Tens Of Thousands Of Afghan Allies Could Be Left Behind Or Saved, Rep. Crow, Others Say
As the Taliban sweeps Afghanistan, filling the void left by withdrawing U.S. troops, Rep. Jason Crow and other members of Congress who served in the military are warning of a humanitarian crisis. They say the Biden administration should work quickly to get military interpreters and other Afghans who helped Americans out of the country before they face retribution.
“We didn't need to be seeing the scenes that we're seeing at Kabul Airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s,” Crow said in a press call Monday. “That's why a very broad bipartisan group of us since April has been very clear that we should have started this evacuation months ago and had we done that, tens of thousands of folks could have been brought to safety.”
Crow, from Aurora, was joined by fellow Democratic representatives and Republicans. They were unified in their message that President Joe Biden should secure Kabul’s airport for both military and commercial flights. Biden, in an address on Monday, said he stands “squarely behind” by his decision to withdraw U.S. troops. He also touched on evacuation plans, saying that 2,000 Afghans and their families have come to the U.S. for resettlement under Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and that he has authorized 6,000 troops to secure Afghanistan.
“In the coming days, the U.S. military will provide assistance to move more SIV-eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan,” Biden said. “We're also expanding refugee access to cover other vulnerable Afghans.”
Crow was joined by Reps. Mike Waltz, R-Florida, Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, and Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“The United States has a moral responsibility and a national security interest in ensuring the protection of these Afghan allies, as well as those who directly supported our military mission,” Albright said. “I know the Biden administration recognizes this responsibility. American diplomats and military personnel are working around the clock to secure the Kabul airport and implement the safe and orderly evacuation that the president has directed. This is obviously not a simple undertaking.”
Crow and others said chances for a more orderly evacuation over time had been lost. Biden acknowledged some of those concerns by saying that some Afghans resisted leaving their country because they were hopeful. He added that the Afghan government and its supporters had discouraged mass evacuations to “avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
Biden’s words came just hours after videos coming out of Afghanistan horrified the world. One showed a crowd of Afghans at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul desperately clinging to a U.S. Air Force transport jet as it taxied down a runway. They couldn’t prevent it from taking off and videos showed what appeared to be people falling to their deaths from the plane.
The Taliban has declared itself the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A spokesman for the Taliban, Suhail Shaheen, said there would be peace and no retaliation against Afghans who helped Americans.
“We assure the people ... in the city of Kabul that their properties, their lives are safe,” Shaheen said. “There will be no revenge on anyone.”
But many don’t believe those assurances and predict a return to strict Islamic religious law of the kind the Taliban imposed from 1996 to 2001, when there were public executions and women needed to be accompanied by male guardians.
“When the Taliban comes to the city, they turn off the radio station. They turn off the TV station,” Fraidoon, an Afghan who worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops told KUNC. Even though he was resettled to the U.S. several years ago, he is only going by his first name because he fears for the safety of family members in Afghanistan.
“They're going to kill whoever works for the Afghan army or American army,” he said of the Taliban. “They will knock on the door. They're coming inside. They're going to kill that person.”
Fraidoon applied for an SIV after the Taliban threatened his life. The visa was created for Afghan interpreters and other Afghans who worked for American interests for at least one year and who fear retaliation. The program has a reputation for delays and red tape.
“I actually applied five times and they denied my case,” he said.
Fraidoon said it ultimately took more attempts as well as a campaign by Americans he served with — dozens of letters of support and legal assistance from the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project to overcome hurdles to win approval. Adam Bates, an attorney with the organization, said there are many cases like Fraidoon’s.
“There are something like 20,000 applicants currently,” Bates said. “Roughly, our understanding from the State Department is that about half of those — or 10,000 of them — are stuck at the very first stage.”
Because each application also can include close family, like spouses and children, Bates estimates that upwards of 80,000 people are potentially in limbo. One reason for the backlog is that the government never required anyone to document the Afghans who worked for Americans.
“You have to prove it at the time you apply to the program,” Bates said.
By then, supervisors might have moved on or even died in the war. Some have been kidnapped, Bates said. That’s just one reason why applications can take months to approve — a process that slowed even more when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Afghanistan. Now Bates worries for Afghans who are traveling with paperwork in hopes of getting out.
“As the security situation deteriorates, it's going to be dangerous to have documentation that proves your affiliation with the United States,” he said.
All of it adds up to a complex situation awaiting the U.S. as it carries out its final mission before total withdrawal.
“We certainly have extreme concerns over the late nature in which this evacuation was started,” Crow said in his press call, echoing a sentiment shared by the other congressmen on the call. “But our call today here is that there's still an opportunity to do the right thing, and that entails holding, securing the airport and doing so as long as possible to bring out our friends.”
He added that mass evacuations would be needed, including not only those who already have SIVs, but those who are eligible and potentially other refugees.
“After that, we're going to look at legislation to look at what's necessary to streamline and expedite the processing of individuals once we get them to safety,” Crow said. “Because the bottom line is we have to get folks to safety. If folks are not alive, if they do not survive the coming days and weeks, it doesn't matter what our legislative responses are.”