| 24 May 2024, Friday |

Biden’s vow to airlift Afghan allies meets ticking clock, risky rescue

President Joe Biden’s commitment to remove thousands more at-risk Afghans who worked for the US government will be met with the harsh reality of a rapidly shrinking window of time, widespread instability in Afghanistan, and huge logistical challenges.

As one US official told Reuters, “too many things have to go exactly right” in order to carry out the plan to deport those on Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). The Pentagon intends to remove up to 22,000 SIV applicants, their families, and other vulnerable individuals.

However, officials and refugee resettlement organizations say that number, while admirable, will be much more difficult to achieve now that the Taliban have taken control of the capital Kabul and most of the nation.

Refugee advocacy groups vehemently contested Biden’s claim in a speech on Monday that many applicants did not want to leave Afghanistan sooner.

Despite pleas from politicians and refugee groups to begin removing at-risk Afghans months earlier, Biden announced his intention to begin evacuating at-risk Afghans in July. Only 2,000 Afghans have been flown to the United States since July.

“It’s a nice goal to have, but realistically it’s going to be a challenge,” the U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of the 22,000-person benchmark.

The hope is to fly out between 5,000 and 9,000 per day when the Pentagon reaches full capacity with 6,000 troops on the ground in Kabul. Only 4,000 troops have reached Kabul so far.

Evacuating that many Afghans would require them to first be able to get to Kabul and then to the airport through a series of Taliban checkpoints, officials said. The U.S. military would need to maintain some semblance of calm at the airport to allow flights to take off and land, and also need the weather to cooperate.

Order has been restored at Kabul airport after five people were killed on Monday as thousands of desperate Afghans thronged the area. The U.S. military temporarily suspended flights to clear the airfield. The evacuation mission is set to end on Aug. 31.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday that the White House had received reports of people being beaten outside the airport even though the Taliban had agreed to allow civilians safe passage.


Kim Staffieri, executive director of the Association of Wartime Allies, said the group’s contacts outside of Kabul are “terrified” and reporting that in some places, “Taliban fighters are going door to door and pulling people out who are not being seen again.”

Jenny Yang, senior vice president at World Relief, a U.S. refugee resettlement agency, said that with the Taliban in control, “it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Afghans to leave.”

Ideally, officials say the White House would have allowed the Pentagon to start evacuating people weeks earlier using military aircraft and moving them to bases in the United States.

Instead, until last week the SIV applicants were slowly flown out through civilian aircraft and only one base in Virginia was tapped to house them.

The State Department did not formally request the use of more military bases in the United States to house the Afghan applicants until Sunday, with the Taliban already in Kabul, another official said.

Resettlement groups have said for months that at least 80,000 SIV applicants and their families need to be evacuated.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters that Biden was concerned about the political impact of large number of Afghan refugees flowing into the United States and preferred they be sent to third countries.

Biden, a Democrat, has faced intense political pressure over immigration from opposition Republicans as arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border have soared to 20-year highs in recent months.

Earlier this year, Biden delayed a decision to raise the cap for refugee admissions due to the political optics, U.S. officials told Reuters at the time.


In his speech on Monday, Biden acknowledged concerns about why Afghans had not been evacuated earlier, but said the Afghan government had discouraged him from doing so.

He also appeared to blame the applicants.

“Some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” Biden said.

The comments stunned officials and refugee groups, who have been working for years to streamline the lengthy process to get Afghan SIV applicants out of Afghanistan.

People have been stuck waiting for visas for years, said Betsy Fisher, director of strategy at International Refugee Assistance Project.

“To me that is extremely, extremely appalling to see that language coming out from the White House,” Fisher said.

Some interpreters and translators for the U.S. government had been killed in the last few months waiting to get out, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“To suggest that Afghans were not desperately seeking refuge here in the U.S. is utterly inconsistent with our experience,” Vignarajah said.

  • Reuters