WASHINGTON – The window for a possible evacuation of Afghans who worked for the U.S. could close soon as a withdrawal of U.S. forces is likely to be completed within weeks, two defense officials told NBC News.
The Pentagon is preparing contingency plans for a possible evacuation of Afghans who have worked with American forces, but President Joe Biden has still given orders to carry them out. U.S. forces are expected to withdraw as early as mid-July, the two officials said.
Rep. Jason Crow, D.-Colo., An outspoken proponent of evacuating Afghan partners, said, “We don’t have much time to do this. And we’re about 50 percent done with the withdrawal.”
“After this is completed, our ability to safely evacuate people will be severely limited,” Crow told NBC News.
The State Department told NBC News it was planning the possibility for Afghans to flee to surrounding countries and had spoken to those countries that they were ready to take them in.
In April, Biden promised to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11th. The planned withdrawal has gained momentum in the past few weeks, with the withdrawal of personnel and equipment now halfway, according to the US Central Command.
By Wednesday, US commanders had handed over six facilities to Afghan government forces. American troops will soon be leaving their main airfield at Bagram, which would likely serve as a hub for any evacuation. The US military left a large air base in southern Afghanistan in Kandahar last month.
With the 9/11 deadline approaching, members of Congress, veterans groups and refugee lawyers are pushing for an emergency evacuation of thousands of Afghan partners who have applied for US visas.
Rep. Crow is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing for action to protect Afghans who have worked for US troops and diplomats.
“We have no doubt that if we don’t protect them, many of them will be killed. That’s at stake here,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Secretary Brian McKeon briefed Crow and other lawmakers on Tuesday of the plight of the Afghan partners.
A defense official said the military had made contingency plans to evacuate thousands of Afghans who helped the coalition, but stressed that U.S. Central Command had no orders to carry them out. The official said they could implement the plans very quickly if asked to do so.
When asked about contingency plans, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in an email, “Although there is currently no order to evacuate Afghans, we have this capability and the (Defense) Secretary is confident we can carry it out if necessary can. “
Advocates of an urgent evacuation argue that organizing such an operation would be more dangerous, expensive and politically complicated after the withdrawal of US troops. Drones and intelligence resources will be gone and the security situation at air force bases will be unsafe.
The United States has not made any arrangements with neighboring countries in Central Asia that would allow them to take off planes directly over the border. Instead, US forces would have to rely on more distant bases in the Persian Gulf, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Without US or NATO troops and planes on the ground, deploying planes to take in vulnerable Afghans would require securing at least one airfield, which could be daunting given the Taliban’s steady advance against the Afghan government in recent months. Additionally, under the U.S.-Taliban 2020 agreement negotiated by Trump officials, the United States has committed to a permanent withdrawal of American troops, and the insurgents would likely view an evacuation operation as a clear violation of the agreement.
When the US evacuated more than 6,000 Iraqi Kurds from northern Iraq in 1996 in the face of an offensive by Saddam Hussein’s regime, US forces were there, according to Chris Purdy, project manager at Veterans for American Ideals.
“Right now we are fast approaching the point where there will be little security in Afghanistan to support a withdrawal,” Purdy said. “Every day that goes by means that we are forced to make more difficult decisions. We don’t have a year or six months to plan every detail, we have weeks and days. “
Lawmakers asked Foreign Minister Antony Blinken at a hearing on Monday whether the government was ready to evacuate Afghan partners. Blinken did not answer directly, but said: “We are examining every option.”
Approximately 18,000 Afghans have applied for visas under the Special Immigrant Visa Program, established in 2009 for those who have worked for the US government in Afghanistan. But the program is years behind.
The State Department says it will hire 50 additional staff and take other steps to expedite SIV application processing.
“Although we continue to focus on the peace process, we are also committed to helping Afghans who served the US government at great personal risk to themselves and their families, and we are processing qualified SIV applications as quickly as possible,” a State Department Spokesman said.
US officials are also asking neighboring governments to be ready to accept refugees from Afghanistan if the country goes into chaos, the spokesman said.
“We call on neighboring countries to keep their borders open to those seeking international protection and we will continue to provide humanitarian aid to existing and new Afghan refugees and host communities,” the spokesman said.
“Our goal is to ensure that Afghans can seek international protection if necessary.”
The spokesman said that “extensive planning has been underway for many months for a possible increase in the number of Afghans displaced for various reasons,” including drought, the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon briefed lawmakers on Tuesday of the effort.
Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the senior Republican member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Secretary of State Blinken at the hearing on Monday that there was not enough time to process visa applications before U.S. forces depart by September 11 .
“That means these people have a direct hit and a target on their backs from the moment we leave the country,” said McCaul.
Crow said it was up to President Biden whether or not the evacuation would take place.
“It is obviously very clear that this order has to come from the White House. This policy change has to come from the White House,” he said.