Lawmakers press for rescue of Afghan relatives of US soldiers

WASHINGTON — More than a month after a frenzied US effort to counter thousands of retaliation from the Taliban in Afghanistan, members of Congress are still quietly pressuring the government to help evacuate a small group of stranded Afghans who are direct relatives of US military service members.

Service members, some of whom have traveled to Washington to plead for help from lawmakers and the Biden administration, largely share the same story. Many of them once worked as interpreters or fixers for the US military in Afghanistan, but moved to the United States years ago, obtaining visas and then green cards to become permanent residents, and then in the armed forces. enlisted, which they once served as civilians.

He was evacuated from Afghanistan weeks ago as part of the US withdrawal. But now, with the Taliban seeking to punish anyone with links to Americans, their parents and siblings are in danger, and lawmakers and US officials are confused about how to help them. Go.

“It was bad enough that American citizens were left behind, and our Afghan allies were left behind,” Texas Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a recent interview. “But when I learned we have active service members whose families are stranded in Afghanistan, and the State Department can’t get them out? It was like the worst of the worst cases. “

The group of relatives of service members, estimated in the low hundreds, is one of several groups of people at risk that lawmakers are still working behind the scenes to help, underscoring the danger that many Afghans still face. facing in his country.

In recent weeks, the State Department has formed a team in agencies, including the Defense Department, to help evacuate the families of service members and other vulnerable Afghans, according to a spokesman. But officials have given little information about how this will be accomplished and who will be eligible.

After Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, congressional offices were flooded with messages asking for help and workers swung into action, turning the offices into informal operations centers dedicated to helping Americans and Afghans escape. were concentrated as the last American troops prepared to withdraw. Two months later, MPs are still agonizing over the incessant stream of requests they receive.

“We need to get them out because the Taliban is actively hunting them,” said Representative Jason Crowe, a Democrat from Colorado and a former army ranger who served in Afghanistan. “They are systematically working through their lists. Time is of the essence here. “

Lt. General Douglas E. Lute, who directed Afghan strategy on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and is now retired, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that he had to be at least 35. Knew about the service. Members who were still trying to evacuate their family members from Afghanistan. Lawmakers tracking the issue have similar estimates.

Lawmakers first learned of the relatives’ plight during a news conference hosted by Mr McCall outside the Capitol in August. As he was commenting on the condition of the stranded Afghan interpreters, he saw a group of men in military uniform holding placards.

“Our families must not be slaughtered as a result of our service in the US military,” read a sign.

Their precarious status reflects the limitations of a special visa program that was already badly backlogged and was never meant to facilitate mass evacuations. The special immigrant visa program was intended to help people facing threats because of their work for the United States government – a definition that excludes many of the people the Taliban are now targeting.

“The SIV program has been fundamentally broken for so long, there are many aspects that need to be fixed,” Mr. Crowe said.

Last week, he said he and his family had welcomed an Afghan family that his office had helped clear in August.

“They have been waiting for SIV approval since 2005 and they might still be waiting,” he said.

During the summer, Congress passed legislation to increase the special visa limit to 8,000 and remove application requirements that slow the process. President Biden signed that bill into law, but the program’s limits remain, and now Mr. Crowe and Republican Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan are proposing a measure to raise the cap by 10,000 more and expand eligibility. are.

But lawmakers have also complained that the bureaucratic issues of the visa program have only been compounded by the way a tense State Department has handled their requests.

According to the offices of Congress, State Department officials have designated only US citizens and their immediate family members as top priority for evacuation.

Mr Crowe said his office was looking for better guidance from the administration on “how people can be evacuated and who is eligible for the various programs.” Mr McCall said Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, never responded to a letter sent to him asking how many service members are currently stranded in Afghanistan and what the agency was doing to secure their evacuation.

“If you’re a US citizen with your blue passport, I think there’s hope for you,” Republican Representative Michael Waltz of Florida said in an interview. “But we’re seeing a significant difference across all the groups we’re dealing with, which is really troubling.”

Mr Waltz said he understood the State Department’s dilemma.

“Where do you draw that line: single family, siblings, cousins, parents?” he said. “But the point is, I think we should have kept as much latitude as possible.”

A State Department spokesman said efforts were being made to assist service members who are in need of Afghan family members. But he acknowledged that the department will always have a “special responsibility” for Americans seeking evacuation.

Adding to the sense of urgency, lawmakers and veterans’ groups working on evacuation efforts said retaliatory strikes by the Taliban are accelerating. Mr Waltz said his office had recently received video of a woman who served in the Afghan National Army who was nearly beaten to death, with her arms and ribs broken.

After US military forces left Kabul in August, Daniel Elkins, executive director of the Special Operations Association of America, a veterans organization that has helped organize evacuation efforts, said he had contacted Afghans for help. I saw a recession.

“Recently there has been a steady increase in the number of people re-arriving,” Mr. Elkins said. “It suggests that the picture of danger is growing.”

Lawmakers have also noted another vulnerable group that is ineligible for the special visa program: elite commandos who served in Afghan special forces, who were trained and equipped by US forces and often worked with them.

Mr McCall said he raised the issue on a call Wednesday with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who assured him the State Department was working on it.

But, Mr McCall said, “it is difficult to process any application” when you don’t have an embassy in the country.

Heather Nauert, a former State Department spokeswoman during the Trump administration who has been deeply involved in advocating for the evacuation of Afghans and the families of American service members, said the commandos she spoke to helped them and their families. An increase in targeted violence is reported. .

“Every day, he is receiving pictures and stories of his former comrades stranded in Afghanistan,” Ms Nauert said. “Some of them have family members who have been hunted, tortured and murdered.

“These are the men who were trained by America’s special operators,” she said. “He never applied for a visa, because he never thought he would have to.”

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