Meijer, colleagues urging Biden to evacuate Afghan interpreters: 'Delay is deadly'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — A bipartisan group of House lawmakers are pressuring President Joe Biden to set up an interagency czar to expedite the process of moving out of Afghanistan thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who aided the American military ahead of the U.S. withdrawing its troops.

Among the group is Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, an Army veteran from Grand Rapids Township, who noted that top Pentagon leaders have said they have an evacuation plan ready to execute at the Kabul airport if given the go-ahead by the White House. "Delay is deadly," he said.

"I'm just I'm a little bit baffled at why the Biden administration seems to be dragging their feet on this," said Meijer, who served in Iraq and later worked with humanitarian groups in Afghanistan.

"They just want to move slow and methodical, but slow and methodical gets people killed. We've already had several interpreters who have gotten killed while in this process," he added in an interview.

"There's no excuse for delay. There is no excuse for feed dragging. There's no excuse for continuing to feed into the bureaucratic inertia that has plagued this program for too long."

The urgency expressed by the House lawmakers came ahead of Biden's scheduled Friday meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

A spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the White House did not immediately respond Thursday. 

FILE - In this Friday, April 30, 2021, file photo former Afghan interpreters hold banners during a protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Meijer and his colleagues are frustrated with the State Department's troubled program that offers special immigrant visas to Afghans who helped the U.S. military overseas and which has a backlog of approximately 18,000 Afghans awaiting word on their applications.

The program has long been plagued by processing delays, understaffing and cumbersome interagency approvals. 

An Army veteran from Grand Haven, Gerald Keen, has been trying for years to help his former Afghan interpreter, Rahim, secure one of the visas, which allow Afghans and their immediate family to resettle in the United States.

Keen fears that Rahim, who The Detroit News is not identifying due to safety concerns, will join the growing list of those hunted down and killed by the Taliban or other militant groups as retaliation for working with U.S. forces. He worked for U.S. and coalition forces for 27 months.

"They promised us when we started working with them that 'We’ll bring you guys to the U.S.' — to a safe country. My wife and family, we are not safe here," the interpreter, a father of five, told The Detroit News in an interview last month. 

"If they leave me in Afghanistan, they will kill us. They're not going to leave us alive."

Meijer and his colleagues are urging the U.S. government to raise the cap on special immigrant visas by several thousand. Fewer than 11,000 visas were available at the start of the year, which is short of the 18,000 pending applications.

They also want the State Department to expedite the visa process by waiving some of the non-security requirements needed for approval.

"One of the challenging things to demonstrate that they face clear danger," Meijer said.  "It can be assumed that anybody that we were leaving behind after U.S. forces leave are at grave peril."

Appointing a czar is viewed as necessary to coordinate the multiple agencies involved in the process, including the Departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security, who have been "passing the buck," Meijer said.

Rep. Peter Meijer

A State Department spokesman said last month that the agency is processing SIV applicants "as quickly as we possibly can," noting that it has made process improvements and added resources to the program by boosting staff in Washington to help process applications. 

But State Department officials have told lawmakers it will take until next year to process all the program applications, while the U.S. is entering the final stages of its withdraw now, said Texas U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"We cannot process these visas fast enough before the complete withdrawal, which is why an evacuation plan needs to be and has been planned," McCaul said.

"That needs to be executed by the Commander in Chief, President Biden, to protect them in a place, a safe country, where we just process these visas." 

The administration has said the decision is going through the "interagency process," McCaul said.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told a House panel on Wednesday that he has the plans and capability to conduct an evacuation now, and that it would not interfere with the withdraw of U.S. troops and equipment.

But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted that the risk increases over time, said Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat who is also pressing for the evacuation.

The ability to conduct an evacuation will be much more difficult by fall when the U.S. will have a smaller logistical footprint and fewer troops and air bases, and as the security situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade, Crow said.

"It gets harder and harder for those outside of Kabul to make it to Kabul, either be evacuated and process their SIVs, so time is of the essence," Crow said. "We have really no time left, and that's why it's important this decision is made very soon."

Keen's wife Lynnette said the city where Rahim lives is the only one in its province that has not been overtaken by the Taliban, and that the province between it and Kabul — Lowgar — is also now under Taliban control.

"The only way they can escape to Kabul is through Lowgar, and they will need to be part of the Afghan National Army convoy to have any hope of arriving in Kabul alive," she said. 

"Our greatest fear has been and is to this moment, that whatever decision the U.S. finally makes will be too late for Rahim and his family."

Meijer and others have suggested the Afghans be transferred to a safe third country as a temporary relocation point as their visas are processed. In the Vietnam era, that was Guam, where the United States transported over 100,000 South Vietnamese allies in a last-minute operation.

Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican, said the governor of Guam — a U.S. territory — has indicated he's ready to accept the Afghans. But Waltz noted that Biden, as a senator, he did not support the evacuation of the South Vietnamese in 1975. 

"I hope he corrects those past sins by doing the right thing here," Waltz said. 

Both the the Pentagon and the intelligence community have suggested that al Qaeda will come "roaring back" after the U.S. departs Afghanistan, Waltz said. American troops might end up going back there. 

"And who will they have to work with on the ground? It's not just the interpreters. It's school principals. It's journalists. Twenty-five percent of the Afghan parliament are women," Waltz said.

"These are people who stood with us, shoulder to shoulder, to stand against extremism, and we are abandoning them when that last soldier goes wheels up. These people will have a death sentence," he added. 

"And this administration, President Biden, will have blood on his hands if he does not act now."