Veterans leading Afghan evacuations seek help from Biden and Congress

Hundreds of veterans and other frontline volunteers who have organized ongoing evacuations from Afghanistan say their efforts have become “untenable” without increased support from the US government.

In a letter to President Joe Biden and members of Congress, a coalition of more than 100 veterans and other groups organized under the nickname #AfghanEvac listed 15 steps the US government must take to “keep its promise to those who remain. in danger because of their connection to US activities in Afghanistan.

“Success depends on improving interagency coordination, increasing evacuation capacity and resettlement flow, and our government fulfilling the roles and responsibilities that only a government can, in accordance with the expectations of the people. the United States and our Afghan allies, ”the coalition said.

The letter, signed by more than 285 veterans and volunteers, calls on the Biden administration to appoint a visible leader with dedicated staff by February 2022 to coordinate federal agencies and create a workable multi-year plan for Afghan evacuations.

Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and founder of #AfghanEvac, said such a position is essential because at the moment “we don’t really know who is in charge”.

“It’s not a two-week mission – it’s months, maybe years,” he said in a telephone interview. “So we want that person in government to be able to take advantage of all the tools available to the US government. We have been to the moon. We can fix this.”

Former Ambassador Elizabeth Jones was appointed Coordinator of Resettlement Efforts in Afghanistan in October. She leads a team that coordinates with Congress, veterans and other groups. Jones does not, however, have the interagency authority to assign duties or provide oversight responsibility outside of the State Department.

The groups also want the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to expedite the processing of visa applications, interviews and medical exemptions and waive all related application fees, while the Department of Homeland Security Defense maintains locations in countries where Afghans can be evacuated.

The Department of Homeland Security announced on November 8 that it would exempt Afghan nationals from the application fee and streamline the processing of their applications when they are sent to the United States on humanitarian grounds after July 30.

Evacuations have slowed considerably since the United States left Afghanistan in August, and one of the challenges is the ability to keep refugees abroad while their immigration status is processed by U.S. agencies. Another problem is that there are still a significant number of Afghan allies who have to leave the country.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council noted that the United States had evacuated 74,000 people as part of Operation Allies Welcome, which provided support and assistance to those who visited the United States.

“We stand ready to welcome other eligible Afghans in the coming weeks and months, as capacity permits, including those in transit locations overseas to be processed in States. -United, ”said the spokesperson.

The State Department said it has directly assisted 470 U.S. citizens and 417 lawful permanent residents and their families to leave Afghanistan since Aug.31. A number of others left the country independently via private charters or crossing land borders, the agency said.

A State Department spokesperson said by email that the agency is actively working to help passport holders and those who have been granted special immigrant visas. Many Afghans applied for special immigrant visas before and after the Taliban takeover, but it is not known how many were processed. The agency said it was working with “thousands of other SIV candidates.”

Alex Plitsas, a military veteran in Iraq and Afghanistan who worked with the Human First Coalition to help evacuate the Afghans, said the number of people who have yet to leave the country is likely equal to the number who were able flee before the United States. military is gone.

The difference is that the massive airlift and Pentagon and State Department resources that aided in these evacuations are gone.

“None of this exists now,” he said. “There is no functional embassy on the ground. There is nowhere to conduct interviews, there is nowhere to physically issue visas to people whose passports were destroyed during the visit. evacuation operation. And they are effectively blocked for the moment. “

The letter further called on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would make it easier for evacuees to access the U.S. immigration system and find a path to citizenship. The Biden administration previously asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow Afghans admitted to the United States on humanitarian parole to apply for green cards.

The signatories also called on Congress to provide more funding for these efforts through the State Department and USAID, especially as many groups noted that private donations have declined as the American public attention is turned away.

Another request is that the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services work together to provide mental health services to the Afghans who evacuated, as well as to those who have evacuated them. American volunteers and officials dedicated to the withdrawal.

Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who worked with Veterans for American Ideals to help evacuate the Afghans, said he and other veterans and volunteers who have been involved in the effort continue to receive countless messages. of allies who remain in Afghanistan. He said they express their fear for their lives and the lives of their families and disappointment at being left behind, and that takes a heavy toll – especially as the process turns out to be extremely frustrating.

Goldsmith, who has openly shared his struggles with PTSD and worked with veterans on their mental health issues, said the messages, disappointment and frustrations had made him reflect on 15 years of appeals he had made. he had received veterans asking for help.

“People I’ve lost in the past who asked for help and couldn’t reach in time: I feel like a piece of my heart is dead,” he said. -he declares. “I can say with confidence that the appeals for help that our entire community is receiving now and will continue to receive are like everything I have received over the past 15 years condensed into just a few weeks – and this is repeated to satiety. “

VanDiver, Plitsas and Goldsmith have all noted that the effort to expel Afghans is apolitical. They said there was no will to support one political party over another in this push to help the Afghans who helped the United States

They said the focus on politics would only undermine their work and anger the veterans, volunteers, government officials and professionals who, as the letter said, have “the common goal of evacuating. Afghan allies affected by the 20-year US mission in their country. “

“Partisanship will kill this effort, both on the volunteer side and on the government side,” VanDiver said. “There is nothing we can do if everyone is trying to score cheap political points. People who say they support veterans should know that we are not interested in that kind of behavior or path.”

Goldsmith insisted on this point again.

“If the politicians want to play games with us and mean they support the troops, then turn around and say, ‘You know, we don’t really want to bring Afghans into the United States’ or they want to set up a roadblock, “Goldsmith said,” They are going to have to deal with a generation of vets who have lost friends because of this preventable problem. “

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