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Afghan evacuation effort earns White House support with help from CA veteran

San Diego, CA. Navy veteran Shawn VanDiver spoke about the work his organization is doing to help and assist Afghans safely leave Afghanistan. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Navy veteran Shawn VanDiver sipped a sugar-free Red Bull, working his laptop and talking on his phone from a window table at the University Club atop Symphony Towers downtown Tuesday. He was doing what he’s done almost every day since August — helping coordinate the evacuation of someone from Afghanistan.

VanDiver, 38, heads #AfghanEvac, a group of veterans, service members and government officials that organized to help get Afghans who had helped the U.S. during the 20-year occupation out of the country upon the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August.

Four months later, those efforts continue. VanDiver met with the Union-Tribune just a few hours before he was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., for a ninth meeting with officials from the Biden administration. VanDiver was cautious with aspects of the effort — such as the subject of his morning phone call — and jumped on and off the record during the interview to protect those still in Afghanistan. While many are not in immediate danger, he said, others are targets for the Taliban.

“There are definitly folks, like the Afghan Special Forces, who were trained by us, who went through the (U.S. Army Special Forces) course … those folks don’t have a path here right now,” VanDiver said. “Those are some of the folks we’re actively trying to get here right now and I think we’ll have some success, (but) those people are being killed.”

Challenging new chapter

The fall of Kabul in August might have come as a surprised to many but veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been outspoken about the need to expand the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program to accommodate the thousands of Afhans that worked for the U.S. during the occupation. After the U.S. military took control of the airport in Kabul, horrific images of desperate Afghans trying to escape on military aircraft served as a wake-up call to just how desperate the situation in the city was.

That’s when VanDiver, founder of the San Diego chapter of the Truman National Security Project, started to organize with other members of the national organization to help identify those in Afghanistan who needed out, get the necessary paperwork approved and coordinate with people on the ground in Kabul to see it through.

However, once the last U.S. aircraft left the Kabul airport Aug. 30, another, more challenging chapter in the effort began.

The U.S. military had evacuated more than 120,000 people out of the country. But thousands more were left behind.

Many volunteers on the evacuation effort had to get back to their lives, jobs and families. VanDiver took a leave from his job at a San Diego consultancy firm to continue to work on evacuations.

The challenge, he said, is two-fold. First, there’s a logistics challenge related to getting enough flights out of the Kabul Airport. VanDiver expects the airport to return to normal operations in January. The second problem, and more difficult to solve, is U.S. immigration policy, which affects who is eligible to come.

“This is a systemic challenge that we’ve created over the 20 years that we’ve been in Afghanistan, from first implementing a cap on the number of (special immigrant visas, or SIVs) that can be granted to not having the infrastructure in place for the resettlement agencies and a State Department to handle this,” VanDiver said.

VanDiver and #AfghanEvac’s efforts to push the Biden Administration to act are bearing fruit. On Dec. 18, the White House announced it appointed a Special Advisor for Afghan Resettlement — something VanDiver’s group had asked for in an open letter Dec. 3. The appointment is key, VanDiver said, because the advisor will have tasking authority over multiple agencies, which will help planning over what will be a multi-year resettlement effort.

“We feel really good that we are being taken seriously,” VanDiver said.

But there’s only so much that can be done by the administration, he said. A legislative fix is also needed. Evacuate Our Allies, another organization partnered with #AfghanEvac, is supporting an Afghan Adjustment Act to allow Afghans on humanitarian parole to gain permanent status in the U.S.

Apart from the bill, VanDiver said, the cap on SIVs also should be increased, something that also would require Congress action.

“Here is the challenge,” he said. “The president, I think, could do more and they’re taking our asks very seriously … but a lot of these fixes are legislative.”

1,100 resettled in San Diego

The Union-Tribune previously reported on how San Diego’s congressional representatives have been working behind the scenes to facilitate evacuations from Afghanistan, but local government agencies have also stepped up. VanDiver said people from the city, county and state government offices have been involved.

In October, the county established the Afghan Resettlement Task Force to help coordinate between local governments, schools and non-profit groups.

According to the county, more than 1,100 people have resettled in San Diego County from Afghanistan since August.

VanDiver said he hopes #AfghanEvac will be able to step back and hand its work off to official government agencies early next year. As operations at the airport normalize, he said, and the State department fills in the gaps, he expects the frequency of flights out of the country to increase.

There’s still the issue of increasing the number of what he calls “lilly pads” — places, such as Doha, Qatar, that serve as first stops for evacuation flights — that needs to be solved. His organization’s next push is to see the U.S. appoint a foreign service officer as ambassador to Qatar.

On Wednesday, as VanDiver was boarding a plane back to San Diego from Washington, D.C., the Treasury department announced it was issuing three general licenses to facilitate more humanitarian aide to Afghanistan — another one of #AfghanEvac’s open-letter requests.

As the fall of Kabul falls from the front pages and cable news talk shows, VanDiver said, veterans remain united and motivated to see those who helped the U.S. during the war given every opportunity to get out of Afghanistan safely. He said decision-makers in Washington should remember that.

“This one issue — how we treat people we served with overseas, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else — is the singular issue that unites veterans no matter their political ideology or their religious ideology,” VanDiver said. “You won’t find space between us on this, and they should ignore us at their peril.”

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