Congress to Biden: Get the Afghan Refugees Out

It’s Tuesday, but not a particularly happy one. Let’s get to the news.

Lawmakers Slam Biden Over Afghanistan Refugee Crisis

Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. It happened faster than the Biden administration thought it would, although many (including The Dispatch’s Thomas Joscelyn) have warned for months that the situation in the country was worse than the administration’s public posture indicated.

In April, Biden decided to follow in former President Donald Trump’s footsteps and commit to the withdrawal of American forces from the country. Biden pushed back the final withdrawal date from May 1 to  September 11, but later accelerated the process to ensure that the U.S. would be out by summer’s end. That announcement sparked concern among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who urged the administration to prioritize a safe and timely evacuation of the thousands of Afghan allies who have assisted the United States and American forces since 2001.

As the dust settles from the Taliban’s breathtaking conquest of the country, it’s clear that the administration has failed to deliver on that task.

In April, 15 members of Congress formed the Honoring Our Promises Working Group with the express goal of pressuring the Biden administration not to pull out of Afghanistan without a plan in place to ensure the safety of our allies on the ground. On April 21, they cautioned that the clock was already ticking to expedite the special immigrant visa (SIV) process by which most of those Afghans would hope to leave: “With the date for U.S. withdrawal fast approaching, your administration and Congress must move swiftly to prioritize and expedite these life-saving programs. We must provide a path to safety for those who loyally worked alongside U.S. troops, diplomats, and contractors.”

Two months later, as Haley covered in Uphill at the time, the working group, which now had more than 20 members, continued to sound the alarm that the SIV status quo would not be sufficient. “The current SIV process will not work,” they wrote in a June 4 letter to Biden. “It takes an average of 800+ days, and we plan to withdraw in less than 100 days. … If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation, which will then be a great detriment to our troops and the future of our national security.”

The SIV program was implemented by Congress to offer permanent protection to Afghans—including their spouses and children—who helped the U.S. in the war effort with interpreting and translating. There are currently an estimated 50,000-80,000 potentially eligible refugees in the process, including principal SIV applicants and their family members. 

The program has allowed thousands of Afghans to become lawful permanent citizens of the United States. But the wait is often long (it’s a 14-step process). According to the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind, the average processing time for SIV applicants is 357 business days, but it can take as long as two to three years. The group estimated that by the end of last month at least 300 Afghan partners or their family members had been killed for their connection to the U.S. since 2014. There are many reports out of Afghanistan that Americans and those who worked with coalition partners are being hunted by Taliban fighters. 

It wasn’t until July 30 that the first group of Afghan interpreters arrived in the U.S., at Fort Lee military base in Virginia. At the time, Biden said it would be the “first of many” relocations. 

That same week, the Senate approved an emergency bill already passed by the House giving more than $1 billion towards the SIV program to speed up the process. It also made Afghans who had served for one year eligible for resettlement (previously Afghans had to have worked with the U.S. for two years to qualify) and eased some of the medical requirements.

Several days later, the Biden administration at last took action to broaden the pathway out of the country for U.S.-affiliated Afghans who did not qualify for the SIV program. But as Politico noted, this new program still required significant legwork on the part of the Afghans themselves, who needed to receive a referral from a current or former employer before their application could be processed and needed to arrange travel out of the country on their own.

In any event, it all seems to have come too late to do much good. Now, instead of an orderly evacuation process, lawmakers are fielding desperate pleas for help from U.S. residents, Afghan translators and partners, and others seeking to flee. U.S. forces still control Kabul’s airport—a tiny island in a sea of Taliban-controlled territory. Evacuation planes continue to take off, but Taliban checkpoints surrounding the airport have made getting to safety impossible for many.

In a press conference Monday, President Joe Biden gave no concrete details for why the administration had failed to evacuate more Afghan allies in the last few months. Instead, he trotted out a talking point claiming more Afghan allies were not evacuated because they did not want to leave, and reiterated that he stands “squarely behind my decision.”

Members of the working group were withering in their criticism of the situation.

“It’s a shameful, historic embarrassment. A black eye on the United States,” Rep. Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, told The Dispatch about the administration’s handling of the situation. Meijer added that the excuse that some Afghans haven’t left the country yet because they wanted to stay was “bullshit. Pure, unadulterated bullshit.” 

Another in the group, Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement that his “worst fear has become realized” and called for an immediate evacuation: “The fact that, at this hour, we have not even secured the civilian half of Kabul Airport is testament to our moral and operational failure. … America and our allies must drop the onerous visa requirements where a typo can condemn an ally to torture and death, and the military must continue the evacuation for as long as it takes.”’

I am at a loss for words. And the words that I have are not family friendly,” Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, told The Dispatch. “It’s an abdication of responsibility not to have a plan in place.” 

Nearly every other day for the past month, Noorani said he has received emails and texts from friends and colleagues connected to people in the military asking for help on getting their Afghan interpreters and partners out of the country.

“This war has gone on for two decades. Over the course of 20 years of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, it is hard to quantify the overwhelming number of times an Afghan national, an Afghan local has helped us. And that’s what you see and hear in these stories of veterans who deployed to Afghanistan who are desperate to get their interpreters out,” Noorani said.

Lawmakers are themselves being inundated with frantic requests for aid. Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat who served in Afghanistan as an advisor, had his office set up an email account specifically for those seeking help evacuating allies.

“I’ve spent most of the last few days trying to get Afghans that I know out of the country. Their pleas are raw and cannot be ignored,” he tweeted. “Thousands of Afghans who worked alongside Americans for the last 20 years are at great risk. We can help them. We can set aside the bureaucracy that has backlogged their visa applications for years and just get them out of danger. We have to prioritize them.”

There are also reports of American citizens left behind in Kabul and unable to reach safety. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, tweeted that any Americans who are stranded should reach out to his office: “we’ll do everything in our power to help keep you informed and to help get you out.”

Refugee advocates, who have been urging the administration to speed up the process for months, were openly critical. 

“We could have done a lot more,” said Jenny Yang of the Christian nonprofit World Relief, which works to resettle refugees. She added that Biden “had plenty of time to prepare for what we all were telling him what was going to happen.”

On Sunday, Yang heard from the State Department that the U.S. had more evacuation flights planned but that the deteriorating situation had made it so “they’re not going to be able to evacuate them in the near term.”

As of Tuesday morning, flights out of Kabul carrying Americans and Afghans to safety have resumed, White House officials said

Members of Congress are continuing to turn up the pressure on the administration. On Tuesday, 46 senators signed a bipartisan letter calling for the State Department to create a new “humanitarian parole category” that would help Afghan women leaders, judges, and other public figures to qualify for evacuation.

Many have drawn comparisons to what is happening in Afghanistan to the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam. Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey said in a Monday press conference—led by former Army Ranger Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado—that he hoped this would look more like another famous event in world history. “The question here is whether this is going to be Saigon or Dunkirk,” said Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration. “Are we going to leave people behind as we did in South Vietnam or are we going to hold the beach until everybody is taken off that beach? I hope it’s the latter.”

Presented Without Comment

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