As U.S. forces continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters have taken over dozens of abandoned bases in recent days – raising questions about the fate of 18,000 Afghan interpreters – who risked their lives to work with the U.S. government.
The U.S. military’s top officer told Fox News the American military is ready to evacuate them, but it’s not up to him.
“There are plans being developed very, very rapidly here for not just interpreters, but a lot of other people that have worked with the United States,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, aboard a U.S. military aircraft returning from the Air Force Academy Wednesday. “We have a moral commitment to those that helped us.”
The White House pushed back.
“I can tell you we have no plans for evacuations at this time,” said a National Security Council spokesman. “The State Department is processing [special immigrant visa] applications in Kabul. They are focused on ensuring that the system functions quickly and consistent with U.S. security and other application requirements.”
A spokesman for Gen. Milley later clarified the chairman’s remarks.
“The physical evacuation of Afghans is one option of many being considered and it is not necessarily the primary option to safeguard Afghans at risk,” said Army Col. David Butler. “An evacuation is not imminent.”
The State Department runs the special immigrant visa program to relocate Afghan interpreters. Two years of faithful service are required
“The Taliban doesn’t discriminate. If I work for one year or two years, they’re going to kill me just for working with the Americans,” said James Miervaldis, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, worked for three years to bring his Afghan interpreter to the U.S. He is chairman of the nonprofit No One Left Behind, a veterans group that helps Afghan interpreters resettle in the United States.
No One Left Behind has documented over 300 interpreters and their family members killed since 2014.
The State Department evacuated and repatriated 100,000 Americans from around the world when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Some like Miervaldis wonder if the same effort could be used to get thousands of Afghan interpreters and their families resettled in the United States.
He shared a letter from an Afghan interpreter, who asked not to be identified, talking about the danger he faces: “Taliban never ask if we worked with U.S. army less than two years or more than two years…we request your help to save our lives… This is a very bad situation we are being left behind.”
“The [Department of Defense] has maybe two weeks before they don’t just don’t have the manpower and equipment to do this,” Miervaldis added. “The Taliban’s going to attack the prisons, free all of their prisoners and then wreak havoc. You don’t even need a crystal ball.”
All U.S. forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by early July, well ahead of the Sept. 11 deadline set by President Biden.
“They’re being hunted down right now as we speak. They are reaching out to me, these interpreters, in a panic,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., said earlier this month. Waltz is the first Green Beret elected to Congress, who served multiple tours in Afghanistan.
Twenty U.S. senators led by Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, wrote to President Biden last week asking for more visas to be rapidly issued in order to bring thousands of more interpreters home.
“We are deeply concerned about the fate of these individuals after the departure of U.S. troops. There are already reports of Taliban threats targeting those who helped the U.S. once troops are withdrawn. These threats cannot be ignored,” the letter said.
The ranking member and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote a similar letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken last week.
“The United States has a moral obligation and a national security interest in fulfilling its promises to those who have risked their lives to support our mission,” said Michael McCaul and Gregory Meeks.
“We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection, and if necessary, get them out of the country,” Gen. Milley said.