Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it
Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: The first group of Afghans being evacuated amid threats to their lives is now in the United States.
A first flight of more than 200 Afghans landed in Virginia early Friday morning after leaving Kabul on Thursday.
The Afghans, which include people who worked for the United States and their families, were then bussed to Fort Lee, Va., where they will finish the final steps of the visa application process.
“Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” President Biden said in a statement Friday.
“Most of all, I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home,’” he added.
SecDef’s welcome: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also issued a statement welcoming the Afghans to Fort Lee.
He also said about 300 U.S. troops from several installations are prepared to “provide logistics, temporary lodging and medical support at Fort Lee.”
“We have spoken many times about the moral obligation we have to help those who have helped us, and we are fully committed to working closely with our interagency partners to meet that obligation,” Austin added.
What now: The Afghans are expected to stay at Fort Lee for about a week as they complete a final medical check as required by law, as well as some final Department of Homeland Security processing, said Tracey Jacobson, who is overseeing the evacuation operation for the State Department.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), with assistance from the State Department’s refugee office, will help find places to relocate the Afghans around the United States once the screening is done, Jacobson said. If any of the Afghans already have a familial or other connection somewhere, the agencies will try to relocate them there, but otherwise they will go where IOM has the capacity for them, she added.
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghans were tested before leaving, were offered vaccines in Kabul and will be offered vaccines again at Fort Lee, Jacobson said.
What about the rest?: Two hundred Afghans represent just a fraction of those who have applied for visas to the United States.
This first flight was part of a larger group of 2,500 Afghans — 700 who served as interpreters, plus their families — who have completed most of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application process and are being evacuated to the United States for the final steps in the process.
The remainder of the 2,500 are expected to be relocated “over the course of a few weeks,” said Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser.
The administration has also said it is working on evacuating about 4,000 applicants and their families to places outside the United States. This group already has what’s known as “chief of mission approval,” but has not completed the more rigorous security screening those coming to Fort Lee have.
But that still leaves thousands of other applicants and family members.
Not enough, advocates say: While lawmakers and advocates have praised the Biden administration’s initial evacuations, they have also continued to express concerns about the administration’s plans, or lack thereof, for the remainder of the applicants.
In particular, lawmakers and others have been raising alarms about Afghans who live outside Kabul and do not have the means to travel to the capital or could be caught by the Taliban during the journey.
“The number of Afghans expected to be relocated to U.S. soil is woefully insufficient,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement Friday. “To date, there is simply no clear plan as to how the vast majority of our allies will be brought to safety. The Biden administration should implement greater transparency as to how it will relocate each and every SIV applicant along with their family members.”
BIDEN SIGNS SECURITY SUPPLEMENTAL
A funding crisis for the National Guard seems to have been averted, as Biden on Friday signed the Capitol security spending bill.
The $2.1 billion bill, you’ll recall, includes $521 million to reimburse the National Guard for its deployment to the Capitol in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Sigh of relief: National Guard officials had been warning for weeks that without that funding they would have to cancel training and maintenance scheduled for August and September.
Ahead of Biden’s signature, the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) on Friday praised Congress for finally approving the funding.
“The action means that the states and territories should no longer be faced with hard financial decisions on canceling training, deferring maintenance, delaying facility repairs and furloughing personnel,” retired Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, NGAUS chairman, and retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, NGAUS president, said in a joint statement.
“Guard soldiers and airmen nationwide were there for lawmakers in their time of need,” they added. “Now, members of Congress have returned the favor. And it appears that an important trust between the nation and its men and women in uniform will remain intact.”
Help for Afghans: Also of note on the day the first group of Afghan evacuees arrived in the United States, the bill adds 8,000 visas to the SIV program, removes some hurdles for applicants and provides about $1.1 billion to fund evacuations.
“This legislation becoming law is significant: it will help clear a path to safety for thousands,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sponsored the language on SIVs in the bill, said in a statement after Biden signed it. “To the Afghan partners who face imminent danger from the Taliban – the U.S. stands with you and will make every effort to ensure your safety in thanks for your service. We’re running against the clock, so now we must act swiftly to ensure our allies are not left behind.”
GOING BACKWARD ON COVID
The Pentagon on Friday said it’s raising its health protection level, a little more than three weeks after lowering it.
Effective Monday morning, the Pentagon complex will be at “Health Protection Condition Bravo,” up from “Alpha.”
That means maximum occupancy is back at 50 percent, down from 90 percent. Public tours and the 9/11 Memorial will be closing again. And public gatherings in the complex are again limited to 50 people.
“We are continually emphasizing to our people the need to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and to take actions to protect themselves and those around them by employing protective measures, including practicing good hand washing, social distancing, wearing cloth face coverings, and taking appropriate actions if feeling sick now,” the department said in Friday’s statement. “These can dramatically decrease the risk of infection and slow COVID-19’s spread, including the Delta variant.”
About those vaccines: In a statement Thursday night, the department also confirmed it was following Biden’s direction to look into “how and when” to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for service members.
“Secretary Austin will also begin consulting our medical professionals, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to determine how and when to make recommendations to the president with respect to adding the COVID-19 vaccines to the full list of requirements for military personnel,” deputy press secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement.
The statement also confirmed that Biden’s order for federal employees to attest to their vaccination status or else be subject to regular COVID-19 testing applies to both military and civilian Defense Department personnel.
ON TAP FOR MONDAY
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, Marines Commandant Gen. David Berger and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz will speak at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Symposium at 9:30 a.m. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley will speak at 12:30 p.m. Register at seaairspace.org or livestream at defense.gov/live.
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