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Rep. Crow Open To Evacuation Of Afghan Allies As U.S. Troop Withdrawal Looms

In a 2007 photo, U.S. Army 1st Lt. William Cromie watches his soldiers as they clear an ambush point previously used by Taliban extremists in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Brandon Aird
U.S. Army
In a 2007 photo, U.S. Army 1st Lt. William Cromie watches his soldiers as they clear an ambush point previously used by Taliban extremists in Afghanistan.

Congressman Jason Crow and humanitarian groups worry that when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan on the Sept. 11 deadline set by Joe Biden, allies in the region will face retribution. They have ramped up pressure on the president’s administration to address a backlog of special visa applications and are predicting a surge that could require evacuations like those in other conflicts a generation ago.

“We're looking at the Guam option, which has been used twice in the history of our country: after Vietnam, and then in the mid-90s with respect to the Kurds,” Crow said.

Operation Pacific Haven airlifted thousands of Kurds to Guam in 1996, similar to relocations of U.S. allies at the end of the Vietnam War. The nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project this week called on the Department of Defense to “immediately incorporate evacuation operations for vulnerable Afghans” into withdrawal plans.

“The current backlog is somewhere between 17,000 and 19,000 Afghans who’ve been sitting for years,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the New York-based project.

Afghans who worked with the United States as interpreters to troops as well as in other roles can apply for Special Immigrant Visas if they “experienced” or are “experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of their employment,” according to the State Department. Among the many provisions, they must have worked a minimum of two years at any point since Oct. 7, 2001, when the U.S. became involved in Afghanistan.

The State Department has allocated 26,500 visas for Afghan principal applicants since 2014. But Bates said applications have moved slowly regardless of presidential administration, including Biden’s, which has indicated it would hasten the pace. That’s not enough, said Bates.

“With this kind of September backstop looming over this conversation, we don't just need the program to get it back up to speed, we need it to kick into hyperdrive,” he said.

Many voice fears of the worst. In a roundtable hosted by Crow on Zoom this week, Mohammad Azim, an Afghan ally who worked for USAID and the U.S. Embassy and came to the U.S. in 2014, said those who helped the U.S. and remain in Afghanistan are in danger.

“They pledged that they would respect human rights and women rights and things like that, but as an Afghan, we don't trust Taliban,” he said. “We know that in social media they are saying ‘Let the invaders leave the country, then we know what to do with the traitors.’ And we know that they are going to do it.”

Crow said bluntly the situation is life-or-death.

“If we don't do right by these folks... there will be televised killings of our Afghan partners in the streets of Kabul and around Afghanistan,” Crow said.

Crow is heading up a working group in Congress that aims to engage the Biden administration. The group consists of 10 Democrats and six Republicans. They wrote a plea to Biden, telling him his administration and Congress “must move swiftly to prioritize and expedite” life-saving measures for U.S. allies.

Crow said he has had a few conversations with high-ranking officials, including those in the military, but is still waiting for word from the president.

Meanwhile, the American drawdown is being watched closely, especially this week. Under a deal with former President Trump -- which the Taliban signed -- troops were supposed to be out of the country by May 1. Biden’s withdrawal plan sets that back by months and adds some uncertainty, but it is also being embraced as a final opportunity for Afghans who worked for U.S. interests to get out.

Crow, a Democrat and former Army Ranger, said his colleagues in the working group bring personal experience to the issue.

“Many of us are combat veterans who served in Afghanistan and want very much to ensure that we're honoring our promises and showing to the world that we will protect those who protected us,” Crow said. “We view this as not just a moral imperative, but also a national security imperative, because make no mistake, our potential, our current and future partners and allies around the world -- people that we're going to want to partner with -- whether it be in Africa, South America or Asia, are watching very closely how we treat our Afghan partners.”

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.