WASHINGTON – Two veteran lawmakers from the war in Afghanistan on Wednesday warned a Pentagon official that Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government would be hunted down by the Taliban unless the Biden administration arranges an emergency evacuation before the withdrawal American troops in four months.
“We have to get these people out,” Republican Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who has witnessed fighting in Afghanistan, said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. He said the American partners risked a “death sentence” when the United States left.
Waltz and other lawmakers expressed frustration during the hearing with David Helvey, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Indo-Pacific, over the Biden administration’s plans for tens of thousands of Afghans who face retaliation from the Taliban for their association with the US government or otherwise. Western organizations. Helvey said the Pentagon would be able to evacuate the Afghans if requested, but lawmakers wanted to know what steps were imminent.
“We have to evacuate them,” Waltz told Helvey. “What is stopping you from doing this?”
Helvey replied that the administration hopes to see the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a peace settlement to end the conflict. “We are focused on a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan.”
Peace talks between the Taliban and their opponents in the Afghan government have stalled.
Waltz said the Biden administration must take action now to save the lives of Afghan partners and send them to a U.S. military base or territory outside the country, where their documents can be reviewed and examined.
“These people who stood by our side are being chased as we speak,” Waltz said.
The congressman recounted how one of the interpreters he had worked with was assassinated by the Taliban six years ago after being arrested at an insurgent checkpoint on his way to the Embassy of the United States. United States in Kabul. The interpreter was coming to the embassy with documents to apply for a visa under a program set up for Afghans employed by the United States, Waltz said.
“I want to be clear, we need an escape plan and time is running out,” the Republican lawmaker said.
“We are working with our interagency partners to look at the resources and mechanisms to support these people,” Helvey said.
But Waltz said when the remaining US forces depart as planned in September, former Afghan partners would have a target on their backs.
“When that last soldier refueled, we basically sentenced them to death,” Waltz said.
To help Afghan interpreters and others facing retaliation from the Taliban for their ties to the United States, Congress in 2009 established the Special Immigrant Visa Program, or SIV, to provide US visas to Afghans who had been employed by the US government. The program has a backlog of several years. More than 17,000 Afghans applied and their paperwork is still being reviewed.
“We have a special responsibility to support and protect those who have supported and protected us for the past 20 years,” Helvey told lawmakers. He suggested that Congress devote more resources to the SIV program to help Afghans who have worked with the United States.
Veterans’ organizations from all political backgrounds sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday calling for the evacuation of Afghan partners to US territory.
Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said during Wednesday’s hearing that he might not be alive today without the help from interpreters.
Crow asked Helvey if the Defense Department was prepared to organize an evacuation of Afghans employed by the US government.
“If we’re asked to do it, we can,” Helvey said.
Crow asked him which US government agency was taking the lead on the issue.
Helvey said he thought it was the State Department.
“Do you believe or do you know?” Crow asked.
“I don’t know for sure,” Helvey said. “It depends on what we’re talking about.”
Crow said there was a moral and national security imperative in taking steps to transport Afghan partners out of the country.
“We are several weeks away in this draw. We’re out of time. “
Helvey said the administration had no agreement in place in neighboring countries that would allow access to bases for US troops or permission to fly over Afghanistan for surveillance or counterterrorism missions. The administration is “exploring” options with some regional governments, he said.
Discussions are underway with Kabul on the size of the future American diplomatic mission after the withdrawal of the troops; as well as how the United States would help train Afghan security forces or gather intelligence without boots on the ground, according to Helvey.
The Pentagon official gave some details on a number of key issues, including the nature of the Taliban’s relationship with Al Qaeda, and said he would address the matters in a classified hearing later Wednesday.