Pressure is building on the Biden administration to secure the safety of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and whose lives will likely be at risk when the U.S. withdraws in the coming weeks.
“With only six to eight weeks left before potential full withdrawal, it’s really time for action,” Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, said in a press call Thursday.
A day earlier, she and other former national security officials urged the Biden administration in a letter to “swiftly devise an evacuation strategy” for Afghan nationals and their families ahead of the September withdrawal deadline. Neumann noted that some estimates have the withdrawal done by July.
Afghans employed by the U.S. government can apply for protection in the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa program, but the processing for the program is notoriously slow and more than 18,000 Afghans are currently on the waitlist.
The law requires visa applications to be processed within nine months, but current wait times stretch for years.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been sounding the alarm for weeks. On Tuesday, 33 House lawmakers reintroduced legislation to authorize 4,000 new Afghan Special Immigrant Visas, but they acknowledged the State Department must also take steps to address current issues with the program.
“While our legislation will provide additional life-saving visas, more needs to be done to clear the backlog at the State Department before the United States withdraws,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a statement.
Immigration advocates have pushed for the executive branch to take a more active role in expediting the visa application process.
“This bill is a critical step, but it will not be enough without action from [President Joe Biden],” Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, said in a statement on the bipartisan legislation.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
With only weeks until the U.S. withdrawal deadline — and much of the military presence in Afghanistan already reduced — more drastic actions are being floated as well.
“We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection, and if necessary, get them out of the country, if that’s what they want to do,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday, Defense One reported, speaking about a possible evacuation of Afghan nationals.
In their letter, the former national security officials urged the White House to evacuate the Afghans to a safe location while their applications for resettlement are processed, citing similar efforts after previous conflicts, including the evacuation of Vietnamese refugees to Guam.
Such a move could also aid thousands of Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. or its allies in some capacity but would not qualify for the narrow requirements of the special visa program.
The former officials underscored the national security ramifications if the U.S. does not come to the aid of a longtime ally.
“All over the world, we rely on local populations to support our military and diplomatic missions,” Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, former director of the National Security Council’s Office of Combating Terrorism under President George W. Bush, said during the press call. “Failure to support an ally who supported us for 20 years could have a very severe effect on our ability to carry out our national strategy.”