In the chaotic, final hours of the Vietnam War, the US evacuated thousands of South Vietnamese who supported the American mission and were at risk under the communist government.
With US and NATO forces facing a September 11 deadline to leave Afghanistan, many are recalling that desperate, hasty exodus as they urge the Biden administration to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or otherwise helped US military operations there in the past two decades.
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Despite unusual bipartisan support in the US Congress, the administration has not agreed to such a move, declining to publicly support something that could undermine security in the Afghanistan as it unwinds a war that started after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC.
“We have a moral obligation to protect our brave allies who put their lives on the line for us, and we’ve been working for months to engage the administration and make sure there’s a plan, with few concrete results,” Republican Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan said during a US House hearing last week.
Legislators have urged the administration to consider temporarily relocating Afghans who worked for American or NATO forces to a safe overseas location while their US visas are processed. Some have suggested Guam, a US territory that served a similar purpose after the Vietnam War. Kurdish refugees also were flown to the Pacific island in 1996 after the Gulf War.
Guam’s governor recently wrote to President Joe Biden to say the territory was ready to help if needed.
The Biden administration for now is focusing on accelerating a special visa programme for Afghans who helped US operations and pouring resources into relieving the backlog.
“We are processing and getting people out at a record pace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “We are working with Congress right now to streamline some of the requirements that slow this process down and we’re doing the kind of extensive planning for potential evacuation, should that become necessary.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned lawmakers in May that “the departure of all educated Afghans” would “signal panic” and hurt the morale of the country’s security forces.
“This is a delicate, complicated balance that we have to keep,” Khalilzad said.
Democratic Representative Jason Crow of Colorado recently introduced legislation that would nearly double the number of visas available this year, to 8,000, and ease eligibility requirements.
But he said congressional action will not be quick enough or sufficient.
Even if the legislation passed immediately, the number of visas would fall far short of the estimated 18,000 Afghans waiting to be processed. That figure does not include their spouses and children, who would bring the total to about 70,000 people.
And the average wait is more than three years. The process has been also hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, which led the US embassy in Afghanistan to suspend visa interviews mid-June.
Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said he prefers the government “evacuate our Afghan partners to a temporary evacuation site where we can safely conduct robust visa processing without threat to applicants’ safety by the Taliban”.
In a statement this month, the Taliban promised not to attack those who worked for Western interests, but said those who worked with NATO troops “should show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country”, the group said in a statement.
It urged Afghans to remain in the country and warned their ranks against revenge killings.
Still, many Afghans are desperate for a visa, fearing violence not only from the Taliban but heavily armed warlords allied with the US and seeing now as their last chance to leave Afghanistan.
The American withdrawal began after the US signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 after 18 months of talks that excluded the Afghan government. The final pullout of troops ordered by Biden began May 1 when the number of US forces was between 2,500 and 3,500, and could be completed as soon as July 4. All international troops including 7,000 NATO forces are set to leave by September 11.