WASHINGTON – The window for a possible evacuation of Afghans who worked for the United States may soon close as a withdrawal of American forces is likely to end in a matter of weeks, two defense officials told NBC News.
The Pentagon is preparing contingency plans for a possible evacuation of Afghans who worked with American troops, but President Joe Biden has yet to give the order to execute them. US forces are expected to withdraw as early as mid-July, the two officials said.
Representative Jason Crow, D.-Colo., A strong advocate for the evacuation of Afghan partners, said, “We don’t have a lot of time to do it. And we’re about 50% complete with the withdrawal.
“Once this is done, our ability to evacuate people safely will be drastically reduced,” Crow told NBC News.
The State Department told NBC News that it foresees the possibility for Afghans to flee to neighboring countries and has asked those countries to be prepared to receive them.
Biden promised in April to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11. The planned departure has accelerated in recent weeks, with the withdrawal of personnel and equipment now halfway, according to the US Central Command.
As of Wednesday, US commanders handed over six facilities to Afghan government forces. Soon, US troops will be leaving their main airfield at Bagram, which would likely serve as a hub for any evacuation. The US military withdrew from a major air base in southern Afghanistan in Kandahar last month.
As the September 11 deadline approaches, members of Congress, veterans groups and refugee advocates are pushing for an emergency evacuation of thousands of Afghan partners who have applied for US visas.
Rep. Crow is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing for action to protect Afghans who worked for US troops and diplomats.
“There is no doubt in our mind that many of them will be killed, unless we protect them. That is what is at stake here,” he said.
Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon briefed Crow and other lawmakers on the plight of Afghan partners on Tuesday.
A defense official said the military had prepared contingency plans to evacuate thousands of Afghans who aided the coalition, but stressed that the U.S. Central Command had no orders to carry them out. The official said they could implement the plans very quickly if called upon to do so.
Asked about contingency plans, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in an email: “While there is no mission to evacuate the Afghans at the moment, we have this capability. and the secretary (of defense) is confident that we would be able to execute it if necessary. “
Advocates of an urgent evacuation argue that organizing such an operation after the departure of American troops would be more dangerous, more expensive and politically more complicated. Drones and intelligence assets will be gone and the security situation at the air bases will be uncertain.
The United States has no deal with neighboring Central Asian countries that would allow it to launch planes right across the border. Instead, US forces should rely on bases further out in the Persian Gulf, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Without US or NATO troops and planes on the ground, sending planes to retrieve endangered Afghans would require securing at least one airfield, which could prove daunting given the Taliban’s steady advance in recent months against the Afghan government. Additionally, as part of the 2020 US-Taliban deal brokered by Trump officials, the US has pledged to permanently withdraw US troops, and insurgents would likely view an evacuation operation as a blatant violation of the law. the agreement.
When the United States evacuated more than 6,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1996 from northern Iraq in the face of an offensive by the Saddam Hussein regime, American forces were on the ground, according to Chris Purdy, project manager at Veterans for American. Ideals.
“Right now, we are rapidly approaching the point where there will be little security left in Afghanistan to support a withdrawal,” Purdy said. “Each day that passes means that we will be forced to make more difficult decisions. We don’t have a year or six months to plan every detail, we have weeks and days.
Lawmakers asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a hearing on Monday whether the administration was prepared to evacuate Afghan partners. Blinken did not respond directly but said, “We are looking at all options.”
About 18,000 Afghans applied for visas under the special immigrant visa program introduced in 2009 for those who worked for the US government in Afghanistan. But the program has a backlog of several years.
The State Department said it was adding 50 more employees and taking other steps to speed up the processing of SIV requests.
“While we remain focused on the peace process, we also have a commitment to Afghans who have served the US government at great personal risk to themselves and their families, and we are processing qualified SIV requests as expeditiously as possible. possible, “the State Department said. said the spokesperson.
U.S. officials are also calling on neighboring governments to be prepared to accept refugees from Afghanistan if necessary, the spokesperson said.
“We call on neighboring countries to keep their borders open to those seeking international protection and will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to existing and new Afghan refugees and host communities,” the spokesperson said.
“Our goal is to ensure that Afghans can apply for international protection if they need it. “
The spokesperson said “extensive planning has been underway for many months” for a possible increase in the number of Afghans displaced for a number of reasons, including drought, the Covid-19 pandemic and conflict ongoing between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Assistant Secretary of State Brian McKeon briefed lawmakers on the effort on Tuesday.
Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Secretary of State Blinken during Monday’s hearing that there was not enough time to deal with the visa applications before the departure of US troops by September 11.
“That means these people will have a target and a target on our backs from the moment we leave the country,” McCaul said.
Crow said it was up to President Biden whether or not the evacuation took place.
“It is obviously very clear that this order has to come from the White House. This policy change has to come from the White House,” he said.