Overnight Defense: Biden administration expands Afghan refugee program | Culture war comes for female draft registration | US launches third Somalia strike in recent weeks
Happy Monday 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 Biden administration is making more Afghans eligible to resettle in the United States as refugees, but there’s a big hitch.
The State Department announced Monday it is creating the “Priority 2” designation for Afghans whose lives are at risk due to their affiliation with the United States but aren’t eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.
“We take our responsibility to our Afghan partners deeply seriously, and we know the American people do as well,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in formally announcing the new designation. “We have a long history in the United States of welcoming refugees into our country.”
The details: The new designation, being referred to as P-2, will cover Afghans who worked for the U.S. government for less time than needed to qualify for the SIV program.
It will also cover Afghans who worked for a U.S. government-funded program, as opposed to directly for the U.S. government. And it will apply to Afghans who worked for a U.S.-based media outlet or nongovernmental organization.
A senior State Department official told reporters that individuals will need to be referred by their employer through a State Department website.
It’s unclear precisely how many more Afghans will be eligible to apply through the U.S. refugee program under the new designation. The senior State Department official told reporters it was likely to be in the tens of thousands but said the administration was unsure of the size.
The but: Unlike SIV applicants, whom the Biden administration is working to evacuate from Afghanistan while they wait for their visas to be processed, Afghans eligible for P-2 status have to get themselves out of the country to even begin the application process.
“However, we continue to review the situation on the ground and we continue to examine all options to protect those who served with or for us,” the official said.
In addition to the issue of finding a way to get out of Afghanistan, the application process once they’re out of the country is expected to take 12 to 14 months.
Meanwhile, at Fort Lee: A second flight of SIV applicants and their families arrived in the United States early Monday morning, Blinken also confirmed. That puts the total brought to Fort Lee, Va., under Operation Allies Refuge so far at about 400.
Also Monday, a group of U.S. lawmakers who have been vocal about evacuating the Afghans visited Fort Lee.
The group included Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) and Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
In a statement after the visit, Crow said he was “honored” to join the congressional delegation to “help welcome the first group of evacuated Afghan interpreters and their families to their new home in the United States.”
“There are still thousands of Afghan partners and their families waiting for evacuation and in grave danger,” he added. “I look forward to working with the Biden administration and my colleagues in Congress to finish the job and honor our promises.”
In her own statement, Duckworth said she wanted to “thank them from the bottom of my heart, in person, for their service to the United States.”
“Many of these Afghans bled alongside our troops overseas—some were even injured multiple times while supporting our troops—and while I am heartened to have met some of these brave individuals today, there are still thousands who remain in grave danger as we continue our nation’s withdrawal,” she added.
Waltz also tweeted a picture of the delegation, thanking the Army base, State Department and Department of Homeland Security for the tour.
In other Afghanistan news: The news on the ground in Afghanistan is increasingly grim.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that the Taliban was ramping up pressure on two of the country’s biggest cities — Kandahar and Herat — including launching rockets on the airports there.
The New York Times also reported that Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is in danger of falling to the Taliban.
Amid the sieges, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is blaming the “sudden” U.S. withdrawal.
“We have had an unexpected situation in the last three months,” he told the Afghan parliament.
Still, he said he has a plan to bring the security situation under control within six months.
Also Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul accused the Taliban of committing war crimes when it took over a town in Kandahar last month.
“In Spin Boldak, Kandahar, the Taliban massacred dozens of civilians in revenge killings. These murders could constitute war crimes; they must be investigated & those Taliban fighters or commanders responsible held accountable,” the embassy tweeted.
CONSERVATIVES TARGET WOMEN IN THE DRAFT
If you missed it over the weekend, we took a look at how conservatives are targeting the provision in the annual defense policy bill that would make women register for the draft.
Conservative senators are vowing a fight when the National Defense Authorization Act moves to the floor and through negotiations with the House, but even the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee concedes it is likely a losing battle since Republicans are split on the issue.
Still, conservatives, including several seen as potential future presidential contenders, are betting appeals against “drafting our daughters” will resonate with their base.
What conservatives say: “Our military has welcomed women for decades and are stronger for it. But America’s daughters shouldn’t be drafted against their will. I opposed this amendment in committee, and I’ll work to remove it before the defense bill passes,” tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), seen as a potential 2024 White House hopeful.
A source familiar with Cotton’s thinking told The Hill he is still figuring out the exact approach to take but will likely work to remove the provision during the conference process between the Senate and House, which is expected to include a similar requirement in its own version of the bill.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), similarly seen as a possible 2024 contender, also tweeted against the provision, saying that “Missourians feel strongly that compelling women to fight our wars is wrong and so do I.”
“I imagine there’ll be an amendment offered on the floor. I think you’ll probably get a number of Republicans to join that amendment,” Hawley told The Hill when asked about his strategy going forward. “We shouldn’t be conscripting women against their will.”
“I think it’ll be a pretty big issue,” Hawley added. “It’s the leading reason I voted no on the NDAA as a whole, so I think it’ll be a pretty big issue.”
What committee leaders say: Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who opposed the provision in committee, told The Hill he does not anticipate a big fight over the issue as the NDAA moves through the legislative process.
“I don’t think we will because we’re split,” Inhofe said when asked whether Republicans will put up a fight over the draft when the bill comes to the floor and goes through conference. “Judging from the response we’re getting behind closed doors, I don’t think we will.”
Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said he “would not be surprised” if an amendment is offered to remove the provision when the NDAA comes to the floor.
But, he added, there’s “strong support … on both sides of the aisle and I think among the American public” to keep it in.
SOMALIA AIR WAR PICKS UP
The U.S. military confirmed Monday it conducted an airstrike in Somalia over the weekend, the third strike under the Biden administration.
The Sunday strike against al Shabaab happened near Qeycad in the central part of Somalia, U.S. Africa Command (Africom) said in a statement.
Africom’s initial assessment is that “no civilians were injured or killed given the remote nature of where this engagement occurred,” it said.
As with the other recent strikes, Africom said no U.S. troops were with Somali forces at the time of the strike. The statement also again cited the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) as legal justification for the strike.
Context: Sunday’s strike follows two others in late July that ended a six-month lull in strikes that started when President Biden took office.
Those earlier strikes prompted some griping from Democrats that Biden did not seek congressional approval and instead cited the existing 2001 AUMF, in the case of the second strike, or “collective self-defense,” in the case of first strike.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson to become commander of U.S. Southern Command at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3xiRCzh
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on authorizations for the use of military force with testimony from officials from the State and Defense departments at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3ipyNGF
Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, and other military leaders will speak at Day 2 of the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Symposium. seaairspace.org
U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former defense official Michele Flournoy and more will speak at Day 1 of the virtual 2021 Aspen Security Forum. https://bit.ly/3C8i6Hg
— The Hill: US blames Iran for attack on oil tanker off Oman
— The Hill: White House cyber chief backs new federal bureau to track threats
— The Hill: Kim’s sister rips US-South Korea drills
— The Hill: Opinion: The US cannot allow China to think it will abandon Taiwan
— Task and Purpose: ‘We are all suffering in silence’ — Inside the US military’s pervasive culture of eating disorders
— Huffington Post: New documents show Pentagon rubber-stamping police requests for military gear
— Defense One: Top admiral: Defense firms are lobbying against the weapons the US Navy needs
— The New Yorker: The uncomfortable truth of Biden’s rapid Afghanistan withdrawal
— Defense News: Defense top line ‘will probably go up’: Key Dems see GOP boost as path to a deal