Report

U.S. Officials Rushed to Kabul Airport to Help Evacuation

Thousands of Americans and Afghans are still stranded in what lawmakers are calling a fiasco.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Afghans crowd at the Kabul airport.
Afghans crowd at the airport amid a Taliban takeover of the country as U.S. soldiers stand guard in Kabul on Aug. 16. Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

U.S. President Joe Bidens administration is diverting new personnel and resources to the campaign to safely evacuate thousands of Americans and vulnerable Afghan citizens from Kabul amid mounting anger in Congress over the botched execution of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In Washington, department officials have sent a flurry of urgent internal requests in the past week for volunteers to staff up task forces dealing with the spiraling crisis in Afghanistan, including the need to evacuate thousands of people from the country.

In Kabul, acting U.S. ambassador Ross Wilson and a skeleton crew of U.S. diplomats remain at the airport, secured by the U.S. military, to process the evacuations and engage with the Taliban. John Bass, a senior career diplomat who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2017 to 2020, traveled to Kabul on Tuesday “to lead on logistics coordination and consular efforts,” said Ned Price, State Department spokesperson.

U.S. President Joe Bidens administration is diverting new personnel and resources to the campaign to safely evacuate thousands of Americans and vulnerable Afghan citizens from Kabul amid mounting anger in Congress over the botched execution of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In Washington, department officials have sent a flurry of urgent internal requests in the past week for volunteers to staff up task forces dealing with the spiraling crisis in Afghanistan, including the need to evacuate thousands of people from the country.

In Kabul, acting U.S. ambassador Ross Wilson and a skeleton crew of U.S. diplomats remain at the airport, secured by the U.S. military, to process the evacuations and engage with the Taliban. John Bass, a senior career diplomat who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2017 to 2020, traveled to Kabul on Tuesday “to lead on logistics coordination and consular efforts,” said Ned Price, State Department spokesperson.

“The department is surging resources and Consular Affairs personnel to augment the relocation of U.S. citizens and Afghan special immigrants in Kabul and transit locations,” he said. “We plan to double the number of consular officers on the ground in Kabul by Friday,” though he did not specify numbers.

The frantic rearguard action comes as up to 15,000 U.S. citizens and tens of thousands of other Afghans and their families who helped the U.S. war effort remain trapped in Afghanistan, some possibly unable to get to Kabul.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reacted to the desperate situation with mounting fury at the Biden administration and are demanding answers from top officials regarding how the evacuation was so badly mishandled. They also criticize the convoluted bureaucracy of the visa process for vulnerable Afghans, with a thicket of red tape leaving many marooned in a country now run by the militant group they once risked their lives to help the United States fight.

“It is an unmitigated disaster how they’re doing this,” said one Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They were warned well before all of the scenes we’ve seen in the last [three days] in Kabul that this was going to happen, and it could get worse. That level of hubris and arrogance they brought to the table in all of it was just stunning.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insisted the Biden administration would get all Americans safely out of Afghanistan. “When I was asked about whether we’re going to get all Americans out of Afghanistan I said ‘that’s what we intend to do’ and that’s exactly what well do,” he tweeted.

On Aug. 17, Biden announced he was allocating an additional $500 million of U.S. funds to help relocate Afghan refugees.

Biden has deployed 4,500 troops to Kabul to secure the airport and the number will rise to more than 6,000 in the coming days, according to Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. Taliban officials claim they will allow safe passage for U.S. citizens seeking to leave.

So far, the airport remains secure under U.S. military guard after chaotic scenes of desperate Afghans flooding the tarmac on Monday. But it is unclear whether vulnerable Afghans and U.S. citizens outside Kabul can make it to the airport in the first place.

By Tuesday, the United States had evacuated more than 3,000 people, including U.S. government personnel, and relocated nearly 2,000 Afghans holding special immigrant visas (SIVs) to the United States, Price said.

Some 17,000 Afghans who potentially qualify for these visas and 53,000 members of their families could still be trapped in the country, according to three U.S. officials and congressional aides. As many as half of them could be outside Kabul, said the Senate aide, with no way to safely reach the U.S. airlift.

But the precise number is unclear. The U.S. State Department has not given congressional overseers or the public any indication it knows the total number of potential SIV applicants. “It’s hopefully on a spreadsheet somewhere, but no one knows for a fact,” said another Senate aide speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some Afghans have been waiting for their U.S. visa for up to five years, their applications delayed by a massive visa backlog and bureaucratic red tape. Some interpreters were killed while waiting for their visas.

Their lifeline is now an ad hoc coalition of former officials, lawmakers, their staff, and other policymakers frantically trying to navigate an overwhelmed State Department process to secure visas and evacuations.

In recent days, multiple congressional aides and State Department officials told Foreign Policy they have been flooded with desperate emails, WhatsApp messages, and calls from former colleagues, friends of friends, and other contacts in Afghanistan inquiring about the status of visa applications or alternative ways of leaving the country.

The second Senate aide said at least 25 people had been in contact asking for urgent help. One State Department official said it was difficult to find the right point of contact within a specific department to help a group of former interpreters desperate to evacuate ahead of Taliban reprisals. “I don’t even know if that made a difference,” the official said. “It shouldn’t have taken nearly that long just to get some points of contacts.”

The complex SIV process has left many Afghans in the lurch as scattered reports emerge of Taliban fighters hunting down and killing Afghan government officials, interpreters, and their family members in recent days.

One link on the State Department website for SIVs illustrates the problem. A key requirement for an SIV is documentation from an interpreter’s former supervisor, but many interpreters have said their former supervisors, Pentagon officers, or private contractors are hard to track down. Sometimes, the private contracting company no longer exists. As of Tuesday, one link on the State Department’s SIV page for resettlement options meant to help applicants locate their Defense Department supervisors led to an “Error 404” message, when examined by Foreign Policy. A third Senate aide familiar with the matter said the link had been dead for months.

Foreign Policy informed multiple State Department and White House officials of the problem on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, the link appeared to have been taken off the website entirely, and Foreign Policy was informed that specific system to help SIVs locate former Defense Department supervisors has been closed for some time. It is now unclear how Afghans can access precise information on locating their former supervisors through the SIV webpage; however, the department’s website offers a list of email addresses for SIV applicants to reach out to with questions.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Some members of Congress, including Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and Democratic Rep. Andy Kim, have set up their own email and phone lines to try and help Americans and Afghans reach Kabul’s airport.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the Democratic chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement he invited U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to testify on the situation in Afghanistan “as early as possible.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, including on whether Blinken would accept the invitation to testify.

Other lawmakers said they are focused in the near-term on helping Americans and Afghans but will be demanding answers from the administration soon. “Today, we need to focus on the immediate and vital necessity of evacuating,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. He blamed both Biden and former U.S. President Donald Trump for the current situation.

“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will continue fulfilling its oversight role with a hearing on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, including the Trump administration’s flawed negotiations with Taliban, and the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal,” he said. “The Committee will seek a full accounting for these shortcomings as well as assess why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed so quickly.”

All Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee except Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul sent a letter to Menendez supporting his oversight efforts. “It is vital that the committee conduct a public hearing the first week we are back in session,” the members, led by the top Republican on the committee, Idaho Sen. James Risch, wrote in the letter.

“We need to hear from Secretary Blinken directly, to understand why the State Department was so ill prepared for the contingencies unfolding before us.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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