Congress fumes over latest Afghanistan chaos

Greg Nash/Julia Nikhinson

Republicans are furious and some Democrats are seething over the ongoing chaos to evacuate Americans and allies from Afghanistan.

Lawmakers, advocates and ad hoc teams of evacuation task forces are blasting the Biden administration, saying government officials have failed to help and even hindered efforts to evacuate priority individuals.

Administration officials, meanwhile, are emphasizing that diplomacy is needed to ensure the safe passage of those seeking to flee the Taliban-controlled country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pushed back on assertions that the Taliban is essentially holding Americans and Afghan allies hostage by grounding planes at a functioning airport in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif — a charge leveled by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”

“It’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document,” Blinken said during a press conference in Qatar on Tuesday, where he is visiting U.S. and Qatari officials who have helped transit the majority of evacuees from Afghanistan.

“We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage-like situation in Mazar-i-Sharif.”

Blinken’s further explanation, however, has drawn criticism from members of President Biden’s own party.

The secretary said the administration cannot verify the identities of passengers on the planes, a remark that drew swift pushback from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee whose office is vouching for at least two planes full of American citizens, at-risk Afghan allies and their families, including small children.

“The information we provided the State Department is above and beyond what is usually required for travel in Afghanistan,” Maria McElwain, a spokesperson for Blumenthal, wrote in an email to The Hill in response to the secretary’s remarks in Qatar.

McElwain said the senator’s office provided the State Department with the planes’ manifests as early as Aug. 30, with continual updates through Monday, and that Blinken was “not correct” in saying passenger identities cannot be verified.

She further called it “clearly problematic” for the State Department to rely on the Taliban to individually verify “extremely vulnerable Afghans on these flights.”

Sayara International, the organization working with Blumenthal on the chartered evacuation flights, said in a statement Tuesday that it is “disheartened by the misinformation and inaccurate rhetoric surrounding our charter flights scheduled to depart from Mazar-i-Sharif” and that their passenger manifests “have been vetted and approved by the U.S. Government.”

The dispute over the charter flights underscores the challenges facing the Biden administration following the U.S. military withdrawal on Aug. 31.

While the administration succeeded in evacuating more than 124,000 people by the end of last month, their efforts have shifted to discussions with the governments of Qatar and Turkey to assist the Taliban in reopening Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and securing land routes for border crossings.

But frustration is boiling over among critics in Washington who say the administration is failing on multiple fronts in its pledge to evacuate any American who wants to get out.

Blinken is expected to testify before both the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees next week to answer questions from lawmakers on Afghanistan.

While the administration says there are a little more than 100 American citizens in the process of being evacuated, they have not provided a tally on green card holders, Afghan allies who either completed or are in the application process for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) and other at-risk Afghans who are targets of the Taliban.

The White House on Tuesday said it was going to Congress to ask for funds to bring and resettle up to 95,000 Afghans in the U.S., but some independent estimates say the number of SIV applicants and their families could be well over 100,000.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, sent a letter to Blinken on Friday requesting answers on thousands of Afghans her office is tracking and the administration’s plan for those still stuck in Afghanistan or waiting in third countries.

“My office has submitted over 2,200 names to the Department, many of whom … obtained sufficient documentation but were still unable to evacuate and women and girls who fear retribution from the Taliban for seeking basic human rights,” Shaheen wrote in the letter.

“Although some individuals have shared the status of their evacuation with my office, I do not have confirmation from many cases that have successfully departed. In addition, I have questions concerning next steps for individuals who remain in Afghanistan and third countries awaiting a path to safety.”

A congressional aide who was on a call last week with the State Department discussing efforts to address visas for Afghans said staff from both Republican and Democratic offices were “incredibly frustrated and unhappy with the answers we were getting, they were just unacceptable.”

At the top of the list of frustrations is the bureaucratic Catch-22 facing SIV applicants who cannot finish their visa applications because they need an in-person interview. The stated solution is that applicants must go to a third country to have the interview needed to get their visa to the U.S.

But getting out of Afghanistan and to a third country is nearly impossible.

“I’m sure that there are people that are working 24/7 over there at the State Department, trying to clean up the mess that their higher ups have made,” the congressional source said, adding that the offices are looking for ways that Congress can help the State Department in those efforts.

“I don’t want to use hyperbole when it’s unnecessary, but at every step of the way the government seemed to have little to no avenues to help anyone. Even now they still can’t give us the full accounting of who got out and how many are left behind. We can’t get any information. It’s incredibly frustrating,” the aide said.

A State Department spokesperson responded to a request for comment from The Hill, saying, “As a general matter, we do not comment on communications with Congress.”

Updated at 6:18 p.m.

Tags Afghan evacuees Afghan Taliban Afghanistan evacuation Antony Blinken Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden Kabul Mazar-i-Sharif Michael McCaul

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