The images of desperation from inside Afghanistan are creating complex new fault lines in that debate as US lawmakers attempt to define the scope of American responsibility for getting vulnerable Afghans out of the country and finding them a place to go. There is an emerging divide within the Republican Party — fueled in part by anti-immigrant rhetoric on Fox News and from Trump loyalists — that is certain to heat up as more Afghans are loaded onto planes seeking permanent homes in the US and other nations.
But some staunch Trump loyalists — and the former President himself — have spent the past week engaging in revisionist history about their own role in Afghanistan’s crisis, including their relentless advocacy for drastic cuts to the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States — a major factor in the current visa processing backlog.
Trump at first seemed sympathetic to at-risk Afghans on Monday, asking why the US military was leaving before civilians “and others who have been good to our country and should be allowed to seek refuge.” But by Wednesday, he issued a statement critical of an image of Afghans leaving the country in US military aircraft: “This plane should have been full of Americans. America First!”
On Saturday night, Trump suggested that some desperate Afghans deserved to be helped by the US, but he did not articulate a clear position on how many should be relocated in the US. The former President went on to boast about how his administration “dramatically reduced refugee admissions and kept radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.”
Many details remain unclear
Amid questions about whether the US will expand its Special Immigrant Visa program, Biden — who will give remarks about the ongoing evacuation again on Sunday afternoon — has been most focused on the immediate crisis of getting Americans citizens and Afghans who helped the US war effort out of Kabul.
When asked about the widely varying estimates of the number of Afghans who will need to be evacuated during a briefing on Friday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US government is still trying to determine the number of people who wish to be relocated and to make contact with those individuals.
“We are going to do as much as we can for as long as we can for as many people as we can,” he said. But Price was reluctant to estimate how many Afghans the US government could assist before Biden’s self-imposed deadline for withdrawal of August 31.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has authorized the use of Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin to provide temporary housing and support for up to 22,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants, their families and “other at-risk individuals,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. Fort Lee Army in Virginia had already begun hosting Afghan citizens as part of “Operation Allies Refuge.”
At least 26,500 people, including Afghans and foreign nationals, have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the Taliban began its advance on Kabul, according to data analyzed by CNN Saturday. That total includes 2,500 US citizens who were among the 17,000 people the US has evacuated since August 14, according to Gen. Hank Taylor, the deputy director of the Joint Staff for Regional Operations, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on Saturday.
But the flood of people desperate to leave the country is continuing, a point underscored by the death of seven Afghan civilians in the crushes of people near the airport in Kabul, according to a spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense.
At-risk Afghans have been flown to Doha, Qatar, which has hosted them while they are processed and prepare for travel to final destinations, and the first flights with evacuees from Afghanistan have arrived at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — which is building out capacity to temporarily accommodate as many as 7,500 people by Sunday evening. The details about where they will be permanently housed have been much harder to come by.
In a statement on Friday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked twelve nations — Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, the UAE, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan — for partnering with the US to help transit Americans and others “through their territories to safety.”
Blinken also said that 13 nations have “made generous offers regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans,” including Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine and Uganda.
But there is still very little clarity about how the coordination will work among those many nations and whether public opinion in the United States could influence Biden and his willingness to accept a greater number of Afghans than originally planned.