Faced with death, Afghan interpreters still have no escape route to the US
'An evacuation is not imminent.'
The thousands of Afghans who helped Americans for the past 20 years face torture and death as soon as the last U.S. troops leave the country, and no one at the Pentagon or State Department seems to care enough about them to begin a massive evacuation while there’s still time.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged on Wednesday that “a significant amount of Afghans that supported the United States and supported the coalition” could be in danger.
That’s why the Defense and State Departments are working to “do what’s necessary to ensure their protection and, if necessary, get them out of the country,” Milley told reporters, though no firm plans have been publicly announced.
“There are plans being developed very, very rapidly here not just interpreters but a lot of other people that have worked with the United States,” Milley said, according to a partial transcript provided by the Joint Staff. “So, there’s a prioritization of categories of these folks. Part of it is the Special Immigrant Visa Program, but that’s not all of it, but the State Department’s working through that. We are in support of that, and we’re going to do whatever their leadership decides to execute, and we’ll be able to do it.”
Milley also did not rule out the possibility that the U.S. military could airlift interpreters and other Afghans who have assisted the U.S. government out of Afghanistan. Based on Milley’s comments, Defense One described the type of action being planned as an evacuation.
However, Milley’s comments closely mirror U.S. government talking points about how it plans to help Afghan interpreters and others who have helped American troops and diplomats over the years.
Defense officials said Thursday that Milley had not announced anything new when he described how the Defense and State Departments are planning on how to get those Afghans who helped the American war effort out of the country.
“The physical evacuation of Afghans is one option of many being considered and it is not necessarily the primary option to safeguard Afghans at risk,” said Army Col. David Butler, Milley’s spokesman. “An evacuation is not imminent.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was asked specifically on Wednesday if the Defense Department has begun planning options for the State Department should it request the military’s help in getting Afghan interpreters out of the country.
“We’re a planning organization and we plan for contingencies all around the world,” Kirby said at a Pentagon news briefing. “Non-combatant evacuations is a mission that the military often has to be ready for in many places around the world.”
“But, as General McKenzie said himself, there’s been no tasking of this kind, we’re not at that stage and at that point, and if we are so tasked, we believe that we have the capabilities and the resources to execute those missions,” Kirby continued.
No One Left Behind, a non-profit group that helps Afghan and Iraqi interpreters resettle in the United States, is concerned that the U.S. government’s current inter-agency approach to helping Afghans is not working, said James Miervaldis, chairman of the group’s board of directors.
At a May 12 congressional hearing, the defense official in charge of Indo-Pacific security affairs admitted he did not know whether the State or Defense Department is leading the effort to prepare to evacuate Afghans if needed.
“I do not know for sure,” Helvey said. “It depends on what we’re talking about.”
Miervaldis suggested putting one person in charge of efforts to get Afghans who worked with the U.S. government to safety.
“While on a much smaller scale than Hurricane Katrina, appointing someone like General [Russel] Honoré in 2005 to oversee this effort would be a meaningful giant leap forward,” Miervaldis said.
Currently, about 18,000 Afghans who worked with the U.S. government have applied for Special Immigrant Visas allowing them to come to the United States, but only 20% of those applications have been approved by the Chief of Mission in Washington, D.C., a State Department spokesperson said.
Those Afghans must still go through several other steps in the immigration process to actually get their visas, including filing a petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, submitting a visa application, and completing a visa interview, according to the State Department’s website.
Of the remaining Afghans who have applied for the visas: About 30% are awaiting a decision from the Chief of Mission and roughly half are at the very beginning of the application process, the spokesperson said.
The State Department has increased its staff in both Washington and Kabul to process the visas, the spokesperson said.
But the collapse of Afghan security forces appears to be accelerating rapidly. At least 26 Afghan military and police outposts and bases have surrendered to the Taliban this month alone, the New York Times first reported on Thursday.
The Times has also reported that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could be completed by July.
Even if the State Department tripled the number of staffers processing visa requests and had them work around the clock, it would still take about three years to get through the backlog of Afghans trying to get to the United States, said former Army Maj. Matt Zeller, an advocate for helping Afghan interpreters find safety.
Those Afghans can’t wait that long because the Taliban are positioning themselves to lob rockets at Kabul as soon as U.S. troops leave, meaning the city’s airport will soon become unusable, said Zeller, who is recommending the U.S. military begin airlifting Afghans to Guam.
Moreover, when you include all of the extended family members of the Afghans who have helped the United States, the actual number of people who need to be evacuated or else they’ll be killed by the Taliban is closer to 70,000, he said.
“The Taliban have a very North Korean sensibility about this,” Zeller said. “They’re going to kill you and your extended family members as a message to others: That’s the cost of American friendship.”
Featured image: In this Nov. 3, 2009, file photo, Lt. Thomas Goodman, center, of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division meets with villagers in Qatar Kala in the Pech Valley of Afghanistan’s Kunar province with his interpreter Ayazudin Hilal, center left with hat. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)