Taliban takeover scrambles U.S. evacuation efforts
Afghans looking to flee their country because of their work with the U.S. and international groups are stuck in a dangerous limbo as the Taliban completes its takeover.
The scene at Kabul’s international airport descended into chaos on Monday as military and civilian flights stalled with thousands of Afghan civilians flooding the tarmac in desperate search of a way out.
The administration has reportedly reached an agreement with the Taliban to not interfere with U.S. evacuation efforts at the airport as they work to restart flights.
But advocates are angry and frustrated over the Biden administration’s failure to anticipate the evacuation crisis.
“Obviously we’re extremely alarmed and concerned with the situation and how quickly the security situation deteriorated,” Adam Bates, policy counsel with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The Hill. “This is why we have been arguing for months in favor of evacuating of SIVs applicants and other U.S. affiliated and at risk Afghans to U.S. soil to avoid specifically this situation.”
More than 80,000 people could qualify for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) meant to help Afghans who worked with the United States as well as their families. The administration has sought to accelerate the visa process as it became clear the Taliban takeover would be much faster than anticipated.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday night said the administration is immediately transferring to the U.S. Afghans who have cleared the security screening process, and that it is working to find other locations to evacuate those people who have yet to be screened.
Yet over the past two weeks, only 2,000 SIV holders have arrived in the U.S.
“The idea that visa processing can provide protection as the country is crumbling and is now in the hands of the Taliban ignores the grim reality on the ground,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which will help resettle Afghan evacuees.
The first arrivals have been housed at Ft. Lee in Virginia, while the Pentagon on Monday said additional SIV holders would be housed at bases in Texas and Wisconsin.
Experts have also been perplexed by a continuing conversation about having some Afghans evacuated to third countries, even as government officials in Guam, which took in 130,000 evacuees after the fall of Saigon, has said they are prepared to serve as hosts once again.
“Thus far we have yet to hear a real robust operational plan and that underscores the need for bold and decisive action to bring them to Guam or other U.S. territories. The clock is up to outsource this moral obligation to other countries,” said O’Mara Vignarajah. “Processing allies on U.S. territory is a tried and true model our nation has always turned to in every single evacuation effort from Vietnam to Kosovo to Iraq and there is no reason to dismiss this approach especially at this moment.”
Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under the Obama administration, said the U.S. shouldn’t hesitate to bring Afghans to other countries if it means getting them to safety.
“[Biden] needs to put together an international effort to deal with the refugee crisis and this effort has to include all the neighboring countries, the Europeans. We need to take as many Afghans as possible,” she said, referencing her own family’s flight from Hungary in the 1950s. “We really need to deal with the refugee issue and then everything else comes after that.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, called on the administration to carry out evacuations of vulnerable Afghans and process applications for SIVs outside of Afghanistan.
She also called for an immediate expansion of the refugee program for Afghan women seeking asylum.
“Dire conditions on the ground persist today and without swift, decisive action from the administration, Afghan civilians will suffer or die at the hands of the Taliban,” she said in a statement on Monday. “A failure to act now will seal their fate, and the generation of girls who grew up with freedoms, education and dreams of building their country’s future will die with them.”
In late July, Congress voted to drop the work requirement needed to qualify for an SIV from two years to one year. Around the same time, Biden announced he would expand the pool of those eligible for evacuation to those who did not meet the strict guidelines of the SIV program, the so-called Priority 2 program.
But Bates said the U.S. needs to do more than just ease the work time requirements.
“You now have people trying to contact a supervisor who they haven’t talked to in a decade and get HR letters from organizations that don’t exist anymore, and all this amid a Taliban takeover where it’s a matter of life and death to be caught with documents establishing a connection to the United States,” Bates said. “The U.S. should not be leaving people behind when they can’t produce that kind of documentation at a time like that.”
He said Biden’s efforts to expand the evacuation program — giving people the option to come to the U.S. as refugees — has spurred more confusion.
“There is no in-country processing so they’d have to leave Afghanistan in order to avail themselves. And the U.S. government is not offering any assistance to people to leave or support them in whatever country they go to and the U.S. has not announced which countries will be processing the [Priority 2] program so people don’t know where to go,” Bates said.
“A program that looks good on paper but that doesn’t actually protect anybody is not a good program.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed.
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