to.

“They benefited from the activities of these local Afghans and it seems to me logical that they would be involved in helping us to solve the problem that they may have,” King said of NATO countries. “They may have the equivalent of Guam. They may have some territory or a place where these people could be safely housed until the processing is completed.”

Some countries are already taking steps to protect their interpreters, such as the United Kingdom announcing last month it would expedite the relocation of Afghans who helped British forces, but other NATO countries are still wrestling with the issue.

In a separate conference call with reporters Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg suggested it is not within the authority of the alliance as an organization to help with visas for Afghan interpreters, but commended allies who have stepped up.

“There are many Afghans who have worked with us for many years, supported the NATO mission, including interpreters and other Afghan local employees who have been very critical for our mission,” Stoltenberg said in a call hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “Therefore I also welcome the plans of several NATO allies to resettle Afghans who have worked for us in Afghanistan over these years, and I see that more and more allies do that.”

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark MilleyMark MilleyAdaptability remains a constant — even as the 'character of war' changes Afghan civilian casualties hit record high amid US withdrawal Top US general won't rule out airstrikes against Taliban after withdrawal MORE pledged to “keep faith” with Afghans who helped U.S. troops, but added that “planning is working through the system right now.”

That prompted King to say at the hearing that “the term working through the system is what gives me some concern.” On Tuesday, King told reporters he spoke with Milley after the hearing and that “he shares my belief that this is an urgent problem and that it should be all hands on deck.”

“I don't think we can assume that we have a year or more after we leave to solve this problem,” King said. “I would operate on the premise that we have 90 to 100 days.”