The U.S. is on pace to complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan by September or sooner, but Congress is growing impatient with the administration’s lack of urgency to protect Afghans who could find themselves under attack for assisting in the U.S. war effort.
Thousands of Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government as interpreters, translators or in other positions are eligible for a special immigrant visa to leave the country for their safety.
According to the nonprofit No One Left Behind, over 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because of their association with the United States. By some estimates, 70,000 Afghans either worked with or have a family member who worked with Americans and could now be in danger.
In an open letter to President Biden, a group of Afghan interpreters called on the President “to shorten the length of SIV processing time” amid other requests. The letter has been obtained by CBS News.
“The local Afghan employees paid a very high price for joining the U.S. as they were threatened to death and lost their goods and lives,” the letter stated. “This tragic event is still continuing and is easier now for enemy to attack them as the U.S. has started to withdraw troops.”
Time is of the essence, with the head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Frank McKenzie, telling reporters Monday the withdrawal from Afghanistan is about halfway done and is continuing on pace.
When asked Monday if the military needs a decision soon to evacuate the interpreters, McKenzie said the military has the capabilities to execute evacuations if that decision were made.
“Clearly, it’s easier at some times than others, but the United States military has remarkable capabilities for this type of thing,” McKenzie said. “We can do whatever is going to be necessary whenever it would be necessary.”
Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pressed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over whether the State Department was negotiating with any countries to temporarily house Afghans and their families while their visas are being processed. McCaul said he has been told that the process could take up to one or two years.
Blinken said the department is considering every option, but insisted the remaining U.S. presence would prevent a speedy deterioration in security.
“We are not withdrawing. We are staying, the embassy is staying, our programs are staying, we are working to make sure other partners stay, we are building all of that up,” Blinken said. “And whatever happens in Afghanistan, if there is a significant deterioration in security, that could well happen – we have discussed this before. I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.”
“I would not necessarily equate the departure of forces in July, August, or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation,” he said. He did not say whether the department was negotiating with a third country to house Afghans during the process.
Blinken said the State Department would be adding 50 employees in Washington by the end of July to clear the 5,500-person backlog of applications awaiting chief of mission approval. He anticipated the backlog would clear approximately 1,000 people per month. A separate 1,400-person backlog among applicants already approved to immigrate to the U.S. has been cleared after being slowed by COVID-19 complications.
He said there were approximately 18,000 Afghans applying for the special immigrant visa program. About half have expressed interest, but not yet submitted applications or forms, while another 9,000 are further along in the process. About 30% of that group is still waiting for eligibility approval from the chief of mission and another 20% have been approved and are in the immigration process.
“We are looking very actively at every possible contingency to make sure that we can accommodate and care for those who have helped us and are seeking to leave. Whether that is through the special immigrant visa program, whether that is through the refugee program, whether that is through parole, other things, we are looking very actively at everything,” Blinken said.
If every person interested in the visa program applies and is approved, Congress would need to raise the 26,500-person cap by about 8,000 visas. While there is bipartisan support to do so, processing those visas could take upward of a year – long after the U.S. military is expected to make a full exit.
“I think you are going to have a humanitarian crisis and a refugee crisis, and I think humanitarian parole is something, as you mentioned, we should be looking at as well,” McCaul said.
The Taliban released a statement on Monday saying Afghans who were interpreters for American troops should “show remorse for their past actions,” and that they “shall not be in any danger on our part.”
The Taliban urged former interpreters to not “desert the country,” announcing they will not be harmed if they stay.
“It shows just how savvy the Taliban is and how much they are paying attention to discourse and politics in the United States,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, told CBS News. “They continue to want to portray themselves as an entity that will rule Afghanistan responsibly and is willing to take input from the international community.”
But the Taliban has a well-documented history of attacks on civil society.
“If you are an Afghan interpreter, your best strategy for security and socio-economic reasons is to get an asylum and head to the U.S. or head abroad. There are obviously limits to how much anyone can trust a very insecure environment with a violent actor,” Felbab-Brown said.
The Taliban statement comes as Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, visits the region to discuss the stalled peace process.
The State Department announced last week that it is providing more than $266 million in new humanitarian assistance, which would bring the total humanitarian aid to the country to nearly $3.9 billion since 2002.
Ahmad Mukhtar contributed reporting.