As the longest war in American history comes to a chaotic end, Hawaii’s congressional delegation is calling for the Biden administration to help desperate Afghans who fear death and persecution at the hands of the Taliban.
“Decisions made by previous and current administrations have put the United States in a calamitous situation and swift, decisive decisions must be made immediately,” Hawaii Rep. Kai Kahele said in a press release Sunday as the situation deteriorated.
“I urge the administration to airlift our Afghan partners, their families and those who applied for Special Immigrant Visas to the United States Pacific Territory of Guam as was suggested two months ago.”
Kahele is an Afghan War veteran who deployed to the country multiple times. Several lawmakers and veterans groups have for months been urging President Joe Biden’s administration to adopt the “Guam Option” — something the U.S. government has done in the past.
The military temporarily housed 111,919 South Vietnamese refugees on Guam as they were processed for resettlement after the 1975 fall of Saigon. In 1996, the military airlifted 6,493 Kurdish refugees from Iraq to Guam’s Andersen Airbase during Operation Pacific Haven.
Veterans and refugee advocates warned that if the withdrawal wasn’t underway before the U.S. removed its troops from the country, the process would be more dangerous and chaotic.
Biden administration officials downplayed those concerns and hastened the withdrawal of U.S. troops and base closures. The administration announced on July 7 the withdrawal was mostly complete except for troops guarding the embassy.
But over the weekend Biden ordered the evacuation of personnel from the embassy and sent 6,000 troops back to Afghanistan to secure the airport — more troops than were in the country when he took office.
In a public address about the deteriorating situation on Monday, Biden stressed that his first priority is the evacuation of American diplomats, aid workers and other citizens. He defended his administration’s handling of the situation.
“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier,” Biden said. He also said that Afghan government officials discouraged him from planning an airlift because it might create a crisis in confidence.
Many Afghans have spent years trying to get out of the country. The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program — which was aimed at providing visas for Afghans who worked with U.S. forces or diplomats — is backlogged, with more than 18,000 applicants when the withdrawal began, many of them Afghans who first applied years ago.
The U.S. State Department’s system for managing the visas crashed over the weekend as desperate Afghans checked on their applications and many more applied.
“We cannot let politics or bureaucratic rules stop us from accepting as many Afghan interpreters and others into the USA as possible,” Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted Monday. “There will be a time for analysis and recriminations, but people are in danger right now and we must help.”
“A humanitarian crisis is unfolding before our eyes in Afghanistan,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a press release Monday. “We must prioritize the evacuation of American citizens and our Afghan partners and their families who supported us during this 20-year war.
“Afghan women and girls who will be targeted by the Taliban also urgently need our support. We should take whatever action is necessary to protect them.”
Military officials said they are looking at the potential of using other military bases as well as airlifting refugees to other Muslim-majority countries. It’s not clear whether Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base or other military installations in the Pacific are being considered. Spokespeople for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command did not respond to requests for comment.
“Now is not the time to deliberate courses of action,” Kahele said. “We must act swiftly.”
Elected leaders in Guam, including Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, said that they would welcome the refugees — but stressed they wanted to ensure plans weren’t rushed to allow for proper Covid-19 mitigation measures and safe housing. Guam is currently in its storm season. Wherever the refugees go, there’s now little time for careful planning.
“I support the very difficult core decision of Presidents Trump and Biden to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan,” Hawaii Rep. Ed Case said in an email. “Clearly the consequences, which were always going to be profound, have been much more immediate and severe than projected.
“Now is not the time to debate all that, as we have to face the immediate reality on the ground. We need to bring them out now and take care of them wherever in our country and the world we can, however we can, even if we are not ready for that volume in that time frame.”
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Kevin Knodell reported on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.