‘Complete disaster’: Inside Biden team’s chaotic bid to evacuate Afghan interpreters

WASHINGTON DC (Politico): President Joe Biden had just announced plans to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan in April when, during a classified briefing with top national security officials on Capitol Hill, one lawmaker stood up and asked a pointed question.

What was the Biden administration’s plan to evacuate the thousands of Afghan nationals who aided the U.S. war effort, and expedite their visas?

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin didn’t have an answer. “We’ll get back to you on that,” Austin said, according to two people in the room and a defense official familiar with the interaction.

Austin’s response shocked them — and it foreshadowed what many members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, now see as a failure by the Biden administration to sufficiently prepare for the avalanche of visa applications and the need to quickly evacuate those Afghans from the country as the Taliban make steady territorial gains.

“It’s my view that the evacuations should have started right after the announcement of our withdrawal. That evacuation started too late,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said in an interview. “But it started. And I appreciate the fact that it’s going, and that they’re doing it aggressively now.”

Biden’s decision to unconditionally withdraw U.S. troops and end the nearly 20-year war effort came under intense criticism from Republicans, but lawmakers from both parties agreed on the need to protect the Afghans who played indispensable roles as translators and interpreters for American forces.

Biden and his national security team have been accused of abandoning those who risked their lives to help the U.S. military — and there are growing fears that once the final combat troops leave, those Afghans who are left behind will be tortured, killed or both.

That was a primary focus for the lawmakers who had gathered inside a secure room in the Capitol for their first of many opportunities to press Biden’s top deputies about their plans for Afghanistan and the intelligence assessments on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground.

“Wouldn’t it have been prudent to have these plans in place before the withdrawal announcement?” another lawmaker asked during the briefing, according to the people in the room.

As the bipartisan criticism mounted, Biden ordered evacuation flights to begin at the end of this month for roughly 700 applicants and their family members, a total of up to 3,500 people, Tracey Jacobson, head of a new task force focused on the relocation effort, said in an interview this week at the group’s State Department headquarters.

The first of those Afghans arrived at Dulles airport outside Washington from Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul early Friday morning and were bussed to Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia, where they will spend up to one week completing the final steps of their application process.

But many thousands remain all throughout Afghanistan, including in parts of the war-torn country that the Taliban now controls. And despite increasing public pressure and military gains by the Taliban, the State Department did not establish a task force until July 19 — far too late in the process, lawmakers say.

“They spent so much time debating what direction they wanted to go in on Afghanistan writ-large,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who was involved in the congressional push to expand access to the special visas. “When they finally made the decision of a hasty surrender and withdrawal, they didn’t anticipate some of the unintended consequences or really play out a lot of the details — [visas] among them.”

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby defended Austin’s role in the effort, saying the secretary “has been engaged in this discussion from the start.” Austin, the former head of U.S. Central Command, “believes strongly in our obligation to these brave men and women and their families. And he is committed to helping find suitable locations for them to complete their visa process.”

The tense moment between Austin and lawmakers during the congressional briefing “happened very early in the process, when there was still much to figure out,” a defense official said.

Officials across the government are now working overtime to avoid a potentially disastrous outcome. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who has been briefed consistently on the matter, said the Biden administration is “on a full surge” to make up for lost time. But there are doubts that the U.S. government can finish the job.

No plan for thousands of applicants

The Biden administration has expedited the process for a number of applicants who are in the final stages, but thousands are left waiting for answers.

The Afghans are seeking refuge in the U.S. through the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program, which was established by Congress in 2009 to resettle those interpreters, translators and other Afghan nationals who helped the American war effort. But for years, the program has been plagued by significant delays and currently has roughly 20,000 people at some stage of the application process.

Despite the congressional mandate that their applications be approved within nine months, Afghans have waited years for that to happen — delays that were exacerbated during the Trump administration.

The threat has become more dire in the weeks since Biden announced the Sept. 11 deadline for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan: The Taliban have made huge territorial gains and now threaten to overrun the country within months, according to some intelligence assessments. The applicants fear retaliation from the militants, who have threatened to hunt down and execute their families.

Already, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have warned that the current backlog “does not align with the pace of withdrawal and the rapid deterioration in security” in Afghanistan.

“This whole thing is just a complete disaster, and it’s not getting better any time soon,” Gallagher lamented.

‘I’m not timing this according to the military’s withdrawal’

Still, the administration touted the arrival of the first of the flights from Kabul in the U.S. early Friday morning. After landing, just over 200 passengers were loaded onto buses en route to Fort Lee, to complete the final stages of their application process, Russ Travers, Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser, previewed for reporters on Thursday.

The applicants and their families are expected to remain at Fort Lee for final medical and administrative checks for up to a week before being resettled in the U.S. The rest of the 700 total applicants and their family members, now estimated at roughly 2,500 people, will be relocated over the next few weeks, joining 70,000 other Afghans who have resettled in the U.S. through the special visa program since 2008, Travers said.

The Biden administration has also been working to secure safe passage from Kabul to other countries outside the U.S. for another 4,000 applicants and their family members who were approved by the U.S. chief of mission there but have not completed security background checks.

While Jacobson would not say which countries these Afghans would be taken to, POLITICO reported that the administration is in final talks with Qatar and Kuwait to relocate the individuals to U.S. military bases in those countries.

The task force’s goal is to begin relocation flights for that second tranche of applicants in August, Jacobson said. In total, she estimates this group to include up to 20,000 people, including family members.

As of this month, approximately 50 percent of the total applicants, or about 10,000 people, were in the initial stage of the process and need to provide additional information before the U.S. government can begin processing their case, according to the State Department. Of the remaining applications, roughly 30 percent are still awaiting approval by the chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

But the task force does not currently have a plan to expedite the processing of thousands of applicants who remain in the pipeline, despite the fact that the troop withdrawal is essentially complete.

“I’m not timing this according to the military’s withdrawal,” Jacobson said. “It’s really hard to predict the future because we just started this pipeline … so I can’t say exactly what it’s going to look like two months from now.”

Many in Washington say it’s a mistake to ignore the withdrawal timeline because the military apparatus is key to getting as many Afghans out of the country as possible. Until Aug. 31, the U.S. still has a combat presence in the country and can conduct airstrikes in support of the Afghan security forces and against the Taliban. Meanwhile, the closing of Bagram air base, the hub of the U.S. military’s Afghanistan operation for the last 20 years, significantly diminishes America’s airlift capability, forcing officials to coordinate flights out of Kabul’s main airport.

“That lag coupled with seeing the military accelerate their withdrawal — that’s when we really started getting worried,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Army Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan interpreters. “When those last wheels go up, you’ve handed them a death sentence.”

“Now we have no military infrastructure, no helicopters, no bases, no nothing,” Waltz added. “And I think we’re still in a very bad place.”

Caught off guard

Although officials at the State Department and Pentagon were aware of the precarious situation the applicants faced as the Taliban gained ground across the country, officials say the Biden administration was caught off guard by how quickly the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated after the president announced the withdrawal.

The State Department is “just groaning under the weight of the task,” said one senior defense official. “I also don’t think anyone thought Afghanistan would turn so badly so quick.”

Afghans who live outside Kabul are finding it increasingly dangerous to travel to the capital city as Taliban militants continue to expand their reach across the country. The visa system requires applicants to travel to Kabul to complete certain steps in the application process, such as submitting documents for proof of employment; and those being evacuated must get to the capital city to board the flights. Some intelligence assessments have indicated that Kabul could fall to the Taliban in as little as six months, the senior defense official said.

“We’re out of time. People are dying now,” Crow said. “The situation is getting worse. It’s harder and harder to get to Kabul with each passing day.”

The military has been monitoring the worsening security situation and the associated humanitarian threat to the special visa applicants and thousands of other Afghans since the president announced the withdrawal deadline in April, defense officials said.

Starting in May, the State Department requested that the Pentagon provide documents to help corroborate applicants’ employment history — a crucial step in the application process, said Garry Reid, the Defense Department’s lead for the relocation effort.

The idea was to accelerate the processing of visas that were stuck in the application pipeline due to difficulties validating their claims that they had met the two-year employment requirement, Reid said. DoD has now completed that submitted corroborating data for 6,000 to 7,000 applicants and is working on more, he added.

Meanwhile, the State Department added staff at the embassy in Kabul and in Washington to accelerate the processing of applications on the administrative side, officials said at the time.

While critics argue the administration took too long to take significant action, Jacobson said she is proud of the work the task force has done in a short period of time to coordinate between the different agencies — primarily State, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security — to reach “a battle rhythm.” Although the State Department had been working intensively to relocate Afghans at risk before July 19, the establishment of the task force has accelerated the results, she said.

“I’ve watched it happen several times here: An issue comes up, and all the right people are standing there to resolve it rather than have it done over time. So this is I think a force multiplier,” Jacobson said.

Asked whether the task force should have been established sooner, she declined to comment.

“We’re happy to be at the heart of it and as to what should have been, could have been done before, I wasn’t here for it so I can’t say,” she said.

Kelli Ann Burriesci, who runs the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans, said in an interview that various agencies have been working on the issue since before the task force was created, but acknowledged that it has been “a little bit more difficult in a virtual environment.”

“This is certainly the most important thing I’ve ever worked on during my time at DHS since 2007 and probably my entire government career,” Burriesci added.

In the meantime, Congress has since tried to rectify the Biden administration’s missteps and speed up the applications.

On Thursday, the House and Senate passed a bill that eliminates some steps in the vetting process, raises the admission cap and allocates an additional $600 million in funding for resettlement of the Afghans in the U.S.

Some lawmakers said that while the legislative effort was necessary, the push-and-pull between the executive and legislative branches is to be expected.

“I don’t think the president was not cognizant of these risks. Clearly, we had to push a little harder to make sure there was quick action,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.). “There is no daylight between any of us — the administration and Democrats, and probably most Republicans.”

Pentagon in a supporting role

Early on in the process, lawmakers criticized the Pentagon for not doing more to help the applicants — many of whom have personal ties to the American troops who fought in the conflict — and for not immediately crafting an evacuation plan.

But the Pentagon’s role has been limited to supporting the State Department program, officials said. In early July, the Pentagon established a crisis action group to support Jacobson’s parallel effort at the State Department, which launched about a week and a half later, Reid said.

The group has spent the past few weeks working to find appropriate relocation sites and preparing them for applicants to arrive, including conducting a walk-through with Jacobson at Fort Lee last week.

“We couldn’t have done any of that in April or early May until we had that level of specificity identified by the State Department,” he said.

In addition to the Afghans arriving at Fort Lee, the State Department has requested that the Pentagon provide options for relocating another 20,000 applicants and their family members at U.S. installations both in the U.S. and in other countries, Reid said.

While the applicants at Fort Lee are expected to stay for only a few days, the department is planning for future tranches of people to remain on U.S. installations abroad for much longer — potentially for nine to 12 months, Reid said. Some of the proposed relocation sites could require the construction of temporary facilities to house the influx of people, similar to the “tent cities” erected for large numbers of U.S. forces in transit to active conflict zones.

At least two locations overseas will likely be needed to accommodate all 20,000 people, Reid said.

Evacuating the tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for the special visa program by the end of August will be a Herculean task, but Reid and other top administration officials and allies projected confidence.

“The important thing is to achieve the goal, and I think they’re well on their way to doing that,” Menendez said.

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