Hundreds of veterans and other front-line volunteers who have organized ongoing evacuations from Afghanistan say that their efforts have become "untenable" without increased support from the U.S. government.
In a letter to President Joe Biden and members of Congress, a coalition of more than 100 veterans and other groups organized under the moniker #AfghanEvac listed 15 steps the U.S. government needs to take to "honor its promise to those who remain at risk because of their connection to U.S. activities in Afghanistan."
"Success depends on improving interagency coordination, increasing evacuation capacity and resettlement throughput, and our government fulfilling the roles and responsibilities only a government can, in line with the expectations of the American people and our Afghan allies," the coalition said.
The letter, signed by more than 285 veterans and volunteers, asks the Biden administration to appoint a visible leader with a dedicated staff by February 2022 to coordinate federal agencies and create an actionable multiyear plan for Afghan evacuations.
Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and the founder of #AfghanEvac, said such a position is critical because at this moment "we don't really know who's in charge."
"This is not a two-week mission — it's months, maybe years long," he said in a phone interview. "So we want that one person in government to be able to leverage all the tools available to the American government. We got to the moon. We can solve this thing."
Former Ambassador Elizabeth Jones was appointed Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts in October. She leads a team that coordinates with Congress, veterans and other groups. Jones does not, however, have interagency authority to assign tasks or provide oversight responsibility outside of the State Department.
The groups also want the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to expedite the processing of visa applications, interviews and medical waivers and to waive all related application fees, while the Department of Defense maintains places in countries where Afghans can be evacuated to.
The Department of Homeland Security announced Nov. 8 that it would exempt Afghan nationals from filing fees and streamline the processing of their applications when sent to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons after July 30.
Evacuations have slowed considerably since the U.S. left Afghanistan in August, and one issue is the capacity to keep refugees in overseas locations while their immigration status is processed by U.S. agencies. Another problem is that there is still a significant number of Afghan allies who need to leave the country.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council noted that the U.S. had evacuated 74,000 people through Operation Allies Welcome, which has provided support and assistance for those who have made their way to the U.S.
"We are prepared to welcome additional qualifying Afghans over the coming weeks and months as capacity allows, including those who are at overseas transit locations for processing to come to the United States," the spokesperson said.
The State Department said it has directly helped 470 U.S. citizens and 417 lawful permanent residents and their families leave Afghanistan since August 31. A number of others left the country independently via private charters or by crossing land borders, the agency said.
A State Department spokesperson said by email that the agency was actively working to help passport holders and those who have obtained special immigrant visas. There are many Afghans who applied for special immigrant visas before and after the Taliban takeover, but it is unclear how many have been processed. The agency said it was working through "thousands of other SIV applicants."
Alex Plitsas, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who worked with the Human First Coalition to help evacuate Afghans, said that the number of people who still need to leave the country is most likely equivalent to the number who were able to flee before the U.S. military departed.
The difference is that the massive airlift and Pentagon and State Department resources that aided in those evacuations are gone.
"None of that exists now," he said. "There's no functioning embassy on the ground. There's nowhere to conduct interviews, there's nowhere to physically issue visas for people whose passports were destroyed during the evacuation operation. And they're effectively stuck for right now."
The letter further called on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would make it easier for evacuees to access the U.S. immigration system and find a pathway to citizenship. The Biden administration has previously asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow Afghans admitted to the U.S. via humanitarian parole to apply for green cards.
The signatories also asked Congress to provide greater funding to these efforts through the State Department and USAID, particularly as many groups have noted that private donations have dipped as the American public's attention veers elsewhere.
Another request is that the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services work together to provide mental health services to Afghans who evacuated, and American volunteers and public servants who have dedicated themselves to the withdrawal.
Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who has worked with Veterans for American Ideals to help evacuate Afghans, said that he and other veterans and volunteers who have committed themselves to this effort continue to receive countless messages from allies who remain in Afghanistan. He said they express the fear they have for their lives and the lives of their families and the disappointment over being left behind, and it takes a heavy toll — particularly as the process proves immensely frustrating.
Goldsmith, who has openly shared his struggles with PTSD and worked with veterans on their mental health challenges, said the messages, the disappointment and the frustrations have led him to reflect on 15 years of calls he received from veterans asking for help.
"People that I've lost in the past who asked for help and who I wasn't able to reach in time: It feels like a piece of my heart has died," he said. "I can say with certainty that the calls for help that our entire community is receiving right now and will continue receiving is like everything I've gotten over the last 15 years condensed into just a few weeks — and it repeats ad nauseam."
VanDiver, Plitsas and Goldsmith all noted that the effort to remove Afghans is apolitical. They said there is no desire to support one political party over another in this push to aid Afghans who helped the U.S.
They said a focus on politics would only undermine their work and bring the ire of veterans, volunteers, public servants and professionals who, as the letter says, have "the shared goal of evacuating Afghan allies impacted by the 20-year US mission in their country."
"Partisanship will kill this effort, both on the volunteer side as well as on the government side," VanDiver said. "We cannot get anything done if everybody's trying to score cheap political points. Folks who say they stand by veterans should be aware that we are not interested in that sort of behavior or path."
Goldsmith emphasized the point further.
"If politicians want to play games with us and want to say they support the troops and then turn around and say, 'You know, we don't want to actually get Afghans into the U.S.' or they want to put up roadblock," Goldsmith said, "they're going to have to deal with a generation of vets who've lost friends because of this preventable problem."