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Austin asks top general for ‘options’ to evacuate Afghans

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III addresses the U.S. military in a video statement, Feb. 19, 2021. (Department of Defense/Released)

With time running out, the Pentagon is still developing plans to evacuate Afghans whose lives would be in danger from the Taliban after U.S. forces depart—but there’s still no order from the White House to move anyone, yet.

To prepare, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has tasked the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, to develop options for those Afghans that includes the possibility of evacuating them, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday.

“The secretary did task Gen. McKenzie to come up with options potentially for the transportation out of Afghanistan of civilians that might need it, at various levels and under various circumstances,” Kirby said in a phone interview with Defense One.

However, the White House has not directed the Pentagon to execute those plans yet.

“We aren’t at a stage right now where evacuation is being actively pursued,” Kirby said.

White House officials have not yet responded to a request for comment.

Afghan translators who helped U.S. troops during the past two decades of war face potential retaliation from the Taliban once United States and coalition forces withdraw this year. Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told Defense One that plans were being developed “very, very rapidly here, for not just the interpreters but a lot of other people that have worked with the United States….We are going to do whatever the leadership decides to execute.”

Advocates for those Afghans say it is too late to fix the Special Immigrant Visa program, which was established in 2009 to protect interpreters, their families and other Afghans who have assisted the U.S. government since forces began operating there after the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, they argue it’s long past time to evacuate them to a safe location where their visas can be processed.

Kirby said expanding the program would require action from lawmakers.

“There will need to be Congressional support to expand that program to allow for more Afghans to apply through it,” he told reporters Wednesday at a Pentagon briefing.

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a Marine Corps veteran, told Defense One last month that lawmakers in both parties are eager to support an evacuation plan for Afghans and a fix for the visa program, regardless of costs.

“There is bipartisan will in Congress to support getting it done, we just need a plan from the administration,” he said. “I’m sure there will be people who say that [it costs too much,] because there are a bunch of people in Congress with no moral bearing whatsoever, but we clearly have a majority in the House who are willing to support this.”

Advocates for the interpreters argue the best option now is Guam. The island is a U.S. territory, so the government will not need to negotiate with other nations to send evacuees there. Plus there’s precedent: Guam was used to stage Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975 while their visas were processed. In 1996, Guam also served as a temporary haven for Kurds who had worked with U.S. aid groups in Northern Iraq.

Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said this week that she would support bringing Afghan interpreters to the island while their visas are being processed, but added that she has not heard from the administration about the plan.

“We are a people that protect our freedom, protect our island, protect our nation. And certainly, we will be there to support whatever the military’s decision is. I know that we will be working very closely once we get the official word to move forward,” she said during a Memorial Day event on Monday.

In a statement to Defense One, the State Department said that 18,000 Afghan principal applicants—interpreters or other Afghans who worked for the U.S. government—are currently seeking a Special Immigrant Visa. Twenty percent of those applications have received final approval “and are moving through the immigration process, either in the petition or visa processing stages,” the State Department said.

Fifty percent of the SIV applications are only at the “initial stage of the process,” the State Department said, and are still submitting documents for consideration by the Chief of Mission, which is the top U.S. authority in a host country. The remaining 30 percent are awaiting Chief of Mission approval, the State Department said.

A principal applicant is an Afghan who worked for the U.S. government and who would be eligible to apply for a visa for themselves and their family members.

The State Department said it has added staff in both Kabul and Washington to speed applications.

“Much of the processing of applicants at the “Chief of Mission” (COM) stage occurs in Washington, and that team has significantly increased its staffing in recent months,” the State Department said. “The Department also approved a temporary increase in consular staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to conduct interviews and process visa applications, which allowed the Embassy to address cases that were delayed due to COVID-19 related closures.”

Advocates estimate there are about 70,000 translators and family members who are waiting on a decision, said Matthew Zeller, a retired Army captain and advocate for Afghan interpreters. To move that many people out of the country between June 2 and Sept. 11, the military would need to move 703 people per day, which would require four airlifter flights. But if the withdrawal is, as reported, to be complete by July 4, that number jumps to 10 flights and more than 2,200 people per day, according to data compiled by the Association of Wartime Allies.

As of Tuesday, the U.S. military had flown out the equivalent of 300 C-17 planeloads of equipment from Afghanistan, totaling roughly 13,000 pieces of equipment. The Defense Department has not detailed what equipment was flown out, what was destroyed, and whether any of the gear was handed over to Afghan forces.

“We believe we have the capacity to handle evacuation should it come to that,” Kirby said. “I don’t want to hypothesize about the scale and the scope because we just don’t know right now.”

Other nations are facing similar pressure to protect the Afghans who worked alongside their troops during the war. German Defense Minister Annegret Kamp-Karrenbauer said in April that the country has a “deep obligation” not to leave people facing violence from the Taliban behind, and is considering bringing up to 520 Afghan translators and family members to Germany.

Dozens of Afghan translators and their families are also set to fly to the United Kingdom within the next two weeks, the Daily Mail reported.

If a similar request is made of the Pentagon by the White House, the military will be ready, Kirby said.

“We are a planning organization, we plan for all manner of contingencies, some of those contingencies are non-combatant evacuations around the world, that would include Afghanistan. So we certainly have, we have put some planning resources to this, no question.”

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