Key lawmakers said Thursday that they need more details as the Biden administration prepares to relocate Afghan nationals who aided the war effort amid an accelerating U.S. troop withdrawal and a backlogged visa program.
The administration began notifying lawmakers Wednesday that they are preparing to relocate thousands of interpreters and others at risk of Taliban retaliation for their work for the U.S. during the nearly 20-year war. The administration plans to relocate those in potential danger to third countries while their visas are processed, The New York Times first reported Thursday morning.
Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat and a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, said he still had questions about the administration‘s initial plan.
“The news this morning that the Biden administration recognizes that the existing visa process will not be sufficient to meet this need, and there needs to be an evacuation, is news that we have been fighting for a long time,” Mr. Moulton said. “So this is a good day in this story, but it is far from the final chapter.”
The announcement follows growing bipartisan calls for the administration to act, citing an accelerating troop withdrawal timeline and a State Department visa process ensnared in a backlog of close to 18,000 applicants, a backlog which some estimate could take until next year to work through.
Mr. Moulton said the administration still must supply more details and appoint a point person within the administration to execute the plan.
“There’s probably nothing that makes me more concerned about this plan than the fact that there is no clear person in charge at this point,” Mr. Moulton said.
Mr. Biden announced the withdrawal in April, giving the Department of Defense a Sept. 11 deadline to remove all troops from the theater. The pullout, which is being matched by other countries fighting in Afghanistan, is now more than 50% complete, and some believe that the troops will be out of the country before the deadline.
New intelligence estimates predict the Taliban could gain control of the country within six months of the withdrawal, The Wall Street Journal first reported earlier this week.
Texas Rep. Michael T. McCaul, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that Mr. Biden “created” the problem for Afghan interpreters and other nationals who worked with the international coalition with his decision to withdraw.
“We respect that decision that’s been made,” Mr. McCaul said. “But we need to start preparing for what the chaos is going to be once they pull out.”
A senior administration official confirmed with The Washington Times Thursday that the administration has identified a group of visa applicants who could be relocated before the drawdown is complete and said any evacuation will be coordinated with Congress.
“We’ve long said we are committed to supporting those who have helped U.S. military and other government personnel perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families,” the administration official said. “We are actively working on every possible contingency to make sure that we can help those who have helped us.”
“Should it become necessary, we will consider additional relocation or evacuation options,” the official added.
The administration did not confirm a timeline, where it plans to relocate the group, or who would head the effort.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Friday after a White House visit with President Biden, with both the fate of the interpreters and U.S. post-withdrawal plans for the Afghan conflict on the agenda. Pentagon officials said many details, including whether the evacuation will be carried out by the military or civilian charters, are still being determined.
“We’re still working our way through it. But the U.S. government will obviously fulfill those obligations,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “It’s not like we haven’t done this before.”
It is also not clear where the administration plans to relocate the endangered Afghans. Mr. Moulton proposed a plan Thursday to relocate those who remain in the State Department’s visa backlog to Guam, but the administration did not offer details.
“We have put forward the Guam option because it’s a tried and true place to handle evacuees,” Mr. Moulton said, but added that he is open to other options.
“The bottom line is that it just needs to happen,” he said.
Mr. Ghani will likely ask Mr. Biden and Mr. Austin to slow down the pace of withdrawal to give his troops more time to prepare for the September deadline, said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center think tank.
“While Kabul has accepted the fact that the U.S. forces are leaving, it’s tough to swallow given that the withdrawal is playing out against an unprecedented Taliban offensive,” Mr. Kugelman said. “In reality, there’s little the Americans can do. They’re on their way out and an agreement with the Taliban limits their options for targeting the insurgents on the battlefield.”
— Staff writer Mike Glenn contributed to this report.