Afghan people sit inside a U S military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan.

Afghan people sit inside a U S military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. SHAKIB RAHMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Why Was the Administration So Slow to Evacuate US Allies in Afghanistan?

“We have been screaming from the rooftops that we need to get these allies out,” one leader of a U.S.-based resettlement organization said.

The Afghans were not ready to leave.

That was how President Joe Biden, in his address to the nation on Monday, tried to explain why his administration had not acted sooner, and faster, to evacuate America’s allies from Afghanistan ahead of the Taliban’s rapid march to Kabul. Many of the local partners who aided the U.S. military during its 20-year war—interpreters, activists, civil servants, and others—were “still hopeful for their country,” Biden said. He made no mention of another possible reason for the U.S. delay—a darker explanation whispered by Democratic members of Congress, aid workers, and even some administration officials in recent days: Was it politics? Did the fear of criticism from Republicans cause the president to reject an influx of refugees who are now at grave risk?

All Krish O’Mara Vignarajah knows is that Biden’s explanation rang false. Vignarajah, who runs a Baltimore-based resettlement agency called the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told me she’s been inundated since the spring with pleas from America’s Afghan allies to help them escape. “We have been screaming from the rooftops that we need to get these allies out,” Vignarajah said. “The undeniable truth is that we had both the means and the time to save those in danger, and yet we’ve neglected to act in any meaningful way.”

Eskinder Negash, the former director of refugee resettlement in the Obama administration who is now the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told me that Biden’s statement was “inconsistent” with what his group was hearing and seeing. “They’re pleading. They want to get out as soon as possible,” Negash said. The delayed evacuation has led to scenes of chaos and desperation at the airport in Kabul, reminiscent of the last-minute rush to leave Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, in 1975. “This is not Saigon,” Vignarajah told me. “This is worse than Saigon.”

The image of the final military helicopter taking off from the U.S. embassy is now infamous, but before and after South Vietnam fell, the U.S. managed to help 135,000 Vietnamese civilians flee to safety. By comparison, the Biden administration says it has relocated just 2,000 Afghan allies to the United States. As many as 80,000 Afghans are still in the pipeline of the Special Immigrant Visa program, Vignarajah told me, because the law allows qualified applicants to bring immediate family members with them. How many of them will be able to get out is unclear.

As of Monday afternoon, the U.S. military had taken over the Kabul airport, and Pentagon officials say they can evacuate as many as 9,000 people a day from Afghanistan. But although thousands have flooded into the airport, thousands more are now torn between making a risky journey to Kabul and hiding from the Taliban in their home, Vignarajah said. Last month, a longtime Afghan interpreter who worked for the U.S. was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint on his way to Kabul, dragged from his car, and beheaded on the spot, CNN reported. My colleague George Packer has reported on another would-be Afghan refugee who was murdered in retaliation for his work for the U.S. “The heartbreaking truth is that the Taliban knows who some of them are, and they will have to fend for themselves if the U.S. does not get them out,” Vignarajah said. In a statement, a White House official emphasized the backlog of more than 17,000 applications inherited from the Trump administration and said it had conducted a “massive and complex interagency cross-governmental effort” to accelerate the processing of visas.

Calls for the U.S. to evacuate its Afghan allies began immediately after Biden announced plans for a swift military withdrawal back in April. Congress acted last month to help speed the notoriously slow application process and make more Afghans eligible for resettlement. Yet aid agencies and lawmakers alike were dumbfounded that the administration did not act with more urgency. A Democratic congressional aide working on resettlement, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me the White House never indicated that many Afghans were not ready to leave. The most charitable explanation I heard came from Negash, who said the administration “was genuinely surprised” at how fast Afghanistan fell. “It was not just an excuse,” he said. “I don’t think the administration expected this kind of takeover.”

Privately, however, multiple people who have spoken with government officials over the past several months told me they suspected politics played a role in the halting pace of evacuations. That shouldn’t be surprising. Biden’s predecessor rose to power by vilifying immigrants, and immigration remains a flash point of every modern presidency. From the moment Biden took office, Republicans criticized him for allowing asylum seekers who crossed the southern border from Mexico to remain in the U.S. while they awaited the adjudication of their cases. Though he ran on reversing the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants and refugees, Biden has hesitated to reverse some of his predecessor’s policies, most notably when he delayed for several months in raising the cap on refugee admissions that Trump had lowered. Already, prominent right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, as well as former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, have warned against accepting thousands of refugees from Afghanistan. On Monday night, Carlson, who hosts the most widely watched cable-news program in the country, told his viewers, “First we invade, and then we’re invaded.”

Yet despite the howls from Trump loyalists, officials who work to resettle refugees say Afghan allies enjoy much broader bipartisan support than other endangered communities have in recent years, including migrants who have fled Central America and Syria’s civil war, specifically because they aided the U.S. war effort and because the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is partly the cause of their plight. In many cases, they’ve also already been vetted by the military or U.S. intelligence agencies because of their work. Even Trump initially called for helping Afghans left behind, before backing away once his supporters turned against them. “It’s a moral imperative. It’s a national-security imperative,” Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, a Democrat and an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me. “And we have to send the message to the world that the American handshake matters.”

In the House, senior Republicans have joined Crow’s push to speed resettlements from Afghanistan. Several Republican governors, including the conservative Brian Kemp of Georgia, have offered to take in refugees. “We’re getting just an incredible amount of support, to be honest with you,” Negash told me. “I have never seen this before.” Offers to help have come pouring in. Negash said that as we were speaking on the phone, he received an email from Hyatt Hotels’ global director asking if the company could assist with refugees.

The biggest question mark in the refugee debate might be Biden himself. The president has, over his long career, repeatedly scoffed at the debt the U.S. supposedly owes to foreigners who risk their lives to help Americans in wartime, and at the notion that the U.S. should expend much effort to rescue them. I asked Crow, who has pushed the administration harder than any other Democrat, whether he believed Biden was truly behind the effort to save the Afghan allies.

“I’m not a mind reader,” he told me. “I don’t purport to know what the president of the United States or anybody else for that matter is thinking at any given moment.”

He quickly added a note that served as a vote of confidence in the president—and an extra bit of pressure to do right by the men and women trying to flee the Taliban. “I know President Biden to be a man of compassion, a man of heart, a man of integrity,” Crow said.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.