WASHINGTON — A slow response from the State Department to the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul has stranded thousands of Afghans who have helped the United States and are now clamoring to be evacuated as they await approval. their immigration visas, two US officials said. .
As many as 6,000 people — including former interpreters and cultural and political advisers — stood by to be flown out of Kabul airport late Thursday night or early Friday alone, after a days-long delay in processing visas for Afghans who had worked for the US military or embassy during the 20 Years’ War, the State Department said.
Thousands more are expected to be vetted and evacuated daily after a small influx of consular officers and other diplomats — including former ambassador to Afghanistan John R. Bass — arrived in Kabul on Thursday to speed up visa processing. Diplomats are also being deployed in Qatar and Kuwait, where US military bases will serve as way stations for people arriving from Afghanistan in search of a final destination.
“This is an operation that will proceed as quickly as we can,” Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on Thursday. He said US officials were constantly alerting Afghans who had been allowed to fly, including more than 800 on Wednesday night.
“We hope we can handle even more tomorrow,” said Mr. price. “But in the end, the metric we care about most is how many people we can repatriate here to the United States or take to third countries. That is our goal.”
The US military will only evacuate Afghans who have completed what Mr Price called “a certain stage of the security screening process.” He declined to give details of the process, but another official said security checks continued even as Afghans were taken to safety.
But two other US officials described growing impatience in the Biden administration with the State Department’s inability to process visas more quickly, as thousands of Afghans who had risked their lives to ally with the United States expressed fear. waited outside the gate of the international airport in Kabul.
One of the officials described how challenging it was to make sure those helping the United States made it safely to the airport, along with other Afghans who were also trying to evacuate and the Taliban who were operating checkpoints in the capital.
Officials also echoed refugee advocates accusing the State Department of being caught flat-footed processing the special immigrant visas for Afghans — even though President Biden announced in April that the U.S. military would be leaving before the anniversary of September 11, 2001. attacks that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan.
“There are literally tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans at the gates,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This could have been completely avoided if evacuation had been part of the military withdrawal. This was avoidable and we are now at the eleventh hour.”
“But that said, I think we can make sure this is an evacuation and not something more tragic,” said Mr. Varghese.
By Thursday afternoon, the US military had evacuated 7,000 Americans, Afghans and others since Saturday, officials said. That’s still far less than the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day the military can fly out once the evacuation process is in full swing, Defense Department officials said.
Armed fighter jets flew over Kabul and Hamid Karzai International Airport as part of Thursday’s effort to secure the massive evacuation in what Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said was a “surveillance” mission.
There have been reports of non-U.S. evacuation flights leaving with many empty seats, a sign of the difficulties thousands of people faced as they tried to make their way to the airport. The Pentagon has warned the Taliban not to interfere in the evacuation.
New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski said that even Afghans who had been vetted and told to come to the airport could not get past US troops at the airport gate. He called it “inexcusable” that the State Department and the Pentagon have not coordinated more closely to ensure “that anyone the US government invites is recognized and admitted by people at the gates who know what they’re doing.”
Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under the Obama administration, said most of Thursday dominated the current administration’s attention.
The problem “is within our power to resolve,” said Mr. Malinowski, adding, “It hasn’t gotten any better.”
Major General William Taylor told reporters Thursday that several gates at the airport were now open.
The process of vetting Afghans eligible for the special immigrant visa has been dormant for nearly a year after the State Department shut down many of its covert consular operations when the first wave of the coronavirus forced workers to work from home.
According to the State Department, the visa system had a backlog of 17,000 cases when Mr Biden took office in January. The US embassy in Kabul resumed interviewing Afghans for the visas in February and processed at least 100 people weekly before the pandemic halted the operation again in June.
In mid-July, the Pentagon began an accelerated airlift of Afghans who had worked for the US government. Under that effort, called Operation Allies Refuge, more than 2,000 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul before the Taliban approached the capital last week, forcing the Biden administration to temporarily halt visa processing and focus on ensuring that Americans were able to escape.
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Mr Price said the State Department had also been working to find countries that would take in the evacuated Afghans who had not had time to apply for settlement elsewhere in their haste to leave the country. The governments of Albania, Uganda, Canada, Mexico and Chile had offered to host some people for different periods, he said.
The US government does not charge Afghan refugees for the evacuations. A number of private operations also organize flights from Afghanistan, including to countries with less stringent documentation requirements, although some evacuees ask to pay for seats.
Seats on some private flights in the days following the withdrawal from the US were $100,000 each or more, according to one person familiar with the fares.
People involved in the private flights said they had worked with the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House to get proper permissions to fly to and from the airport in Kabul, but their efforts had been hampered by disorganization from the United States government, as well as difficulties in transporting evacuees to the airport and obtaining insurance for aircraft.
An attempt to arrange flights from Kabul to a neighboring country was organized by former Representative Scott Taylor and Washington fixer Robert Stryk, whose lobbying firm was awarded $160,000 to represent the Afghan government for a few months in 2017.
For a first flight, dozens of Afghan passengers paid as much as $12,500 per seat. But since then, the operation has been able to cut prices to about what commercial airlines charged before the US military withdrawal, said Mr. Taylor, who served with the Navy SEALs before representing Virginia as a Republican in Congress.
The operation now includes members of its former campaign staff, as well as political donors who have offered to pay some upfront fees and a Virginia-based logistics company called Regulus Global that works for the US government in global hot spots.
“We now have a command center that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said Mr. Taylor. “We’re just trying to help as many people as possible.”
After Mr Taylor posted on LinkedIn that he was arranging flights, his team began processing thousands of requests from US citizens, Afghans, businesses and academic institutions, he said.
“People are afraid for their lives. When you read some of these messages, it’s really sad,” said Mr. Taylor, who suggested some of the chaos could have been mitigated with better planning by the US government. “This really sucked, man. I’m a soldier and this is crazy for me.”
At least one flight of evacuated people from Afghanistan arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Thursday, with passengers receiving additional processing and coronavirus testing upon landing.
Timothy Young, a spokesman for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said fewer people were expected to arrive “with visas in hand” on flights from Kabul — a sign that the State Department was easing its control restrictions to ease the evacuations. accelerate.
Eileen Sullivan reporting contributed.