WASHINGTON — Two lawmakers who are veterans of the war in Afghanistan warned a Pentagon official on Wednesday that Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government would be hunted down by the Taliban unless the Biden administration organized an emergency evacuation before American troops withdraw in four months.
“We need to get these people out,” Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who saw combat in Afghanistan, said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. He said U.S partners faced a "death sentence" when the U.S. leaves.
Waltz and other lawmakers expressed frustration at the hearing with David Helvey, the acting assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, about the Biden administration's plans for tens of thousands of Afghans who face retribution from the Taliban for their association with the U.S. government or other Western organizations. Helvey said the Pentagon would be able to evacuate the Afghans if it were requested, but the lawmakers wanted to know what steps were imminent.
“We need to evacuate them out,” Waltz told Helvey. “What’s preventing you from doing that?”
Helvey replied that the administration hoped to see the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a peace settlement to end the conflict. “We’re focusing on a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan.”
Peace talks between the Taliban and their adversaries in the Afghan government have stalled.
Waltz said the Biden administration had to take action now to save the lives of Afghan partners and fly them out to a U.S. military base or territory outside the country, where their paperwork could be vetted and reviewed.
“These people who stood with us are being hunted down as we speak,” said Waltz.
The congressman recounted how one of the interpreters he had worked with was murdered by the Taliban six years ago after he was stopped at an insurgent checkpoint on his way to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The interpreter was heading to the embassy with documents to apply for a visa under a program set up for Afghans who were employed by the U.S., Waltz said.
“I want to be clear, we need an evacuation plan and time is of the essence,” the Republican lawmaker said.
“We are working with our inter-agency partners to look at the resources and mechanisms to support those folks,” Helvey said.
But Waltz said when the remaining U.S. forces leave as scheduled in September, former Afghan partners would have a target on their back.
“When that last soldier goes wheels up, we have essentially handed them a death sentence,” Waltz said.
To help Afghan interpreters and others who face retribution from the Taliban for their links to the U.S., Congress in 2009 set up the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program, to provide U.S. visas to Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. government. The program has a backlog years long. More than 17,000 Afghans have applied, and their paperwork is still being reviewed.
“We do have a special responsibility to support and protect those who supported and protected us for the past 20 years,“ Helvey told lawmakers. He suggested Congress devote more resources to the SIV program as a way to help Afghans who worked with the United States.
Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado and former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said at the hearing Wednesday he might not be alive today without the help of interpreters.
Crow asked Helvey if the Defense Department was ready to organize an evacuation of Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government.
“If directed to do so, we can,” Helvey said.
Crow pressed him on which agency in the U.S. government was taking the lead on the issue.
Helvey said he believed it was the State Department.
“You believe or do you know?” Crow asked.
“I do not know for sure,” Helvey said. “It depends on what we’re talking about.”
Crow said there was a moral and national security imperative to take action to airlift Afghan partners out of the country.
“We are several weeks into this drawdown. We have no time left. “
Helvey said the administration had no agreements in place in neighboring countries that would allow access to bases for U.S. troops or permission for overflight into Afghanistan for surveillance or counterterrorism-related missions. The administration is “exploring” options with some regional governments, he said.
Discussions were underway with Kabul on the size of the future U.S. diplomatic mission after troops withdraw; as well as how the U.S. would help train Afghan security forces or collect intelligence without boots on the ground, according to Helvey.
The Pentagon official offered few details on a number of key questions, including the nature of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda, and said he would address the topics in a classified hearing later on Wednesday.