Guam's governor recently told US President Joe Biden in a letter that the territory is ready to host Afghans who worked as interpreters or somehow helped US operations over the past 20 years.
With US and NATO forces facing a September 11 deadline to leave Afghanistan, many urge the Biden administration to evacuate thousands of Afghans, who worked as interpreters or otherwise helped US military operations in the country in the past two decades.
The US evacuated thousands of South Vietnamese who supported the American mission and were at risk under the communist government in the chaotic, final hours of the Vietnam War.
Despite unusual bipartisan support in Congress, the administration hasn't agreed to such a move, declining to publicly support something that could undermine security in the country as it unwinds a war that started after the 9/11 attacks.
“We have a moral obligation to protect our brave allies who put their lives on the line for us, and we’ve been working for months to engage the administration and make sure there’s a plan, with few concrete results,” Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan said during a House hearing last week.
Lawmakers have urged the administration to consider temporarily relocating Afghans who worked for American or NATO forces to a safe overseas location while their US visas are processed.
Some have suggested Guam, a US territory that served a similar purpose after the Vietnam War.
Just learned that our Kabul Embassy is locked down w/staff confined to quarters due to worsening COVID outbreak, resulting in greater SIV delays for Afghan interpreters. Enough! @POTUS, get the Afghans who risked their lives for us to Guam! We cannot leave them behind to die. https://t.co/ZvHqV9zao4— Rep. Peter Meijer (@RepMeijer) June 18, 2021
'A delicate and complicated balance'
Guam's governor recently wrote to US President Joe Biden to say the territory was ready to help if needed.
The Biden administration for now is focusing on accelerating a special visa program for Afghans who helped US operations and pouring resources into relieving the backlog.
“We are processing and getting people out at a record pace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.
“We are working with Congress right now to streamline some of the requirements that slow this process down and we’re doing the kind of extensive planning for potential evacuation, should that become necessary.”
Members of Congress were expected to raise the issue on Friday, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani comes to Washington to meet with Biden and lawmakers.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned lawmakers in May that “the departure of all educated Afghans" would "signal panic" and hurt the morale of the country's security forces.
“This is a delicate, complicated balance that we have to keep," Khalilzad said.
Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado recently introduced legislation that would nearly double the number of visas available this year, to 8,000, and ease eligibility requirements.
But he said congressional action will not be quick enough or sufficient.
Even if the legislation passed immediately, the number of visas would fall far short of the estimated 18,000 Afghans waiting to be processed.
That figure does not include their spouses and children, who would bring the total to about 70,000 people.
And the average wait is more than three years.
The process also has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, which led the US embassy in Afghanistan to suspend visa interviews.
READ MORE: A tale of two Talibans
Many Afghans fear for their lives
In a statement this month, the Taliban vowed not to attack those who worked for Western interests, urging Afghans to remain at home and warning their ranks against revenge killings.
Still, many Afghans are desperate for a visa, fearing violence not only from the Taliban but heavily armed warlords allied with the US and seeing now as their last chance to leave Afghanistan.
The American withdrawal began May 1, when the number of US troops was between 2,500 and 3,500, and could be completed by July 4.
Some 7,000 NATO forces are set to leave by September 11.
More than 300 interpreters have been killed in Afghanistan since 2016, according to No One Left Behind, an organization that advocates on their behalf.
Pentagon leaders told lawmakers on Wednesday that they are prepared to carry out an evacuation if ordered, though they also have sought to downplay concerns that history will repeat itself.
“I don’t see Saigon 1975 in Afghanistan," Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told lawmakers.