WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is under mounting pressure from lawmakers, veterans groups and refugee organizations to organize a large-scale evacuation of endangered Afghan interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government before U.S. troops withdraw from the country in September.
Advocates say that the Biden administration is moving far too slowly to protect tens of thousands of Afghans whose lives are in mortal danger because of their association with the U.S. and Western organizations and that action must be taken now before the last troops pull out as scheduled in four months.
"We're very concerned about the seeming lack of urgency on the part of the administration to protect vulnerable Afghans in light of the anticipated withdrawal," said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project. "In terms of concrete plans, the information that we have gotten from them is very sparse."
Veterans organizations from across the political spectrum sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday calling for an evacuation of Afghan partners to American territory, where their applications for visas could be reviewed and vetted.
“This is a big job, and we expect you to command the use of the military’s logistical expertise and American diplomatic power to execute it. Our experience tells us that the Department of Defense is up to this task,” said the letter from 15 veterans' groups.
The Biden administration so far has been "noncommittal" when presented with the idea of an evacuation, said Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at the advocacy nonprofit Human Rights First, which signed the letter to Biden.
No One Left Behind, a veteran-led nonprofit devoted to helping Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who worked alongside U.S. troops, proposed an evacuation of Afghans more than a year ago.
In public statements, the administration has not signaled any plans for an evacuation or other emergency measures, and officials have yet to offer details about how the government plans to ensure the safety of Afghans who risked their lives working for the U.S.
Asked about accusations that the administration is failing to move quickly to help Afghan partners, the White House National Security Council declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the State Department declined to "discuss internal deliberations" but said the department is working to respond "as promptly as possible" to Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and who have applied for U.S. visas.
The Taliban have ratcheted up attacks on civil society activists and women in particular as U.S. and NATO troops prepare to withdraw, assassinating judges, journalists and local officials. A massive bombing Saturday at a secondary school in Kabul killed at least 60 people, most of them girls. The Afghan government blamed the Taliban; the insurgents denied responsibility.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, said he has spoken to frightened Afghans who feel the walls closing in.
"I am hearing from a lot of them, and the ones I talk to, their panic and fear ... in their voices is so palpable," Waltz said.
Waltz said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have reassured him that they are taking the safety of Afghan partners seriously.
However, he said, "there are a number of avenues that the administration could take, but I'm just not seeing any movement."
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.
A federal court ruled in 2019 that the U.S. government had failed to abide by a law requiring it to process applications within nine months, and an inspector general's report last year described a chronic staffing shortage that had hobbled the program.
Based on the government's track record, it would take more than four years to process the backlog of SIV applicants, assuming there was sufficient staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to handle the cases. There is no realistic prospect that most of the Afghan applicants could get visas in time before U.S. forces leave, Bates and other experts said.
The State Department spokesperson said, "The Biden administration is committed to supporting those who have helped U.S. military and other government personnel perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families."
"Everyone involved in the Special Immigrant Visa process, whether in Washington or at our embassy in Kabul, is aware of the threats our Afghan colleagues face," the spokesperson said.
The State Department, which is seeking ways to improve the visa program, has deployed more staff to the embassy in Kabul to help handle SIV cases, the spokesperson added.
Neither the State Department nor the National Security Council responded directly to questions about whether the administration supported a mass evacuation.
The Guam option
Advocates for the Afghans promote the idea of evacuating thousands of Afghans to the U.S. territory of Guam or other safe locations outside Afghanistan, including military bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where U.S. officials could then vet them and review paperwork for possible resettlement.
A mass airlift of Afghans conjures up painful memories of the chaotic U.S. exit from Vietnam in 1975, when throngs of Vietnamese tried to board American helicopters at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. But supporters of the so-called Guam option say the U.S. military has successfully carried out similar evacuations.
In 1975, about 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were flown to Guam after the fall of Saigon. In 1996-97, the U.S. military evacuated 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to the island after Saddam Hussein's regime launched attacks into Iraq's Kurdish region. The Kurds were housed at Andersen Air Force Base for three to four months; most resettled in the U.S.
"The U.S. government has proven in the past that it is capable of moving large numbers of people in short order when the situation requires it," said Bates of the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Without an evacuation, tens of thousands of Afghans and their families — including those who worked for the U.S. government, as well as others who promoted democracy and women's rights at Western-backed organizations — will be at the mercy of the Taliban, said lawmakers, veterans and rights groups.
"My concern is very simple. And that is if we pull out and don't protect our Afghan partners, many of them will be killed," said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Taliban have threatened Afghan interpreters and others with Western ties, both publicly and privately. "I take them at their word," Crow said.
Crow and other lawmakers argue that the U.S. has a moral obligation to come to the aid of its Afghan partners and a national security interest to avoid signaling to the world that Washington abandons its allies.
Crow, part of a bipartisan group of 10 Democratic and six Republican House members pushing for more protections for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, said evacuation is "an option that we need to be looking at seriously."
In a letter to the administration April 21, Crow and the 15 other lawmakers, including Waltz, said the U.S. "must provide a path to safety for those who loyally worked alongside U.S. troops, diplomats, and contractors, and work with our international partners to provide options for Afghans who would face a credible fear of persecution if the Taliban return to power."
Almost three weeks later, the White House has yet to respond, Crow said.
A National Security Council spokesperson said, "We have received Congressman Crow's letter and appreciate his interest in working with the administration on an issue we are prioritizing."
Asked what the military planned to do to help vulnerable Afghans who worked for U.S. forces, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said that he had no orders at the moment and that it was a matter for the State Department to provide visas for Afghan partners.
"I would just tell you that from a Central Command perspective and the perspective of the U.S. military, if directed to do something like that, we could certainly do it," McKenzie at a Pentagon briefing April 22.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that it was too soon to opt for an evacuation and that a worst-case scenario in Afghanistan is not a "foregone conclusion."
"We're working through the SIV process through the State Department, but I think it's a bit early to really sound the alarm on getting everybody out just yet," Milley said Thursday at a Pentagon news conference. "That's my own personal opinion, but I think that's based on some pretty good knowledge of what's going on right now."
'We will make some special ambush for you'
In the meantime, veterans and refugee organizations are inundated with pleas for help from former interpreters.
"Right now, we are getting desperate cries daily. Our inbox fills up every day, and our Facebook Messenger fills up every day with calls from people in Afghanistan asking for help," said Purdy of Human Rights First.
"And all they want to know is: 'President Biden, you gave us your word that you were going to help us. You're leaving, so how are you going to help us?'" he said.
A former Afghan interpreter in Kabul, Hilal, who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his safety, said the Taliban threatened him repeatedly after he accompanied U.S. Army units who detained insurgents.
Hilal said he got a letter threatening his life and then a flurry of phone calls. The voice on the other end of the line "was telling me if you don't stop working with the infidels, especially with the American infidels, I swear to God we will try our best to kill you and each of your family members one by one."
The Taliban caller somehow knew that Hilal had been given the nickname "Steve" by U.S. soldiers, Hilal said. "If you are Muslim, why are you helping the U.S. forces in Afghanistan against us?" the caller asked, according to Hilal. "We will kill you. We will kill you. We will make some special ambush for you."
Hilal, 42, who is married with six children, said that if he cannot secure a U.S. visa, he will have to consider fleeing over the border and trying to make his way to Europe.
Crow, the Army veteran who represents Colorado, argued that supporters and opponents of the U.S. troop withdrawal agree that the U.S. should not turn its back on Afghans who had been loyal partners and colleagues.
"We're going to debate the politics of the Afghan war for decades to come," he said. "What is very clear and what's not debatable is that there are people who served with us side by side, at great personal risk and sacrifice, that we have obligations to. If there is honor to be had here, it's doing right by those people."