U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Tina Dexter greets an Afghan girl during a foot patrol aboard Musa Qal’eh District Center, Afghanistan, on July 19, 2010. Dexter was with with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group Forward attached 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment (1/2), Regimental Combat Team 2. Marines with 1/2 were deployed in the Helmand Province in support of the International Security Assistance Force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Carl Payne, special to Colorado Newsline)
Aid workers and politicians sounded the alarm over a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as Taliban forces took control of the country’s capital, following the withdrawal of most U.S. troops.
Video of Afghan people clinging to U.S. planes leaving the capital, Kabul, Sunday ignited public anger at U.S. military leaders and the Biden administration — as those with a stake in the country’s future feared that thousands of desperate Afghans would be left under a Taliban regime that punishes U.S. allies and represses civilians, particularly women.
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Calls are growing for the administration to quickly evacuate, and provide a safe haven for, Afghans and their families who worked as translators, interpreters and in other roles on behalf of the U.S. military.
“To our allies, to those who stood shoulder to shoulder with us over the last 20 years: We see you, we hear you,” U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Aurora, said during a Monday news conference. “You have many friends in the United States, and we will continue to fight for you and bring you to safety with your families.”
Crow and others called for the U.S. to leave Kabul International Airport open until all U.S. citizens and diplomats, along with the approximately 50,000 Afghan allies who have expressed interest in a special visa program, can be evacuated from the country.
In recent days, the U.S. military deployed approximately 5,000 troops to Kabul to assist with securing the airport.
Bureaucratic hurdles leave Afghans in peril
As violence escalated in the country this year, hundreds of Afghan civilians were killed and injured. In the first half of 2021, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 1,659 killings and 3,524 injuries of civilians. Most casualties were attributed to the Taliban and Afghan national security forces.
“We are on pace for record civilian deaths and injuries, with the majority being women and children,” Vicki Aken, Afghanistan director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a written statement this month. “Schools are closed, food shortages abound, and people are turning to desperate measures such as child labor and early marriage for girls.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans who worked with U.S. forces during the 20-year “war on terror” remain in the country.
The U.S. provides special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. military or International Security Assistance Force as interpreters or translators, and those who performed “sensitive and trusted activities” for the U.S. military. Congress authorized 4,000 visas for this program in December 2020. More than 10 times that number of people have expressed interest in the program, the Associated Press recently reported.
But applications from roughly 18,000 Afghans were caught in a processing backlog as of late July, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This figure refers to principal applicants but not their family members, for whom the applicants also seek protection.
The U.S. refugee program screens people overseas who are selected based on policy priorities and later resettled by nonprofits known as voluntary agencies, or VOLAGs, and provided with a few months of assistance with food, housing, employment and language classes. Similarly, special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan also must apply from overseas and receive assistance from resettlement agencies when they arrive.
“Right now, we are waiting and watching,” said Jennifer Wilson, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Denver. “Evacuations of Afghans ceased on Sunday while the U.S. military was working to regain control of the Kabul airport and prioritizing evacuation of U.S. citizens and U.S. personnel. So we are hopeful that they will resume evacuations of Afghans who are in harm’s way.”
Wilson told Newsline that as of several weeks ago, the Denver resettlement agency had been preparing to assist “quite a few people” who were in the late stages of the SIV application process and being evacuated from Afghanistan to complete processing.
Thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, refugee admissions hit an all-time low of 11,800 in 2020 and had not rebounded by August of the current fiscal year — with just 6,250 people admitted through July 31. The U.S. admitted an additional 4,180 special immigrant visa holders, who are counted separately from refugees in national data, from October 2020 through July 2021.
Around half of all refugees and special immigrant visa holders who arrived in Colorado from October 2020 through July 2021 were people originally from Afghanistan, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center that’s operated by the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
Colorado accepted 113 Afghan SIV holders from Oct. 1 through July 31, the data show. In July alone, 42 of those people arrived in the state.
Another four Afghans — who were approved as refugees outside the SIV program — arrived in Colorado in May, the data show.
On Aug. 2, the U.S. State Department also announced the Afghan Priority 2 visa program for Afghan nationals who are not eligible for SIVs. U.S. government agencies, U.S.-based non-governmental organizations and U.S.-based media organizations can refer Afghans who worked for them to the P-2 program if they meet certain criteria. Data on the number of P-2 admissions is not yet available.
Criticism from both parties
Political opponents seized the opportunity to lambast President Joe Biden, a Democrat, for what they called a bungled withdrawal of forces.
“The security and humanitarian disaster unfolding in Afghanistan is far worse than the Fall of Saigon,” U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, said in a written statement Monday. He referred to the 1975 capture of South Vietnam’s capital by the communist People’s Army of Vietnam.
“The military equipment and infrastructure seized by the Taliban while Americans and our allies remain in harm’s way will have dire and far-reaching consequences for decades,” Lamborn continued.
Notably, Republican President Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor, had also called for an end to the expensive and bloody war in Afghanistan. Public support for the war, which cost thousands of American lives and billions of dollars, had been waning for some time.
Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, and reduced troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by the end of his time in office.
In April of this year, Biden announced that troop withdrawal would be complete by Sept. 11. The process began May 1 under his leadership.
But a month after the U.S. evacuated Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, the Taliban began to take control of provincial capitals. On Sunday, Afghanistan’s capital fell to Taliban forces, and the government collapsed as President Asraf Ghani fled the country. American troops who remained in Afghanistan rushed to evacuate thousands of people from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
“We are witnessing a historic failure of intelligence and planning by the Administration, Pentagon, and intelligence community,” Lamborn declared in his statement. “The Administration’s precipitous withdrawal has been a complete failure and has thrown the country into disarray.”
Biden defended his Afghanistan strategy during a Monday news conference.
“We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, with clear goals,” Biden said. “Get those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, and make sure al-Qaida could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. We severely degraded al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.”
The situation had evolved far beyond that, Biden said, and it was important to prevent future deaths of American soldiers. He added that the U.S. had spent more than a trillion dollars in Afghanistan, and had “trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong,” which ultimately fell to the Taliban.
During his own Monday press conference, Crow said there would be time later for policy debates, and that the U.S. must focus on saving as many lives as possible.
The Democrat, an Army combat veteran, also thanked his fellow veterans and military service members.
“I want to make something very clear: Your service, your sacrifice, was honorable,” Crow said. “You stood up and used your right hand, and you served your country when you were called to do so. And you should be proud of that.”
State Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat and Army veteran, spoke with Newsline in mid-July about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. He warned that Taliban rule would mean women getting “stoned and beaten for wearing the wrong color, exposing certain parts of their skin.”
“The Biden administration is (messing) this up,” Ortiz, who uses a wheelchair due to injuries sustained during a deployment to Afghanistan, said at the time. He added that a troop withdrawal under Trump wouldn’t have been any better.
“For someone that sacrificed half of their body — for someone that lost friends in that fight in Afghanistan — it’s heartbreaking, it’s upsetting, it’s maddening to see,” Ortiz said.
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