17:15 GMT23 July 2021
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    The US is expected to evacuate Afghan citizens who served as interpreters, drivers, security guards and embassy workers for the US troops, as well as their families, to third countries to avoid them risking their lives while awaiting their immigration visas to be processed in Afghanistan.

    US lawmakers have questioned the White House's plan to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who helped the US forces in Afghanistan as crucial questions in this process remain unanswered, The Hill reported on Saturday.

    According to the lawmakers, this is becoming increasingly important, since only three months are left before September 11  — the deadline for the complete withdrawal of all US soldiers from Afghanistan.

    Meanwhile, officials have been vague about when, where, and how the evacuation of those Afghanistan nationals who assisted US forceswill actually occur.

    "There are many outstanding questions, including which applicants would be prioritized for evacuation, how we would get them out of the country, where we would send them, how much it would cost and where the money to come from, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even mention the clock that is ticking on our time on the ground," Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas is quoted in the report as saying.

    He added that although he "appreciates" the Biden Administration's commitment to evacuating as many Special Immigration Visas (SIV) candidates as possible (while the very process of obtaining visas can take several years), "but that doesn’t mean much until they put words to action."

    "They need to start answering some of these basic questions if we are to believe they will actually follow through,” McCaul added.

    Since the Biden administration announced plans to leave Afghanistan by the 9/11 20th anniversary, it has been pressed to expedite the processing of the 18,000 Afghans who have already applied for SIVs, as well as the 53,000 family members who want to join them in the US.

    However, the urgency of those requests has increased as the military is reportedly nearing the end of its pullout in July, and amid claims from US intelligence agencies that Afghanistan's current government might fall to the Taliban in as little as six months once the US leaves. 

    This problem becomes especially important in light of the fact that Afghans who collaborated with the US receive death threats from the Taliban, whose influence in the country is growing, or are sometimes killed without any warning, with SIVs being their only option out of danger.

    The matter is further complicated by the fact that Afghanistan is experiencing a new COVID-19 infection surge, which has forced the US Embassy in Kabul to close and postpone visa processing.

    FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, previously known as Kabul International Airport, in Afghanistan, February 11, 2016
    © REUTERS / Ahmad Masood
    FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, previously known as Kabul International Airport, in Afghanistan, February 11, 2016

    Lawmakers and experts are reportedly concerned that a lack of military presence may stymie the evacuation of Afghans, especially if the pullout eliminates the possibility of transporting people by military planes.

    Some immigration advocates have even called on the administration to transfer affected Afghans to a territory like Guam, fearing they may be stuck in a third nation for years while their asylum claims are processed, with little to no access to the US asylum system if denied. Guam has a history of receiving evacuees, with 130,000 Vietnamese arriving in 1975 and 6,600 Iraqis arriving in 1996.

    This so-called "Guam option" for evacuated Afghans has been pressed for by lawmakers from both parties.

    Afghans Left Behind Would Be "Stain on This Country"

    Earlier this week, Democrat Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Marine Corps veteran, applauded the decision to evacuate interpreters, but said it was "far from the final chapter" and demanded that the administration disclose a specific strategy.

    “It’s clearly long overdue today, so we need to start immediately, and we have not yet seen a timeline from the administration,” Moulton said.

    Moreover, military officials in the US have stated that if commanded, American soldiers are capable of evacuating Afghans.

    Nonetheless, the Pentagon provided little information about the evacuation on Thursday, implying that US military assets may not be employed.

    "Not all such evacuation operations require military aircraft to conduct," press secretary of the US Pentagon John Kirby said this week. "It's not like we haven't done this before using chartered aircraft, commercially leased aircraft or contracted aircraft."

    Kirby emphasized that the State Department is heading the initiative and that planning is still ongoing. However, he did not elaborate on the number of Afghans to be relocated, where they will be relocated, what are the cost estimates, a timeline, or whether the Pentagon will provide supplies such as food and water to care for the evacuees.
    Armed men attend a gathering to announce their support for Afghan security forces and that they are ready to fight against the Taliban, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan June 23, 2021.
    Armed men attend a gathering to announce their support for Afghan security forces and that they are ready to fight against the Taliban, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan June 23, 2021.

    Independent Senator Angus King of Maine has advocated for a quicker resolution to the years-long visa process on the Senate floor, saying that US soldiers will depart Afghanistan in three months, leaving Afghan workers without protection.

    "The Taliban has made no secret of the fact that they are in grave danger," King added. "They have already started killing them. If we leave without providing for the safety of those people, providing them a way to maintain their lives, it will be a stain on this country that will exist for generations."

    On Friday, Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, stated that a group of SIV applicants will be transferred before the withdrawal is officially finalized in September, but she declined to say where or how many people will be relocated.

    "Some of this we’re not going to be able to outline for security reasons," she concluded her reply.

    The current full withdrawal is taking place in accordance with the Doha agreement, signed in February 2020 between Washington and the Taliban, which is the first peace agreement in more than 18 years of war.

    It stipulated the total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan in 14 months, ending by May 1, and the beginning of an inter-Afghan dialogue after the exchange of prisoners. The Biden administration reviewed the agreement after taking up office in January this year, postponing the deadline to September 11. 

    Security concerns regarding those who helped the US during the war are well-grounded, as the Taliban are actively pursuing an offensive in the rural areas of the country, rumored to control up to 1/3 of its territory by the date. The Taliban last month reportedly launched a new attack throughout multiple northern provinces, conquering towns and entering the key cities of Kunduz and Maimana.


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