U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise to help vulnerable Afghans flee their country in the face of a Taliban onslaught is running up against his reluctance to budge from an Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces. Refugee groups and former officials says he can’t do both.
Biden on Friday said he was essentially putting Afghan allies of U.S. and NATO forces in the same category as Americans still seeking to leave Afghanistan, adding tens of thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands of people to a list with just days before troops pull out entirely.
“Let me be clear: Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” Biden said. Afghan allies who assisted the U.S. are “equally important, almost” as American citizens seeking to leave, he added.
In an interview with ABC News this week, Biden said the U.S. estimates as many as 65,000 people may need to flee.
Advocates for Afghans who want to evacuate argue that Biden is underestimating the number of people who want to escape and the speed at which it can be done, especially with the Kabul airport surrounded by Taliban and people brave enough to leave home and try to get through multiple checkpoints just trickling in.
“I fear that even with these last-ditch efforts we won’t be able to process and protect all in harm’s way,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, whose organization is pushing for evacuations of up to 9,000 people per day, which the U.S. military says it has the capacity to do. “It feels like we are building the plane as we are flying it, and what we can’t do is apply artificial timelines when our allies’ lives hang in the balance.”
Biden’s speech also did little to assuage members of Congress from both parties who have been clamoring for the administration to ramp up processing of Afghans seeking to get out, and who worry too many will be left behind. Many of them say the administration failed to act swiftly enough to get people out earlier this year, before the withdrawal was so far underway.
“The comments we just saw from President Biden were completely divorced from reality,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican. “Every one of these people and their families are in life-threatening situations because for months President Joe Biden ignored the bipartisan pleas from Congress.”
Part of the confusion over the evacuation now centers around who exactly the Biden team is including in its many categories of people it’s willing to help. First priority goes to American citizens and permanent residents, or green card holders, but those are a minority of the people being flown out now.
A second category includes those who qualify for so-called Special Immigrant Visas for having worked for the U.S., a number the U.S. estimates at around 20,000 people. Then there are many others — people who worked for foreign aid groups, media outlets and even activists. The groupings don’t necessarily include women specifically, even though the Taliban’s previous rule was marked by large-scale human rights abuses, including public stoning and banning of education and employment, against women and girls.
Given the looming end-of-August deadline, some activists and refugee groups say the U.S. should just get as many people out as possible and deal with the bureaucratic processing and vetting later, a proposition that could lead to terrorists or criminals getting seats on planes alongside translators, women’s activists and others.
On Friday, the advocacy group Foreign Policy for America said the administration should commit to resettling 200,000 Afghans “at risk of violence and persecution.” Daniel Runde, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the number could be as high as 500,000.
“I believe the numbers they’re throwing around are just the tip of the iceberg,” Runde said of the administration’s estimates. “We need to think about different pathways to get people out of Afghanistan.”
While the situation inside the perimeter of Kabul’s airport has calmed since Monday’s chaos, when people stormed the tarmac and clung to a U.S. cargo plane taxiing to the runway, outside the airport large crowds have gathered pleading with soldiers on the walls to let them in.
At the moment, though, the State Department is offering advice that struck many as inadequate.
“We are processing people at multiple gates,” the department said in an alert Friday. “Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open.”
That message underscored the limits of U.S. power now in Afghanistan, where about 6,000 troops are all stationed at the airport, with very limited abilities to help people outside the facility.
“It’s been three nights I’ve spent next to the entrance gate of the airport with my two children,” said Shazia Amani, 47, who fled from the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. “The situation here is horrible, but it’s more horrible if we live under the shadow of Taliban.”
The biggest demand now among refugee advocates and members of Congress from both parties is that Biden extend the Aug. 31 deadline not just for Americans but for Afghans who want to flee. It’s unclear whether the Taliban would even allow anyone access to the airport if that happened.
And every day the situation grows more desperate and potentially, more dangerous.
“The thing that we keep saying is that there’s no second chance to do this right and to evacuate those that need to get out,” said Katie LaRoque, senior director of the democracy, rights and governance initiative at Interaction. “If we leave and pack up and lose that airport, there’s not going to be a way that we can ever really come back in and get those folks out. It’s now or never.”
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