A dozen Democratic senators are pushing President Joe Biden to create two high-level posts to assist in evacuating eligible Afghans and others who remained in the country after the U.S. withdrew troops Aug. 31.
Senator Maria Cantwell, leader of the initiative, said her office had been contacted by at least 1,800 people. She said they included U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa holders, journalists and contractors who worked at the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
“We know that we still have many people in Afghanistan that are stuck there, and they need the U.S. continuing to help them and support them,” she said Wednesday, after introducing a letter signed by 11 colleagues, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, both of whom sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
The senators have asked Biden to establish those positions in the president’s office and in the State Department.
The United States evacuated 124,000 people from Afghanistan over two weeks in August in what administration officials described as the largest airlift in history.
This week, the State Department said that about 100 U.S. citizens were still waiting to leave Afghanistan but that their evacuation was challenged by the “unpredictability” of the hard-line Taliban government, which took over after the American withdrawal.
“Rescuing Americans is a floor, not a ceiling,” the senators wrote. “A focus on evacuating Americans to the exclusion of others we have promised to get out is unacceptable. Civilian lives are in danger, and the United States’ international reputation is at risk.”
Rabbi Will Berkovitz, who heads the Jewish Family Service of Seattle, joined Cantwell in making the plea.
“I think what we need is … a point person at the White House who sits on the National Security Council. That person needs to oversee this entire effort, because it just needs to be a high-level person of authority who can get things done,” he said via a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon.
VOA asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki about the criticism and requests presented in the letter.
“We agree that there’s more work to be done in Afghanistan, that it’s important and imperative that humanitarian assistance is able to reach the people of Afghanistan,” she said, adding that Biden raised this with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week, and that the U.S. government is working with the government of Qatar on humanitarian assistance flights.
“We do have a range of officials who are working on exactly this, from the State Department and from the White House,” she said. Psaki said that she didn’t know the specifics of the request but that the administration agrees “there’s more work to be done.”
“We have staff. We’re committed to doing exactly that,” she said.
Senate Republicans are pursuing the matter through legislation. On Monday, 22 Republican senators introduced the Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act, which seeks, among other things, to set up a State Department task force to focus on the evacuation of U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders still in Afghanistan.
“We continue to see the grave implications of the Biden Administration’s haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Senator Jim Risch said in a statement. “An unknown number of American citizens and Afghan partners remain abandoned in Afghanistan under threat from the Taliban, we face a renewed terror threat against the United States, and the Taliban wrongly seek recognition at the U.N., even as they suppress the rights of Afghan women and girls.”
Jacob Kurtzer, director and senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the criticism and calls for a plan are valid.
“I think the need for a plan, a specific plan, reflects that this is not something that we can expect to resolve quickly,” he said. “For me, the necessity of a plan is that it’s an indication of the administration’s commitment into the future.”
The Democratic senators also urged the Biden administration to appoint officials who would hold the Taliban accountable on its previous commitments to protect human rights and allow freedom of movement, while also assisting the new Taliban government with humanitarian work and operating an international airport.