U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jared Tomberlin, left, and an interpreter pull security on top of a mountain ridge during a reconnaissance mission in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2009.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jared Tomberlin, left, and an interpreter pull security on top of a mountain ridge during a reconnaissance mission in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2009. U.S. Army / Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini

Biden’s Hair Should Be ‘On Fire’ Over Afghan Translators Being Left Behind, Senator Says

Sen. Angus King proposed solutions, such as sending Afghans to NATO allies temporarily, but said there’s not enough time for Congress to act.

There’s not enough time for Congress to help translators who worked with U.S. troops get out of Afghanistan, so it’s up to the administration to take action now, Sen. Angus King said Tuesday.

“I want the White House’s hair on fire,” the Maine Independent told reporters. “I want them to do everything within their power to solve this problem….I’m not being critical of the administration, but I think it’s time to step up their game.” 

King also proposed a few solutions of his own, including temporarily moving Afghans to NATO nations while their visas are processed and deploying troops to the State Department to speed up approvals.

U.S. Central Command officials said Tuesday that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is more than half done. In March, President Joe Biden announced all troops would be out of the country by Sept. 11, but now America and NATO allies are expected to be fully out of Afghanistan as soon as July.  

Though the military is moving planeloads of equipment out of the country, many Afghan translators who risked their lives to work alongside troops are being left behind. Once the withdrawal is complete, advocates worry the 18,000 Afghans already in the processing pipeline will be killed by the Taliban. 

Lawmakers in both parties have been vocal about the need to protect these Afghans. A bipartisan group of four senators introduced legislation last week to boost the number of special immigrant visas available and to revise the eligibility criteria for the program. 

But with just 88 days at most until the withdrawal is complete, there’s not enough time for Congress to send a bill to Biden’s desk, King said. 

“Much of what’s needed could be done by the administration,” he said. “It can’t be business as usual.” 

The military is working on a plan to move Afghans out of the country, even though it has received no direction from the White House to move forward on it. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tasked the head of U.S. Central Command to come up with options to protect Afghan interpreters, including the possibility of evacuating them this month. 

Advocates have said flying the interpreters and their families to Guam immediately, where their immigration application can be safely processed, is the best option, though it will now take more than four flights per day to get everyone out by Sept. 11, and more than 16 flights per day to get everyone out by July 4, according to the Association of Wartime Allies. 

Another option would be asking NATO allies who also fought in Afghanistan whether they have a territory where they would be willing to temporarily house the translators, said King, a member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Some countries are already taking steps to protect their translators. Britain announced last month that it will expedite the move of its Afghan interpreters to ensure they are safe after the withdrawal. 

But many other NATO allies are still wrestling with what to do with their own translators. Both the Netherlands and Germany have agreed that Afghans who worked with the military should be protected, but the process to do so has been plagued by delays, Human Rights Watch reported. Canada is not planning to move the Afghans who worked for the country. 

King said he has not discussed temporarily moving Afghans who worked with the U.S. military to NATO allies’ sovereign land with the president, and said he expects it was not brought up at the summit in Brussels that just concluded. 

Some advocates argue a mass evacuation is the only option because there is not enough time to safely process visas while the translators remain in Afghanistan. But King also proposed sending Defense Department staff to the State Department to more quickly get through the enormous backlog of paperwork from interpreters who have already applied for the special immigrant visa program, which was established by the Afghan Allies Protection Act in 2009. It takes an average of 900 days to process each application, and with less than 90 days left until the withdrawal is complete, “clearly there’s a mismatch,” King said. 

“We send military assets when there’s a natural event of some kind [such as] a hurricane. We sent troops to Africa to help with Ebola. Let’s get some of these well-trained capable people to assist,” he said. 

The coronavirus pandemic is making the problem even worse. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced Sunday that it was suspending visa processing operations because of rising COVID-19 cases in the country.