Lawmakers, advocates demand details on Afghan evacuation plan

The White House confirmed Thursday it would evacuate former interpreters, drivers and others along with their families to third countries to shield them from danger in Afghanistan
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President Biden’s plan to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans who assisted U.S. military efforts in the country has left lawmakers and advocates with a number of unanswered questions as time dwindles amid the U.S. withdrawal.

The White House confirmed Thursday it would evacuate former interpreters, drivers and others along with their families to third countries to shield them from danger in Afghanistan while completing what can be a years-long process of reviewing applications for so-called Special Immigration Visas (SIVs).

But even those who have pushed the administration to execute that massive-scale evacuation say officials have been short on details about when, where and how it will take place.

“There are many outstanding questions, including which applicants would be prioritized for evacuation, how we would get them out of the country, where we would send them, how much it would cost and where the money to come from, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even mention the clock that is ticking on our time on the ground,” House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement to The Hill.

“I appreciate the Biden Administration’s intention to evacuate as many SIV applicants as possible – which I have been calling them to do for months – but that doesn’t mean much until they put words to action. They need to start answering some of these basic questions if we are to believe they will actually follow through,” he added.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that a group of SIV applicants will be relocated before the withdrawal is officially completed in September but declined to provide specific details such as where they will be sent or how many people will be evacuated.

“Some of this we’re not going to be able to outline for security reasons,” she said.

Since the Biden administration announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, it has faced calls to speed processing of the 18,000 Afghans who have already applied for SIVs along with another 53,000 family members seeking to accompany them to the U.S.

But the urgency of those calls has escalated as the military looks likely to largely wrap-up its withdrawal in July — and amid U.S. intelligence agency reports that Afghanistan’s current government could fall to the Taliban in as little as six months once America leaves.

Further complicating the issue, Afghanistan is in the midst of a devastating COVID-19 wave that prompted the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to lock down and suspend visa processing.

Experts are worried the lack of military presence could hinder the evacuation, particularly if the withdrawal takes away the option of moving Afghans on military planes.

And immigration advocates are pressing the government to send evacuated Afghans to a U.S. territory such as Guam, fearful they could spend years in limbo in a third country while their applications are processed with little recourse or access to the U.S. asylum system if they are denied.

The 14-point application process can take as long as 800 days to process, and Sunil Varghese, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said SIV seekers are often held up as the government works to verify employment — an effort complicated by factors including poor record keeping throughout the war and even kidnapping of people’s former supervisors.

“There’s a big question as to what happens to someone who is evacuated and then stuck in this years-long process, and what happens if they’re denied in error or forced to reapply,” Varghese said.

“If they’re in American territory they have access to humanitarian protections through immigration court or elsewhere where there are other protection pathways,” he added, including applying for asylum. “We don’t know what that looks like if they are taken to a third country.”

Guam has a history of accepting evacuees, taking in 130,000 Vietnamese in 1975 and 6,600 Iraqis in 1996.

“It’s quick; it’s one international flight; it has the infrastructure; it has the historical knowledge to do this, and frankly there is a lot of access to legal resources Afghans are going to need,” said Chris Purdy, program manager of Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First.

Lawmakers from both parties have also been pushing the so-called “Guam Option.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine Corps veteran who has been advocating for sending Afghan interpreters to Guam, praised the decision to evacuate them, but said “it is far from the final chapter” and called on the administration to release a detailed plan.

“It’s clearly long overdue today, so we need to start immediately, and we have not yet seen a timeline from the administration,” Moulton said at a news conference Thursday.

Asked Friday if the congressman was briefed on any more details since his comments, his office told The Hill it had yet to see a “detailed operational plan.”

U.S. military officers have stressed that American forces have the capability to evacuate Afghans if ordered to, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley telling lawmakers this week that “we are prepared to execute whatever we are directed” and that he considers it a “moral imperative” to help the Afghan allies.

But the Pentagon had few details on the evacuation Thursday and suggested U.S. military assets may not end up being used.

“Not all such evacuation operations require military aircraft to conduct,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a briefing. “It’s not like we haven’t done this before using chartered aircraft, commercially leased aircraft or contracted aircraft.”

Stressing that the State Department is in the lead on the initiative and that planning is still underway, Kirby also did not have answers on how many Afghans will be relocated, where they will go, cost estimates, a timeline or whether the Pentagon would provide supplies such as food and water to care for the evacuees.

“We understand that for many of them there is a physical risk. We’re mindful of that,” he said. “We’re mindful of the uncertainty that many of them have about their own futures. We are also mindful of our obligation, our responsibility to try to help them to the degree we can. And we’re doing that, and we’re working on that very hard.”

Advocates have estimated that if the U.S. relies on chartered flights for the evacuation it would need to run four or five 300-person flights per day in order to evacuate 70,000 people before the Sept. 11 withdrawal deadline.

But beyond flights, experts fear deteriorating conditions across the country will become even more dangerous for evacuees without a U.S. military presence.

“The safety situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly. The reports coming out of the country is that the Taliban is taking over huge swaths of the country, especially in the north, and preventing escape routes,” Varghese said.

“You’re forcing the applicant to carry all this proof with them that they worked for us, which in itself is dangerous,” he added.

Lawmakers have for months been calling on the State Department to speed visa processing, introducing bills to cut some red tape and add anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000 visas to the program.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) on the Senate floor Thursday called for a paperwork surge, noting the disparity in the hundreds of days it takes to process a visa versus the 90 remaining days the U.S. will remain in Afghanistan.

“There’s a mismatch there. We’ve got to take steps to protect these people,” he said.

“The Taliban has made no secret of the fact that they are in grave danger,” King added. “They have already started killing them. If we leave without providing for the safety of those people, providing them a way to maintain their lives, it will be a stain on this country that will exist for generations.”

Advocates have similarly echoed frustration, confused by why a plan to evacuate those who assisted the U.S. is coming so late in the process.

“Why did you wait so long? Why wasn’t this part of the plan for the withdrawal?” Purdy asked.

“That’s just a question that — it weighs on a lot of us in this community. We’ve been saying this for the last four months, and it’s been crickets.”

Tags afghan war afghan withdrawal Afghanistan Afghanistan conflict Angus King Jen Psaki Joe Biden Mark Milley Michael McCaul Seth Moulton Taliban War in Afghanistan

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