Top Intel Senators urge Biden to move faster on Afghans in peril

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The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday urging him to more swiftly help Afghans who assisted the U.S. government during the 20-year war — before it’s too late.

“Given the increasingly precarious security situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s direct targeting of Afghan partners to the United States, we ask that you pursue a set of options to keep these Afghans safe, including approving Special Immigrant Visas [SIVs], evacuations to a third country, and/or priority admission under the U.S. Refugee Admissions program,” wrote Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the panel’s chair, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), the vice chair.

“With thousands in the pipeline,” they continued, it could take years for all applicants and their families to be processed via specialized visas. That “does not align with the pace of withdrawal and the rapid deterioration in security” the lawmakers wrote.

A source familiar with the letter said committee members recently received a classified briefing on the deteriorating state of the war, deepening Warner and Rubio’s concerns about the Afghans and their families waiting to leave Afghanistan. As the Taliban is now in control of over 50 percent of territory in Afghanistan, by some estimates, the panel’s top senators feel time is running out to ensure the safety of those who helped the U.S.

A high-level delegation, led by White House Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, is currently in Uzbekistan partly to discuss sending applicants there while they await visas. An Uzbek official told POLITICO that hosting SIV applicants “could be considered” by their country, but “it depends on the situation,” meaning the state of the peace process and the intra-Afghan war.

The official said Uzbekistan had yet to receive a formal request to host Afghan SIVs from Kabul, and that they “didn’t know” if a formal request had yet come in from Washington.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, John Kirby, said the administration was considering hosting Afghan SIV hopefuls at U.S. military bases at home and abroad, though neither he nor White House officials offered specifics. However, the White House did say that flights to take former Afghan translators and interpreters out of Afghanistan would begin by the end of the month in a plan known as “Operation Allies Refuge.”

Anger in Congress is growing while the administration scrambles to find a solution. To say the administration is acting “late is an understatement,” said a senior Senate staffer, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. “We’ve known all along that a plan to get SIVs to safety had to be concurrent to getting our troops out. The second US forces are gone, it’s open season on SIVs and their families.”

Others have broader worries about Biden's unconditional withdrawal. “I’m concerned that we’re not doing enough to help the Afghan government survive, which is the best way to protect the overwhelming majority of people threatened by the Taliban,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) told POLITICO. “We’re turning an effective multinational mission into one in which our remaining troops are alone and at greater risk, while pulling the rug out from under the Afghans.”

The Warner-Rubio letter also notes that providing for the safety of America’s Afghan partners is important to U.S. credibility. “Abandoning these individuals, who have provided essential support to our intelligence community in Afghanistan, would send a damaging message to our allies and potential partners about the United States’ reliability and trustworthiness,” the two senators wrote. “It would also be a stain on our national conscience.”

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