Overnight Defense & National Security — Out of Afghanistan, but stuck in limbo

Overnight Defense & National Security — Out of Afghanistan, but stuck in limbo
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It's Friday, welcome to Overnight Defense, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Afghans who were evacuated to U.S. military bases around the globe are now in limbo.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is preparing to house up to 50,000 Afghans at bases in the United States.

And President BidenJoe Biden White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Police recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom MORE is ordering the release of some 9/11 documents ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attack.

For The Hill, we’re Ellen Mitchell and Rebecca Kheel. Write to us with tips: emitchell@thehill.com and rkheel@thehill.com

Let’s get to it.

And now, they wait 

Afghan refugees arrive at a US military base

With the military evacuations from Afghanistan now ended, attention is starting to turn to the fates of those who made it out.

The Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch took a look at how nearly 40,000 Afghans are stuck at U.S. military bases around the globe as they await vetting and face bottlenecks created by the rush to evacuate.

What advocates are seeing: The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) managed to get roughly 130 of more than 500 clients out of Afghanistan in the chaotic exit, but few have made it onto U.S. soil.

“A little more than 100 were evacuated out of Afghanistan but only a couple dozen have arrived in the U.S. The rest are stuck in third countries, some in poor conditions. We have no idea how long they will languish. There isn’t any transparency or plan,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the group.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, called the facilities in Doha impressive but expressed concern about their long-term use to house families.

“Lily pads are a poetic way to describe military bases,” she said. “We’ve also been trying to better understand how long families will be there. I can only imagine the mental toll that takes.” 

“I’ve experienced the sweltering heat so I’m worried by reports of families sitting in oppressive heat with not enough bathrooms and even rat infestations,” Vignarajah said.

One man who was evacuated to Qatar along with his wife has remained in the camp after the government offered a flight to him but not to her.

“The heat is just killing me and the bathroom situation is really bad,” he said. “They brought us to these camps, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

DHS ON THE CASE

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which Biden has tasked with leading the resettlement efforts, has sent 300 personnel to the sites to assist the State Department and others with rigorous vetting of those seeking to make it to the U.S.

Their appointment was welcome news to many frustrated by a lack of communication from the State Department.

“They are still trying to figure out what to do with people across the world basically that have been strung out to the four corners of the earth,” said one source who sat in on a recent call with DHS. “It was clear they were trying to come up with a solution.”

But it’s unclear how long the Afghans will be there.

“We’re concerned about the length of time people will be in these countries. There hasn’t been a real answer to that. We don't want people staying in Qatar for five years,” the source said. 

What about the charters?: What is also unclear is how the U.S will address those who left the country on charter flights to a number of other countries and who are not staying in facilities overseen by the government.

“Wherever had visa-free travel for Afghans to go, these charter flights ended up going. That is a logistical nightmare. Where did these people end up? Where did they go? What are the legal processes to get them into the U.S.?” said the source familiar with the DHS call.

DHS told stakeholders that it planned to use existing immigration pathways for that population — a lengthy and complicated process that advocates fear could leave Afghans in other countries for years on end.

Operation Allies Welcome: Speaking of DHS, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasSenate Republicans raise concerns about TSA cyber directives for rail, aviation Ending worksite raids is a show; focus should be on employer compliance Border Patrol arrests at highest level ever: report MORE detailed Friday what’s now being called “Operation Allies Welcome,” the DHS-led effort to continue extracting people from Afghanistan, vetting them and resettle them.

"Our mission is not accomplished until we have safely evacuated all the U.S. citizens who wish to leave Afghanistan, all lawful permanent residents, all individuals who have assisted the United States in Afghanistan," Mayorkas told reporters Friday.

Mayorkas appointed Robert Fenton, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) career professional who briefly led the agency in an acting capacity, as head of the Unified Coordination Group (UCG) to lead the inter-agency effort.

"This initiative requires us to call on the resources, expertise and authorities of every part of the federal government. DHS possesses vast operational expertise and a long record of leadership, bringing different agencies together to execute a single mission," said Mayorkas.

 

Military prepping to receive them 

Lt. Gen. Glen VanHerck

U.S. Northern Command head Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck also detailed Friday efforts to increase the military’s capacity to house Afghan evacuees stateside. 

More than 25,600 Afghans have arrived stateside so far and include a mix of special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants and asylum seekers, VanHerck told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite video.

But with a current ability to only house 36,000 people across installations, “we’re working to increase capacity to at least 50,000,” he said.

Of the Afghans who have already entered the country, about 1,000 have moved off of bases for resettlement, VanHerck said.

Where they go: While they wait for their visas to be processed or to be resettled, Afghans are receiving housing, food, medical care and other services at Fort Lee, Va.; Fort McCoy, Wisc.; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base McGuire-Dix–Lakehurst, N.J.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Fort Pickett, Va.; and Camp Atterbury, Ind.

Fort McCoy houses the most people at nearly 9,000, while Camp Atterbury hosts the least at just over 60. VanHerck said the majority of SIV applicants are being sent to Fort Lee, where they'll work through the final steps of earning their visas and clear health screenings.

The other bases have mostly received Afghans seeking asylum who require further security screening before resettlement.

Initial hurdles: VanHerck acknowledged there have been problems as the installations struggle with language, cultural, sanitation and other issues.

To help resolve these issues, some bases are setting up “mayor cells,” led by service members and an Afghan counterpart to communicate about what everyone needs. The leaders work similarly to city mayors and are in charge of several dorms or housing units.

“We have cultural differences and those are things that we’re working on, educating both the Afghans and our people on the challenges that we face from a cultural perspective,” VanHerck said.

In addition, Northcom has asked the Pentagon for additional linguists who can speak with the Afghans.

AUSTIN ON THE MOVE

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Pentagon says almost half of Afghan evacuees at US bases are children Russian fighters escort US bombers over Black Sea MORE mentioned earlier in the week that he’d soon travel to the Gulf region to thank U.S. partners for helping house evacuees.

The Pentagon formalized that announcement Friday, saying Austin is leaving Sunday on a trip to Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

On the trip, Austin will “meet with regional partners and thank them for their cooperation with the United States as we evacuated Americans, Afghans and citizens from other nations from  Afghanistan,” according to the Pentagon statement.

Blinken too: Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenSullivan raised normalizing relations with Israel during meeting with Saudi crown prince: report Democrats call for State to lift ban on embassies discussing same-sex marriage US, Brazil discuss ways to slow migration MORE also announced Friday he is traveling to Doha, Qatar on Sunday, followed by Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which is also housing Afghan evacuees.

Biden moves to declassify, release 9/11 docs

Biden on Friday signed an executive order directing the Justice Department and other agencies to review and release certain documents related to the FBI's investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Biden touted the move as the fulfillment of a campaign promise, and it is likely to provide some solace to families of victims of the attacks who have for years pushed the government to declassify and make public more information around the events of 9/11.

"My heart continues to be with the 9/11 families who are suffering, and my administration will continue to engage respectfully with members of this community," Biden said in a statement. "I welcome their voices and insight as we chart a way forward."

What the order does: Biden's order directs the Justice Department and other federal agencies to begin a review of documents and requires the attorney general to release declassified information over the next six months.

Congressional oversight: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffParis Hilton takes to Capitol Hill to advocate for troubled teen care reform Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt Press: Steve Bannon behind bars in Capitol basement? MORE (D-Calif.) said the panel would oversee the review "to ensure that all agencies adhere to the president’s guidance to apply the maximum degree of transparency allowed by law when conducting the review.”

Family efforts: The issue of the classified documents has been an ongoing cause for many families of victims of the attacks. A group of those families issued a statement last month urging Biden not to attend any memorial events this Sept. 11 unless the administration released documents surrounding a potential link between Saudi Arabia and the attacks.

The group 9/11 Families United issued a statement Friday praising Biden's executive order.

"We are thrilled to see the President forcing the release of more evidence about Saudi connections to the 9/11 Attacks," Terry Strada, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center, said in a statement.

"There is much more work to be done to secure justice for our murdered loved ones and to rectify the immense damage the 20-year shroud of secrecy has caused, but we now are optimistic that President Biden will be helping us achieve those goals," Strada added.

WHAT WE’RE READING

 

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. We’ll see you Tuesday.

 

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