Congress urges Biden to rescue 18,000 Afghans who helped US military

Bipartisan congressional group accuses president of dragging his heels on helping Afghans move to the US

FILE - In this Friday, April 30, 2021, file photo former Afghan interpreters hold banners during a protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, Afghanistan. With American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, pressure has been mounting for the Biden administration to plan a military evacuation of Afghans who supported U.S. military operations during two decades of war in their country. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib,File)
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The US Congress is accusing President Joe Biden of dragging his feet on enacting a Pentagon plan to help 18,000 Afghans who assisted US forces to leave Afghanistan before the September 11 withdrawal deadline.

"As I understand, the plan has been designed," Mike McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The National on Wednesday.

“It’s just that the president has to execute it and the White House has not made that decision.”

Mr McCaul, who is leading a bipartisan group of House members to push the Biden administration to expeditiously grant special immigrant visas for the Afghans, told The National that he intends to raise the issue in a meeting at the White House on Thursday.

Those voicing support for the issue include staunch progressive Ilhan Omar of Minnesota as well as conservative firebrand Joe Wilson of South Carolina.

Democrat Earl Blumenauer called on Mr Biden to appoint a special immigrant visa adviser to co-ordinate the process.

“We cannot leave them to the tender mercies of the Taliban,” Mr Blumenauer said, while noting that processing for special immigrant visas typically takes about 800 days.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Wednesday that the Pentagon has drawn up a plan to help those Afghans who had aided the US military, to leave the country.

The general said the US military has the capacity to remove interpreters and others who assisted American forces without hindering the withdrawal, but such a move will become more difficult as more US forces leave Afghanistan.

"Time is of the essence," Democrat Jason Crow of Colorado told The National. "We have really no time left and that is why it's important this decision is made very soon.

“Our ability to conduct an evacuation now is different from our ability to conduct an evacuation in September or October or November. As we have a smaller footprint, fewer troops, fewer airbases, it becomes much harder to do.”

Congress and the military fear the Taliban will seek to exact revenge on Afghans who assisted American forces during the two decade-long war, particularly as the group’s fighters steadily gain ground during the American withdrawal.

"It gets harder and harder for those outside Kabul to make it to Kabul to either be evacuated or process their [special immigrant visa]," Mr Crow said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that the Biden administration is working to expedite the special immigrant visas and planning for a potential evacuation.

“These are individuals who have played an incredibly courageous role in helping the United States at various times over the course of our recent history,” Ms Psaki said. “We are processing and getting people out at a record pace.

"We are working with Congress right now to streamline some of the requirements that slow this process and we're doing the kind of extensive planning for a potential evacuation should that become necessary."

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the Afghan government could collapse within six months of US forces departing.

Mr Austin told Congress last week that extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS could regenerate in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the US within two years of the withdrawal.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is scheduled to meet Mr Biden at the White House on Friday.

“Part of their discussion on Friday will certainly be the president reiterating his commitment to work with the government of Afghanistan to continue to provide humanitarian support and over-the-horizon security work that he committed to when he made [the withdrawal] announcement,” Ms Psaki said.