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Biden defends delayed evacuation of Afghan civilians

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President Biden, in remarks at the White House Monday, defended his administration’s much-maligned handling of the evacuation of Afghan allies.

“I know there are concerns about why we didn’t begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. Part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid us from triggering, as they said, a ‘crisis of confidence.’”

President Biden pauses while giving remarks on the worsening crisis in Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House August 16, 2021. Biden addressed the nation as the Taliban have seized control in Afghanistan two weeks before the U.S. is set to complete its troop withdrawal after a costly two-decade war. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
President Biden speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Afghans who are in danger from Taliban forces because of their work providing interpretation, security, cultural advice, intelligence or other services to the U.S.-led military coalition are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs.

On Monday, Biden noted that last month, under a program called Operation Allies Refuge, the U.S. began transporting around 2,000 Afghans who were in the final stages of applying for an SIV to Fort Lee in Virginia, where they could complete the process before being resettled elsewhere in the U.S.

“In the coming days, the U.S. military will provide assistance to move [Special Immigrant Visa]-eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan,” Biden said. He added that the State Department is expanding refugee access to include other categories of eligible Afghans, including current and former employees of U.S.-based news organizations and nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan and U.S.-government-funded programs, along with their spouses and children.

State Department spokesman Ned Price also highlighted the work of Operation Allies Refuge during a press conference Monday afternoon, calling it a “a gargantuan U.S. effort not only to process, adjudicate and to grant visas to these so-called special immigrants, but to actually bring them to the United States with a massive airlift operation.”

“It's been through that operation that 2,000 Afghans have been able to reach the United States,” said Price. “Most of those Afghans have been able to start their new lives through resettlement agencies.”

US State Department spokesman Ned Price holds a press briefing on Afghanistan at the State Department in Washington, DC, August 16, 2021. (Photo by KEVIN LAMARQUE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
State Department spokesman Ned Price holds a press briefing about Afghanistan on Monday. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Since 2008, more than 70,000 Afghan allies and their families have been able to move to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa program. But the program has long been plagued by delays, and earlier this year it was estimated that 18,000 Afghan allies and 53,000 family members remained in the processing backlog.

A bipartisan group of 21 lawmakers wrote to Biden in April and again on June 4 highlighting the potential problem, saying, “We are increasingly concerned that you have not yet directed the Department of Defense [to] be mobilized as part of a concrete and workable whole of government plan to protect our Afghan partners.”

“The current SIV process will not work,” wrote the Honoring Our Promises Working Group co-leads, Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Jason Crow, D-Colo. “It takes an average of 800+ days, and we plan to withdraw in less than 100 days. While our working group is investigating various process efficiencies and options for expanding the number of SIVs available, it is clear that the process will not be rectified in time to help the 18,000+ applicants who need visas before our withdrawal.”

In April, the Biden administration was also blasted by fellow Democrats and resettlement groups for its decision to keep a historically low cap on refugee admissions put in place by former President Donald Trump. After the pushback, the White House reversed the decision and raised the number.

It was not until late July that Biden approved up to $100 million in emergency funding to assist Afghan refugees before expanding eligibility in early August. Last week, the administration was asking other countries if they would consider taking in Afghan refugees.

“We are grateful that there are assurances of relocation of Afghan allies alongside American civilians, though it is unfortunate this urgency has only been spurred months later by a dire security situation,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, late last week about the efforts. “Anything less than a full evacuation of all allies and their family members in danger would be an abdication of our moral responsibility.”

Vignarajah disputed Biden’s explanation for the delayed evacuation, saying in another statement Monday afternoon, “The administration's claim that many Afghans did not want to leave the country earlier is inconsistent with our experience working with Afghan allies.”

As the conditions in Kabul deteriorated, highlighted by images of chaos from the airport, congressional pressure continued to mount on the Biden administration. “Dire conditions on the ground persist today and without swift, decisive action from the administration, Afghan civilians will suffer or die at the hands of the Taliban,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a statement Monday.

Shaheen, a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, called on the Biden administration to evacuate the SIV applicants and waive “parts of the SIV process that can no longer be feasibly conducted in Afghanistan due to the Taliban takeover.”

“The same should be done for Afghans who assisted the U.S. mission through non-governmental organizations and aid agencies, and other vulnerable populations such as journalists, human rights defenders and women leaders,” she added.

Biden, in his speech Monday, vigorously defended the withdrawal.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” the president said, conceding that the collapse of the central government in Kabul “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.”

The war in Afghanistan began in 2001 under President George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks and continued through the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Trump negotiated with the Taliban for a withdrawal of U.S. troops set for May of this year, a deadline the Biden administration pushed back to Aug. 31.

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