• August 19, 2021

What happened in Afghanistan? Why Biden Was Wrong

Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET on August 19, 2021.

The Afghans were unwilling to leave.

This is how President Joe Biden, in his address to the nation on Monday, tried to explain why his administration had not acted earlier and faster to evacuate America’s allies from Afghanistan before the Taliban’s swift march toward Kabul. Many of the local partners who helped the US military during its 20-year war – interpreters, activists, public officials and others – still had “hope for their country,” Biden said. He didn’t mention another possible reason for America’s delay, a darker explanation whispered by Democratic members of Congress, humanitarian workers, and even some administration officials in recent days: Was it political? Did fear of criticism from Republicans cause the president to reject an influx of refugees who are now at serious risk?

All Krish O’Mara Vignarajah knows is that Biden’s explanation sounded bogus. Vignarajah, who runs a Baltimore-based resettlement agency called the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told me that she has been inundated since spring with pleas from America’s Afghan allies to help them escape. “We have been shouting from the rooftops that we need to get these allies out,” Vignarajah said. “The undeniable truth is that we had the means and the time to save those who were in danger, and yet we have forgotten to act meaningfully.”

Eskinder Negash, the former director of refugee resettlement in the Obama administration and now chairman of the US Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, told me that Biden’s statement was “inconsistent” with what his group was hearing and seeing. “They are pleading. They want to get out as soon as possible, ”Negash said. The delayed evacuation has caused scenes of chaos and despair at Kabul airport, reminiscent of the last minute rush to get out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. “This is not Saigon,” Vignarajah told me. “This is worse than Saigon.”

The evacuation of Saigon, 1975

The image of the last military helicopter taking off from the US embassy is now infamous, but before and after the fall of South Vietnam, the US managed to help 135,000 Vietnamese civilians flee to safety. By comparison, the Biden administration says it has relocated just 2,000 Afghan allies to the United States. Up to 80,000 Afghans are still in the process of the special immigrant visa program, Vignarajah told me, because the law allows qualified applicants to bring direct family members with them. It is not clear how many of them will be able to leave.

As of Monday afternoon, the US military had seized the Kabul airport and Pentagon officials say they can evacuate up to 9,000 people a day from Afghanistan. But while thousands have entered the airport, thousands more are now torn between making a risky trip to Kabul and hiding from the Taliban at home, Vignarajah said. Last month, a longtime Afghan interpreter working for the United States was detained at a Taliban checkpoint on his way to Kabul, pulled from his car and beheaded on the spot, CNN reported. My colleague George Packer has reported on another potential Afghan refugee who was killed in retaliation for his work for the US “The heartbreaking truth is that the Taliban know who some of them are and will have to fend for themselves if the US It doesn’t take them out, ”Vignarajah said. In a statement, a White House official emphasized the backlog of more than 17,000 applications inherited from the Trump administration and said it had undertaken a “massive and complex inter-agency intergovernmental effort” to expedite visa processing.

Calls for the US to evacuate its Afghan allies began immediately after Biden announced plans for a swift military withdrawal in April. Congress acted last month to help speed up the notoriously slow application process and make more Afghans eligible for resettlement. However, both aid agencies and legislators were stunned that the administration did not act more urgently. A congressional aide working on resettlement, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that the White House never indicated that many Afghans were not ready to leave. The most charitable explanation I heard came from Negash, who said the administration “was really surprised” at how quickly Afghanistan fell. “It wasn’t just an excuse,” he said. “I don’t think the administration expected this type of acquisition.”

Privately, however, several people who have spoken to government officials in recent months told me that they suspected politics played a role in the halting pace of evacuations. That shouldn’t be surprising. Biden’s predecessor came to power vilifying immigrants, and immigration remains a flashpoint of all modern presidencies. From the moment Biden took office, Republicans criticized him for allowing asylum seekers who crossed the southern border of Mexico to remain in the United States while they awaited adjudication of their cases. Although he ran to reverse the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants and refugees, Biden has been hesitant to reverse some of his predecessor’s policies, especially when delayed for several months in raising the limit on refugee admissions that Trump had lowered. Already prominent right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, as well as former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, have warned against the acceptance of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan. On Monday night, Carlson, who hosts the most-watched cable news show in the country, he told his viewers, “First we invade and then we are invaded.”

Afghan citizens at the Kabul airport.
Crowds wait in Saigon in 1975 (left) and Kabul in 2021.

Yet despite howls from Trump loyalists, officials working to resettle refugees say Afghan allies enjoy much broader bipartisan support than other endangered communities in recent years, including the migrants who have fled the civil war from Central America and Syria, specifically because they helped in the United States war. effort and because the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is partly the cause of their plight. In many cases, they have also been vetted by the US military or intelligence agencies because of their work. Even Trump initially asked to help Afghans left behind, before backing down once his supporters turned on them. “It is a moral imperative. It’s a national security imperative, ”Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a Democrat and Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me. “And we have to send the message to the world that the American handshake is important.”

In the House of Representatives, senior Republicans have joined Crow’s push to speed up resettlements from Afghanistan. Several Republican governors, including the conservative Brian Kemp of Georgia, have offered to host refugees. “To be honest, we are getting an incredible amount of support,” Negash told me. “I’ve never seen this before.” Offers of help have poured in. Negash said that while we were talking on the phone, he received an email from Hyatt Hotels’ global director asking if the company could help with the refugees.

The biggest question mark in the refugee debate might be Biden himself. The president, throughout his long career, has repeatedly scoffed at the debt the United States supposedly owes to foreigners who risk their lives to help Americans in wartime, and the idea that the United States should do many efforts to rescue them. I asked Crow, who has lobbied the administration harder than any other Democrat, if he believed that Biden was really behind the effort to save Afghan allies.

“I am not a mind reader,” he told me. “I don’t pretend to know what the president of the United States or anyone else is thinking at any given moment.”

He quickly added a note that served as a vote of confidence in the president, and a little extra pressure for the men and women trying to flee the Taliban to do the right thing. “I know that President Biden is a compassionate man, a man of heart, a man of integrity,” Crow said.


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