Congressional aides frustrated with State officials over Afghans left behind

Congressional aides frustrated with State officials over Afghans left behind
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Congressional aides briefed by State Department officials said they were left feeling like the Biden administration has lost its sense of urgency with evacuations in Afghanistan after U.S. troops completed their withdrawal last month.

Capitol Hill staffers said the State Department on Tuesday provided few details about any plans for assisting the more than 100,000 vulnerable Afghans who remain in the country.

During the briefing, aides said State Department staff suggested there was little to be done for those who worked for the military or for U.S. nonprofits and remain in the country — a group covered by an expanded program created in August to assist those who otherwise may not have a pathway to leave.

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But sources on both sides of the aisle who were on the call said the State Department essentially signaled that Afghan allies looking to leave are instead likely to remain in the country for years to come.

“The impression I got was the urgency is gone,” said one source on the call. “And it’s this tacit admission that while we did a big evacuation, we’ve gotten out our real priorities.”

Left behind in Afghanistan are 550 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders who worked with the U.S. military for at least two years. Interpreters are often recipients of SIVs.

But many more Afghans have applications awaiting final approval.

“That’s a ton of people. That’s people who are approved but don't have the visa; people who the embassy had to destroy their passport; people who didn't have everything or are somewhere in the process, somewhere in the pipeline,” said another aide on the call.

“But if you don't have a visa in your passport, you're shit out of luck.”

Adding to the number of Afghan allies seeking evacuation are those who qualify for the Priority 1 and Priority 2 programs created by the Biden administration but who never made it out on a flight. Those individuals assisted the U.S military for less than two years or worked on democratization efforts or with nonprofits aligned with the U.S.

The number of Afghans in the two priority groups could surpass 145,000 when including family members, according to an estimate by the Association of Wartime Allies.

“They don't have a plan on how they’re going to get more P1 and P2 people out. They’re focused principally on U.S. passport holders and people in their immediate families,” the second source said.

“But for everyone else, which is the whole universe — the SIV holders, the [U.S. Agency for Global Media] journalists, the P1 and P2 people, for those people there is no plan. ... If you don't have a travel credential, State Department doesn't have a plan for you, or at least not a clear one.”

Several sources also complained about what they said was a continued lack of data from the State Department, general inability to answer questions, and an overall lack of preparation.

“No one at State thought to include the Afghanistan desk on the call. So halfway through, they had to call the Afghanistan desk and ask them to join the call for us to get answers to certain questions,” a third source told The Hill.

On the call, State Department staff from Consular Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration said those remaining in the country would likely need to go through the refugee system in order to come to the U.S. — a process that can take years and also involves fleeing the country in order to apply.

“The gist was this is no longer an emergency situation so we’re looking to move them through the refugee program and process them in other countries like Pakistan,” the first source said.

“And because it's a nonemergency situation, you get the impression that ‘We've done our work here so you're just going to have to wait,’” they said.

Other vulnerable Afghans who may want to leave the country, including those working on women's rights, face similar problems.

“They were asked about at-risk Afghans that are not eligible for P1 and P2 and what is the mechanism for their evacuation, and they said they don't have an answer for that because it's a matter of policy debate,” the first source said.

When reached for comment, a State Department spokesperson said: "Despite the perilous conditions on the ground and immense security challenges, the United States and our Allies were able to evacuate safely tens of thousands of Afghans at risk. This heartbreaking reality is that many of our longtime partners were unable to leave over the past two weeks, given the security conditions, including the heinous August 25 attack that killed 13 servicemembers and over 100 Afghans."

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The spokesperson also pointed to recent comments by Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden tries to tamp down tensions with Putin call Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Biden's 'Democracy Summit' meets the African paradox MORE, who said, “We’re not stopping our work to help Americans and at-risk Afghans in Afghanistan. We’re going to do everything we can moving forward to continue this mission and also to learn from it."

But some congressional staffers have expressed sentiments that appear to question the State Department's commitment.

“I think that sense of urgency right after the country fell has sort of turned into fatigue,” the third source said.

“All of these people are having to work long hours and answer to Congress. So it just came across as a clear lack of urgency and really just exasperation over the whole situation.”

Updated at 3:13 p.m.