Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The first U.S. stop for the nearly 2,000 Afghan interpreters and other refugees evacuated so far amid the collapse of the Afghan government has been central Virginia’s Fort Lee military base.
Tapped for its East Coast location and its ability to quickly ramp up to serve as a temporary host installation, the Army base near Petersburg has been receiving Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas since late last month.
Two other bases will soon be joining Fort Lee in processing the incoming Afghan evacuees. Department of Defense officials said Monday that they will also use Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy and Fort Bliss in Texas — which could allow for evacuating as many as 22,000 individuals to the U.S.
At Fort Lee and soon at other sites, officials have been attempting to speed up the final steps of an excruciatingly slow visa process for providing a legal path to safety for individuals who worked with U.S. forces and personnel during the 20 years of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, security guards and fixers for the United States during the war have been stuck in limbo as they await answers on their visa applications, and have faced threats to their lives and those of their families.
The initial arrivals had already completed their security vetting, but still needed to undergo a medical screening and other administrative requirements.
Social services agencies have been ramping up to assist with the influx of refugees. Many of those arriving are expected to be resettled in the Washington, D.C., area, according to the Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, which has resettlement sites in Fairfax, Va., Dale City, Va., and Hyattsville, Md.
Virginia officials from both parties also have shown support for the evacuation efforts.
We must ultimately grapple with the failures that led to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, but today, in this moment, we must keep our focus on taking every possible measure to evacuate American citizens and our Afghan partners who fought bravely beside us for two decades.
— Rep. Elaine Luria (@RepElaineLuria) August 16, 2021
U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Lee, said in a statement Monday that his office has been “coordinating with the Biden administration, the State Department, and the Department of Defense to ensure these processes continue smoothly and our facilities remain ready for any additional needs.”
Virginia House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert called on Gov. Ralph Northam to “put the full weight of state government” behind an effort to support the interpreters and other refugees at Fort Lee. “I call on the Governor, Terry McAuliffe, and anyone else with the ability to reach President Biden to encourage him to not only take responsibility for this disaster, but also to lay out plans to ensure that all Americans and our allies are evacuated safely. This failure need not be total and complete. It is never too late to do the right thing,” Gilbert said.
In a statement, Northam said he had met some of the refugees last week.
“Many of these Afghan citizens — our allies — bravely risked their lives to provide invaluable support for many years to our efforts as interpreters and support staff, and we have a moral obligation to help them,” Hogan said in a statement, in which he also blasted the U.S. withdrawn from that country as “rushed and irresponsible.”
Amid a criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal and the sudden collapse of Afghan security forces in the face of the Taliban, there has been a flood of bipartisan support for aiding the Afghan nationals who assisted the U.S.
Rep. Jason Crow, (D-Colo.), and a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rep. Tom Malinowski, (D-N.J.), led a letter over the weekend with several dozen House members from both parties, urging the immediate evacuation of U.S. citizens and those eligible for special visas, as well as others at extreme risk.
“The safety of U.S. diplomats and military personnel must be our first priority. But we must also evacuate Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas,” they wrote. “All public and private resources must now be mobilized to save not just those eligible for SIVs but as many other vulnerable Afghans as possible.”
Several Virginia lawmakers voiced frustration with the speed at which Taliban fighters swiftly took control of the country.
“At this moment, our top priorities must be the safety of American diplomats and other citizens in Afghanistan, and the extraction of Afghans who are at greatest risk, including those who bravely fought alongside our forces since 2001,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Intelligence officials have anticipated for years that in the absence of the U.S. military the Taliban would continue to make gains in Afghanistan. That is exactly what has happened as the Afghan National Security Forces proved unable or unwilling to defend against Taliban advances in Kabul and across the country. As the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I hope to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces. We owe those answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much.”
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Montross, called the collapse of the Afghan government, “one of the greatest foreign policy failures in recent American history.”
And U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, said the chaotic scenes coming out of Kabul, including of hundreds of Afghans chasing and clinging to a U.S. military plane as it took off, “heartbreaking.”
There will be much to review, determine, & understand in the coming days & years, & as a nation, we must pursue that work.
But in this moment, my heart breaks for Afghanistan, its people, the promise of change we believed possible, & those who gave everything to that promise.2/2
— Abigail Spanberger (@SpanbergerVA07) August 15, 2021
U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, also called for a Congressional investigation.
“The president owes the country an explanation as to the failure to ensure peace and the safety of those who aided the war effort.”
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