Afghans who aided U.S. troops are in danger of being hunted down by the Taliban.
House lawmakers are increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s lack of progress in expediting special immigrant visas for thousands of Afghans who have worked with the U.S. as the deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country gets closer.
Lawmakers “have been completely underwhelmed by the total lack of a sense of urgency, or a plan” to prioritize the safety of the thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who qualify for such visas and who will be hunted down by the Taliban if the Biden administration does not take action, said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret who worked with Afghan interpreters during his deployment.
“The day the last U.S. soldier goes wheels up out of Bagram air base, we’ve handed these people a death sentence,” Waltz said in an interview.
The sense of frustration comes just weeks after Waltz and a group of House lawmakers, led by Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), sent a letter urging Biden to expedite the visa approval process and address challenges with the Afghan refugee program. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee also grilled Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, about the issue during a Tuesday hearing.
Biden has yet to formally respond to the bipartisan April 21 letter, Waltz and three other signers told POLITICO this week.
Even members of his own party signaled that Biden needs to do more to ensure safety for the Afghans who have spent decades providing critical help to Americans and other Western allies fighting in Afghanistan. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) noted that the average time to process a special visa is 800 days — compared to the 116 days remaining until Americans leave the country.
“This administration does not seem to have a plan,” Moulton said. “The bottom line is we’ve got to get our allies out of Afghanistan before they are slaughtered.”
The White House is in the middle of an “intensive policy process” to improve and increase funding for the program, said a National Security Council spokesperson, who requested anonymity to discuss internal plans.
“Congress remains an important part of this conversation,” the spokesperson said. “We are grateful for their commitment to improve the SIV process and look forward to working with them constructively on how to best support the brave Afghans who have supported our troops, diplomats, and development personnel.”
The State Department has responded to concerns about the slow pace of the visa approval by temporarily adding staff both in Washington and at the embassy in Kabul to conduct interviews and process visa applications, as well as identifying “process improvements,” according to a department spokesperson. These actions will continue “contingent on the security situation in the country,” the spokesperson said, adding that the embassy is conducting visa interviews “at peak capacity.”
“While we remain focused on the peace process, we also have a commitment to Afghans who served the U.S. Government at great personal risk, and we are processing SIV applications as quickly as we possibly can,” said the spokesperson, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “The Department constantly seeks ways to improve the SIV process while ensuring the integrity of the program and safeguarding national security.”
Moulton said that increasing the number of staff working on the visas is a start, but that alone is not sufficient given the “massive bureaucratic delays.”
“They would have to add an astronomical number of personnel to meet the requirements,” he said. “The SIV program is clearly inadequate, both as it currently stands and as it could be easily ramped up.”
Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), another signer, also said through a spokesperson that he has not received a response yet to the letter, but is aware the administration is “working on it” and knows members of the team are “engaged” with House lawmakers on the issue. However, he urged the administration, particularly the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and the State Department, to expedite the visa applications.
On Monday, Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added their voices to the growing chorus, urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter to address backlogs in SIV processing and to look for alternate ways to process additional visas. They also called on Blinken to press Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to improve the Pentagon’s contributions to the process and dedicate resources to verifying special visa employment verification, another source of delay.
“We made a promise to those Afghans who supported our efforts and it is imperative that we keep our word to them,” the lawmakers wrote. “No one who qualifies for a SIV should be left behind — and potentially at risk — after U.S. forces exit.”
Despite an authorized cap of 26,500 special immigrant visas, only 16,000 have been issued since since Congress set up the program in 2009, according to Meeks and McCaul. Another roughly 18,000 applications are in the pipeline, the majority of which are in the early stages of the process. Approximately 5,000 are still waiting for initial action by the State Department to determine whether they can proceed.
The laborious pace of the approval process has drawn criticism from lawmakers and veterans over the years, but anger has boiled over in recent weeks since Biden announced the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. State Department officials briefing lawmakers have said it could take “upwards of two years” to finish processing the current pool of applicants, Meeks and McCaul wrote Monday.
Waltz called for the formation of an interagency task force to speed up the process, noting that Afghans who qualify for special visas are in more danger from the Taliban every day as U.S. troops continue the withdrawal.
He also criticized the Pentagon’s plan to evacuate these Afghans in a hurry if needed, laid out by David Helvey, the acting Pentagon official overseeing Indo-Pacific affairs, during a hearing last week.
Waltz said the plan was “not realistic” unless the Pentagon begins setting up the process for a quick evacuation now, including pointing eligible Afghans to locations around the country where they could be airlifted to Bagram air base in a hurry. The applicants should then be moved to a third country while their paperwork is being processed.
“What’s not realistic is expecting these people to somehow get cross country to the embassy with all their documentation they need with Taliban checkpoints between where they live and the embassy,” Waltz said. “If you are caught with that documentation, you are dead.”
Waltz recounted how an Afghan interpreter he worked with was murdered by the Taliban after he was stopped at a checkpoint on his way to apply for a visa. The insurgents forced the interpreter to take them to his home, where they executed him, his brothers and cousins, Waltz said.
Moulton also urged the administration to develop a “robust” plan to set up a staging area and an airlift operation to evacuate these Afghans to safety. He noted that there is precedent for moving endangered civilians who helped the United States during a war effort to a third country, citing the conflicts in Vietnam and Kosovo.
“The most urgent priority is simply getting our friends out,” he said.
Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick noted that the Pentagon remains supportive of the State Department’s efforts to improve the special visa program. The U.S. military stands ready to evacuate non-combatants around the globe on short notice, he said, stressing that “there are no such requests or directives at this time.”
Rep. Tom Malinowksi (D-N.J.) defended the president’s efforts to fix a complex problem, noting that he is still appointing key officials. However, he expressed doubt that the challenges will be solved quickly enough for the thousands of Afghans who face retribution from the Taliban for their work with the U.S. government.
“I’m satisfied that they are taking this very seriously — whether we come up with solutions quickly enough remains to be seen,” said Malinowski, who also signed the Crow letter. “We are not yet where we need to be.”
But Malinowski blamed DoD for continued problems assisting eligible Afghans to verify their past employment. He cited challenges finding Americans to sign letters of employment verification once the officials the applicant worked with years ago is no longer in the country.
“DoD has got to figure that out to make it easier for these folks,” he said.
On top of the red tape and logistical challenges, another issue is that the embassy is “chronically understaffed,” Waltz said, urging an increase from 20 to at least 50 people working to process the visas.
“We are hearing the right things from Blinken on down to mid-level officials, but when you actually go and talk to those processing the visas, do they have a centralized authority within the interagency? Do they have additional resources? Is there a plan to evacuate on a timeline that’s realistic? No, no, and no,” he said.
Congress must also authorize funding to increase the number of special visas the U.S. can issue, he said.
If the Biden administration does not get qualified Afghans out of the country by the time the U.S. withdraws, “we will have blood on our hands,” Moulton said. “Future generations of Americans will be unable to find friends and allies in all the places we have to go because people around the world will point to Afghanistan and say ‘we broke our promise and our friends got killed.'”
But the problem goes far beyond the Afghans eligible for the special visas, Malinowski said. This group represents “a fraction of those who may need our help if the Taliban advances as Americans withdraw,” he said, pointing to the thousands of women's rights activists, civic leaders, teachers and others who may be hunted by the insurgents.
In their letter, Crow and others also urged Biden to address challenges facing the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in providing the necessary response.
Malinowski said the refugee program needs additional flexibility to allow Afghans who want to help preserve the gains they fought for to stay in their country, but also permit them to leave quickly if they need to.
He called on the administration to establish a system in which Afghans hunted by the Taliban can apply for refugee status without physically leaving the country. He noted that many Afghans are fleeing Taliban-controlled areas for other parts of the country run by the Afghan government.
“Most of them don’t want to leave right now, most of them want to keep working for their country in their country, but if the Taliban advance and population centers are about to fall, they are not going to have a lot of time to start their paperwork,” Malinowski said.
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/18/lawmakers-visas-afghans-us-troops-489290