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Democratic senator calls on Biden to appoint Afghanistan ‘evacuation czar’


In a letter addressed to Biden on Tuesday, Blumenthal said he had “serious concerns about ongoing obstacles to evacuate at-risk Afghans,” urging the administration to expand its efforts “and articulate a clear, effective strategy to expedite the evacuation” of these Afghans and the US citizens remaining in the country.

“Numerous Afghans who worked for the American government, served alongside our troops, or dedicated their lives to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, remain in the country at significant imminent risk,” the Connecticut Democrat wrote.

“Some have already been detained, tortured, and murdered,” he continued.

Blumenthal’s letter comes the same day as the release of a report from Human Rights Watch detailing the Taliban’s execution or forced disappearance of 47 former members of the Afghan National Security Forces in the past several months.

Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Blumenthal noted that “time is not on our side — these families simply don’t have the luxury of waiting much longer.”

“Their situation is increasingly dire and urgent. And we’ve become increasingly frustrated,” he said.

‘Evacuation czar’

Among the recommendations outlined in his letter, Blumenthal urged the President to tap an “‘evacuation czar’ with clear presidential direction and authority to implement” an evacuation strategy and coordinate the interagency response for evacuation and resettlement. Those efforts are overseen by a number of federal agencies, including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

In mid-October, the State Department tapped veteran diplomat Beth Jones to lead the agency’s Afghanistan relocation and resettlement efforts, and a State Department official told CNN on Tuesday that since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31, the department has “directly assisted in the departure of 470 US citizens and 417 Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) from Afghanistan, in addition to their immediate family members.”

“We are actively facilitating the departure of Afghans to whom we hold special commitments because of their affiliation with the US government, specifically our locally engaged staff and holders of passports with physical SIVs,” the official said, referring to special immigrant visas. “Of the physical SIV holders in Afghanistan, we’ve directly helped more than half depart the country. As we’ve said before, we will be relentless in this effort as we stand by our Afghan allies.”

A source familiar with the matter said that almost 600 holders of special immigrant visas have departed Afghanistan, 300 of whom did so with US government assistance.

In September, a senior State Department official said that “a majority” of Afghans who had aided Americans during the war in Afghanistan had been left behind in the military evacuation. While the department cannot give an exact number of Afghan allies left in the country, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month that there are almost 30,000 Afghans in the special immigrant visa application process.

Blumenthal told CNN on Tuesday that he envisions the “evacuation czar” going beyond Jones’ role and reporting directly to Biden. He said such a person should have the “the stature, the reputation, the talent and ability” of someone who could hold a Cabinet-level position, comparing the role to that held by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, a former secretary of state.

Blumenthal, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the White House has “not really substantively commented” on his proposal for an evacuation czar, and he spoke to “a lack of clarity on policy” from the administration on evacuations.

Charter flights

The Connecticut Democrat expressed particular frustration about such a lack of clarity on charter flights, telling CNN, “I don’t mean to be overly harsh, but the charter flights are the only game in town and the State Department is doing nothing to get them off the ground. They seem almost antagonistic to them.”

In early September, Blumenthal lambasted the administration over its handling of charter flights that were grounded in northern Afghanistan, saying in a blistering statement that he had “been deeply frustrated, even furious, at our government’s delay and inaction.”

In his letter Tuesday, Blumenthal noted that “humanitarian charter flights independently organized and funded by non-profit organizations can expedite the evacuation process parallel to U.S. government efforts,” but said several of these flights had been denied permission to land in Qatar “because some on their manifests do not fit certain narrowly defined categories established by the State Department.”

The State Department official told CNN on Tuesday that they “have been evaluating requests for assistance on a case-by-case basis to support privately organized charter flights,” noting that “there are two important elements to relocating groups and individuals via privately chartered flights — arranging departure and safe passage out of Afghanistan as well as the issue of where these individuals can go temporarily and eventually permanently resettle.”

“There have been significant challenges with some of these privately chartered flights,” the official said. “Without personnel on the ground to ensure the fidelity of the intended manifests, there is no ability to determine whether the passengers aboard the plane would be eligible for relocation or resettlement in the United States.”

“In several instances where private entities have chartered aircraft to transport individuals out of Afghanistan, identity checks on arrival at transit destinations have revealed that many passengers were not eligible for relocation to the United States and, in some cases, that the manifests were not accurate, despite the best efforts of the private organizations supporting these charters,” the official said.

This official said that such a situation “puts the individual travelers at risk with no plan for relocation to the United States; damages the bilateral relationship of the United States with the destination countries; and makes it more difficult for the US government to rely on those partner countries to assist in future relocations out of Afghanistan.”

In mid-November, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with 17 members of the “AfghanEvac Coalition,” which describes itself as “a coalition of private, non-profit, government, and all-volunteer organizations focused on deconflicting communications, effort, and systemic issues across the full enterprise of efforts focused on helping Afghans evacuate and resettle safely, swiftly, and within the bounds of the law.”

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State Department spokesperson Ned Price said following that meeting that they had discussed “our collective efforts to provide support to SIV holders and applicants” and “our efforts to continue to facilitate the departure of these individuals who are at a stage where it is appropriate to do so.”

This story has been updated with comment from a State Department official.

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