02:49 - Source: CNN
Fears for Afghan translators' safety as US troops withdraw
Washington CNN  — 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling on the Biden administration to immediately evacuate thousands of Afghans who have assisted the United States, saying in a letter Friday that those “Afghan friends and allies are at greater risk than ever before” as the US military withdrawal from the country is underway.

“After examining this situation through multiple hearings, briefings, and our own offices’ research and outreach, our bipartisan working group has concluded that we must evacuate our Afghan friends and allies immediately,” the lawmakers from the Honoring Our Promises Working Group wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden.

The bipartisan lawmakers contended that the existing process for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants will not work.

“It takes an average of 800+ days, and we plan to withdraw in less than 100 days,” they noted. US Central Command said this week that the US withdrawal from the country was 30% to 44% complete.

“While our working group is investigating various process efficiencies and options for expanding the number of SIVs available, it is clear that the process will not be rectified in time to help the 18,000+ applicants who need visas before our withdrawal,” Reps. Seth Moulton, Jason Crow, Michael San Nicolas, Don Bacon, Earl Blumenauer, Joe Courtney, Neal Dunn, Bill Foster, Ruben Gallego, Jared Golden, Andy Kim, Adam Kinzinger, Sara Jacobs, Tom Malinowski, Peter Meijer, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Stephanie Murphy, Adam Schiff, Michael Waltz, Peter Welch and Brad Wenstrup wrote in the letter, which was first reported by Politico.

The lawmakers called on the administration to “establish a President’s Interagency Task Force responsible for the visa management and evacuation of our Afghan allies before our withdrawal from the country,” and suggested it specifically look at Guam as a potential evacuation site.

“The Task Force should ensure that evacuation plans do not interfere with continued support of Afghan forces and officials in country and put in place expedited procedures for Afghans who may choose to be evacuated later as well,” they wrote.

The members of Congress told Biden they were “increasingly concerned that you have not yet directed the Department of Defense be mobilized as part of a concrete and workable whole of government plan to protect our Afghan partners.” They noted that although their working group had “introduced legislation to streamline and accelerate the process by raising the visa cap for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and waiving the medical exam requirement,” it would not be enough to address the issue in the immediate term.

“The SIV application backlog is likely to keep growing and our Afghan partners are certain to face an even greater threat,” they said.

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.

Pentagon in early stages of planning an evacuation

The Pentagon is in the early stages of planning for a potential evacuation, CNN reported last week, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley told reporters traveling with him last week that “there are plans being developed very, very rapidly” to evacuate Afghans whose work for the US could make them Taliban targets, according to Defense One, which was traveling with Milley.

James Miervaldis of the organization No One Left Behind, which works to support SIV families, noted that even if planning is underway, “this stuff doesn’t happen overnight – it takes months and months and months.”

He said the group has received thousands of messages since Biden announced in April that the US military would withdraw from Afghanistan.

“Every single email and Facebook message we have includes the anxiety and the fear that people are having,” he told CNN. “It’s a very tense time.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday that the department had increased staff in Washington to process Afghan SIV applications and has “approved a temporary increase in consular staffing in our embassy in Kabul to conduct interviews and to process visa applications.” It is also seeking an increase in the number of slots for SIV applicants in its fiscal year 2022 budget request.

“We understand and we recognize that we have a special commitment and a special responsibility to the many Afghans who, over the years, have at great risk to themselves and even to their families – have assisted the United States in our efforts in Afghanistan,” Price said at a department press briefing. “We are always seeking ways to improve the SIV process while ensuring the integrity of the program and safeguarding our national security and affording opportunities to these Afghans.”

Price declined to comment on the potential for an evacuation, noting that even after the withdrawal of US troops, “our embassy will remain, will be able to continue processing.”

The State Department has repeatedly sought to underscore its ongoing commitment to the people of Afghanistan amid a full, unconditional withdrawal of US troops after nearly two decades on the ground. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday announced that the US would provide more than $266 million in new humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

“This assistance from the American people will help our international humanitarian partners provide support to some of the estimated 18 million people in need in Afghanistan, including more than 4.8 million Afghans internally displaced,” Blinken said in a statement.

“Furthermore, this assistance helps to address protection needs for the most vulnerable Afghans. This includes women and girls facing particular risks, including gender-based violence, as a result of the pandemic and decades of conflict,” he said.

However, despite the stated assurances, there are strong concerns about the future of the country and the safety of the Afghans who worked to help the US – as well as women and minority groups – if the country were to come back under Taliban control.

A UN report this week asserted that an “emboldened” Taliban pose a threat to the Afghan government and security forces.

“It would be a moral failure to transfer the responsibility to protect our Afghan partners onto the shoulders of the Afghan Government,” the lawmakers wrote in their Friday letter. “If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation, which will then be a great detriment to our troops and the future of our national security.”