Lawmakers push to rescue Afghan relatives of US troops

WASHINGTON – More than a month after a frenzied effort by the United States to evacuate thousands of people at risk of Taliban reprisal ...


WASHINGTON – More than a month after a frenzied effort by the United States to evacuate thousands of people at risk of Taliban reprisal in Afghanistan, members of Congress are still quietly pushing the government to help extract a small group of stranded Afghans who are direct relatives of members of the US military service.

Members of the service, some of whom have traveled to Washington to seek help from lawmakers and the Biden administration, largely share the same story. Many of them have previously worked as interpreters or fixers for the US military in Afghanistan, but moved to the US years ago, obtaining visas and then green cards to become permanent residents, and then enlisting. in the armed forces they had once served as civilians.

They were evacuated from Afghanistan as part of the US withdrawal a few weeks ago. But now, as the Taliban seek to punish anyone with ties to Americans, their parents and siblings are in danger, and US lawmakers and officials are wondering how to help them.

“It was bad enough that American citizens were left behind and that our Afghan partners were left behind,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, in a recent interview. . “But when I found out that we have active military personnel whose families are stranded in Afghanistan and the State Department cannot get them out?” It was like the worst of the worst cases.

The group of military relatives, estimated at a few hundred, is one of many at-risk groups that lawmakers are still working behind the scenes to help, underscoring the danger many Afghans still face in their home countries.

The State Department has created in recent weeks an interagency team, including the Defense Department, to facilitate the evacuation of military families and other vulnerable Afghans, according to a spokesperson. But officials have provided little information on how this will be accomplished and who will be eligible.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August, Congressional offices were inundated with messages asking for help, and staff jumped into action, turning the offices into informal centers of operations aimed at helping Americans and Americans. Afghans to escape as the last US troops prepared to withdraw. Two months later, lawmakers are still aghast at the constant stream of demands they continue to receive.

“We have to get them out because the Taliban are actively hunting,” said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat from Colorado and former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. “They systematically work on their lists. Time is of the essence here.

Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who led Afghan strategy on Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s National Security Council and is now retired, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that he was aware of at least 35 services. soldiers still trying to evacuate family members from Afghanistan. Lawmakers who follow the problem have similar estimates.

Lawmakers first learned of the fate of loved ones in August, during a press conference held by Mr McCaul outside the Capitol. While delivering a speech on the plight of stranded Afghan interpreters, he noticed a group of men in army uniform holding signs.

“Our families should not be slaughtered for our service in the US military,” read a sign.

Their precarious situation reflects the limitations of a special visa program which was already very late and was never intended to facilitate a mass evacuation. The Special Immigrant Visa program was intended to help those at risk because of their work for the United States government – a definition that excludes many of those the Taliban are now targeting.

“The SIV program has been so fundamentally broken for so long, there are so many aspects that need to be fixed,” said Mr. Crow.

Last week, he said he and his family took in an Afghan family that his office helped evacuate in August.

“They have been waiting for SIV approval since 2005 and they would probably still be waiting,” he said.

Over the summer, Congress passed legislation to raise the cap on special visas by 8,000 and remove application requirements that have slowed the process. President Biden enacted this bill, but program limits remain, and now Mr. Crow and Rep. Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, are proposing a measure to raise the cap by an additional 10,000 and expand eligibility.

But lawmakers have also complained that the visa program’s bureaucratic issues were only compounded by the way a tense State Department handled their requests.

State Department officials have designated only U.S. citizens and their immediate family members as a top priority for the evacuation, according to congressional offices.

Mr Crow said his office was looking for better advice from the administration “on how people can be evacuated and who is eligible for various programs.” Mr McCaul said Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, never responded to a letter he sent asking how many servicemen had family members currently trapped in Afghanistan and what the agency was doing to ensure their evacuation.

“If you are a US citizen with your blue passport, I think there is hope for you,” Rep. Michael Waltz, Republican from Florida, said in an interview. “But we see a marked difference between all the groups we deal with, which is really worrying. “

Mr. Waltz said he understood the State Department’s dilemma.

“Where do you draw that line: the nuclear family, the brothers, the cousins, the parents? ” he said. “But the point is, I think we should have had as much leeway as possible.”

The State Department spokesman said efforts were underway to try to help servicemen whose Afghan family members were in need. But he conceded that the department would still have a “special responsibility” to Americans seeking to be evacuated.

Amplifying the sense of urgency, said lawmakers and veterans groups working on evacuation efforts, this is an increase in retaliatory attacks by the Taliban. Mr Waltz said his office recently received a video of a woman who had served in the Afghan National Army who was nearly beaten to death with her arms and ribs broken.

After US military forces left Kabul in August, Daniel Elkins, executive director of the Special Operations Association of America, a veterans organization that helped organize evacuation efforts, said he saw a drop in the number Afghans contacting him for help.

“Recently, there has been a steady increase in the number of people re-contacting,” Mr. Elkins said. “This indicates that the threat picture has grown.”

Lawmakers also took note of another vulnerable group that is not eligible for the special visa program: the elite commandos who served in the Afghan special forces, who were trained and equipped by American forces and often worked alongside them.

Mr McCaul said he raised the issue during a call Wednesday with Wendy Sherman, the assistant secretary of state, who assured him the State Department was working on it.

But, added Mr McCaul, “it is difficult to deal with ‘any request’ when you do not have an embassy in the country.”

Heather Nauert, a former State Department spokeswoman during the Trump administration who was deeply involved in advocating for the evacuation of Afghan and American military families, said the commandos she spoke to had reported an increase in violence against them and their families. .

“Every day they receive images and stories from their former comrades stranded in Afghanistan,” Ms. Nauert said. “Some of them saw family members who were hunted down, captured, tortured and murdered.

“These are men who have been trained by American special operators,” she added. “They never applied for a visa because they never thought they would have to.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Lawmakers push to rescue Afghan relatives of US troops
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