Washington – As President Biden last month defended his decision To end the US military presence in Afghanistan, he made a promise as old as war itself to Afghans who risked their lives to help US forces.
“Our message to these women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose,” the president said. “We will stand with you as you have stood with us.”
But his decision not to start a block evacuation Of the Afghan translators, guides and their relatives earlier this year have left Thousands of people in limboStranded in a country now controlled by the Taliban After 20 years of war.
even before Mr. Biden announced the withdrawal of US forcesHis administration has rejected frantic calls from lawmakers and activists to evacuate Afghans who now find themselves in danger.
Then this summer, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf GhaniMr. Biden has pleaded for evacuations to be delayed forever until US forces are gone, fearing the image could undermine confidence in his government.
Instead, Mr. Biden has taken steps to simplify a The visa system suffers from backlogs, although it was never intended for the mass transportation of people in a short period of time. And in the United States, some officials have expressed concerns about the possible political reaction to the refugee influx.
Taken together, the administration’s actions left Biden’s promise largely unfulfilled last weekend and led to the arson Scenes at Kabul AirportWhere the Afghans clung to the sides of the departing American planes. And they have raised questions about whether the administration, which has said it would prioritize human rights abroad, has abandoned the Afghans on whom it often depends, blurring the traditional global image of the United States as a haven for the oppressed.
On Wednesday, the president defended the US withdrawal and said he saw no way to leave Afghanistan without “chaos”. In an interview with ABC News, he was asked if the exit could have been handled better.
“No, I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that we’d come back too late and look — but the idea that somehow, there’s a way out without making a mess, I don’t know how that happens,” Biden said. “I don’t know how it happened.”
But critics said the blame rests with the administration.
“The failure to evacuate our allies rests solely in the hands of the Biden administration, which has ignored veterans and advocates, even as they presented detailed plans on how to manage the evacuation to American soil,” said Chris Purdy, director of the Veterans Project. American Ideals Program on Human Rights First.
Since 2002, the United States has hired Afghans to help its soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers. Many of these people have been threatened, attacked, or forced to flee their homes as a result of their work, which prompted Congress in 2009 to create a visa program specifically for those who helped the US government, as well as their immediate relatives.
The program is separate from the process typically used by people fleeing persecution or torture. There are about 18,000 people in the process of applying for visas, and these applicants have at least 53,000 relatives who are eligible to join them. Although Congress authorized the US to process visas within nine months, thousands faced long delays to scrutiny.
The Biden administration has evacuation According to the US State Department, about 2,000 applicants have applied to enlist on military bases since mid-July. It is preparing to evacuate 800 more.
In a series of meetings and calls since March, including before Mr. Biden’s announcement of the US withdrawal, lawmakers and resettlement officials have warned the White House and State Department that the situation requires an urgent response — one that cannot be addressed with a special visa. The program took too long, according to the resettlement and former government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the internal discussions.
The Special Visa Program requires applicants to scan extensive levels of scrutiny and provide proof of their employment – documents that can be difficult to obtain for families forced to flee their homes. The Biden administration blamed the previous administration for exacerbating the delay through “extreme scrutiny” requirements.
Calls for a speedy evacuation spread even as the Biden administration deployed additional staff to Washington and the embassy in Kabul to address the backlog. One official said the administration got rid of bureaucracy by cutting processing delays that totaled an average of two years when Biden took office, and lobbying Congress to expand the number of visas and waive medical examination requirements.
However, even in the best of circumstances, screening refugees takes a long time. The prospect of thousands of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States — but not other countries — has alarmed some government officials, who argued that it would open the White House to political resistance, according to administration officials and other people familiar with the matter.
Some lawmakers, such as Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, have expressed concerns about speeding up the vetting process.
“We will now develop a procedure by which we can screen thousands of individuals and transport them to the United States?” He said in an interview. “Once they are settled here, they can bring more family members here. A good deed does not make an ally.”
Leave the Afghans behind – Especially women and girls It could have major political implications for Mr. Biden.
“The day they start killing women in Afghanistan: This is their political nightmare,” said Michael A. McFaul, professor of international studies at Stanford University and a former ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. “Those numbers that support withdrawal are incredibly weak. If the women who got the USAID money start being arrested or killed, that support will quickly erode, and the president will anger the people.”
Refugee advocates say the sacrifices of Afghans for the United States must outweigh any potential political risk that comes with mass resettlement.
said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which works with the State Department to help Afghans.
In the days that followed The Taliban took control of AfghanistanMr. Biden approved an additional $500 million “for the needs of refugees and for the urgent and unexpected migration of refugees, conflict victims and other people at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan.”
The department has also invited volunteers across the government to help process Afghan visas. An email from USCIS described the opportunity as an “exceptional initiative” and encouraged any employee in any position to apply.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
The two top Pentagon leaders said on Wednesday that the United States is committed to evacuating all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan, as well as Afghans who helped in the war effort and have been allowed into the United States.
“We intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years, and we will not leave them behind,” General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. “We will get out as many as possible.”
But at a news conference, neither General Milley nor Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III will ensure safe passage to the airport for Americans, Afghans, and other foreigners outside the ocean.
“The forces we have are focused on airport security,” Mr. Austin said. “I don’t have the ability to go out and expand operations in Kabul right now.”
The administration insisted that its actions in recent months were calculated decisions, not errors.
relied on it intelligence It appears that the Taliban’s seizure of power was 18 months away, and officials have acknowledged that they have downplayed the pace of the Taliban’s advance when considering evacuations. Many Afghans were near the end of the visa pipeline, leaving officials with the inaccurate sense that the administration had enough time to continue relying on the visa program.
The administration also stressed Mr. Ghani’s request over the summer to delay evacuations until after Americans leave Afghanistan.
“The Afghan government and its supporters, including many people now seeking to leave, have made a strong case that we should not conduct a mass evacuation lest we cause a loss of confidence in the government,” said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. at a White House press briefing on Tuesday. “Now, our support for the government obviously didn’t save the government, but that was a thoughtful judgment.”
The administration has been reluctant for months to move Afghans to military bases in the United States or its territory, such as Guam, preferring to move them to other countries instead, according to administration officials and people familiar with the deliberations of the White House and State Department. Many evacuees will only receive temporary protection while their visas are being processed. If their visas are denied, they will need to apply for asylum or some other form of protection in the United States – immigration programs that Republicans have used to attack Mr. Biden.
“They’re basically in the United States, and there’s no effective way to say no in an effective way,” said Barbara L. Strack, the former chief of refugee affairs at Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Bush and Obama administrations. . “The government is concerned about ‘no’ issues.”
A former US contractor relocated from Jalalabad walked aimlessly outside an apartment complex in eastern Maryland on Monday afternoon, getting to know its new surroundings.
The man, who asked to be identified only as a mason out of fear for his safety, said he arrived from Kabul to Maryland after a 20-hour layover at the Fort Lee military base in Virginia. Although he arrived safely with his wife and five children, his parents and sisters remained in Jalalabad.
“I’m very happy here, but I’m not happy with my family,” Mason said.
He added: «The Taliban are in Jalalabad, and what should I do about this situation? It really is a dangerous thing.”
Mason said he has lost contact with them since he left Afghanistan less than two weeks ago.
Eileen SullivanAnd Jennifer SteinhauerAnd Michael DAnd Eric SchmidtAnd Katie Edmondson And Lara Jax Contributed to reporting from Washington.