US Congress advances bill to expedite visas for Afghan military advisers

Legislation comes after Biden administration announced plan to relocate Afghans amid the US withdrawal

epa09227140 An Afghan man shows a US flag as he visits a junk yard to buy items which were discarded by the US and NATO forces, at a yard in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, 25 May 2021. As the US and NATO forces withdraw, they destroyed most of the equipment under their use leaving behind decades of war, selling the scrap for millions of dollars to those willing to buy it.  EPA/M. SADIQ
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Congress on Tuesday advanced legislation to expedite special immigrant visas (SIVs) for the 18,000 Afghans who assisted the American military during its longest ever war, as the September deadline for a full US pull out from Afghanistan looms large.

The House of Representatives passed the Honouring Our Promises Through Expedition for Afghan SIVs Act as part of a broader package of legislation by a vote of 366-46.

The legislation, introduced by Democrat Jason Crow of Colorado, would allow the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to jointly waive a requirement for Afghan interpreters, advisers and support staff to the US military to undergo a medical examination before receiving a visa.

It also requires both departments to establish procedures that would require the visa recipients to receive a medical examination “to the greatest extent practicable” within 30 days of entering the US.

“These visas are part of America’s commitment to interpreters and many others who proved crucial to protecting the safety of Americans and advancing our objectives in Afghanistan,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement before the vote. “We owe them a debt of gratitude and their lives are at risk as US forces withdraw.

“We must act to ensure visas can be processed as quickly as possible as we work on additional steps to help these applicants. This bill is an important first step, but more must be done.”

Last week, the Joe Biden administration announced a plan to remove some of the Afghan military advisers — along with 56,000 of their family members — from Afghanistan before the September 11 deadline for the full withdrawal of US forces.

Under the plan, the Biden administration will pull out a certain number of the pending visa recipients and relocate them to a third country before their entry into the US. But details such as the number of evacuees and which country they will temporarily reside in remain unclear.

The Biden administration revealed the initiative after a large bipartisan group in Congress dialled up the heat on the White House to enact the Pentagon’s removal plan.

At a press conference, members of Congress said that the removal would become more difficult as US forces continued to leave and as the Taliban continued to make gains in the country, putting the Afghan military advisers at considerable risk of retaliation.

But key members are still pushing the administration for more details on its plan to pull the Afghans out of the country.

Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted in a letter he sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday that he still has “significant concern” about the advisers' safety.

He asked Mr Blinken a series of 12 questions pushing for specifics on the plan.

“The United States has a moral obligation to these Afghans and their families who face persecution and threats to their lives because of their support for Americans in Afghanistan,” Mr Menendez wrote.

Updated: June 29, 2021, 8:55 PM