DENVER – Congressman Jason Crow, an Aurora Democrat, said the Biden administration could have done more to prevent the situation currently unfolding in Afghanistan and called on the U.S. to do all it can to keep the Kabul airport open and get as many Afghans who helped coalition troops over the past 20 years out of the country as possible.
“I’m not going to mince words. We didn’t need to be in this position. We didn’t need to be seeing the scenes we’re seeing at the Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s,” said Crow, a former Army Ranger who served two tours in Afghanistan and another in Iraq.
In a news conference that featured Democratic and Republican members of Congress Crow has worked with on Special Immigrant Visas and other issues related to Afghanistan, as well as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NGO representatives, the group pressed the United States to fully secure the airport in Kabul to be sure all Americans and anyone who aided coalition troops can get out of the country in the coming days and weeks on military, commercial and charter flights.
“We are here today with a very simple message, and that is keep Kabul airport open. Send in the combat power and the troops that are necessary to secure that airport and keep it open as long as we possibly can,” Crow said. “We have the means; we have the ability. We are the United States of America. We can do this. We can get thousands and thousands of people out. But we must have the will. That is our simple message.”
The second-term congressman urged his fellow veterans to remember their sacrifice for their country was honorable and that they should be proud of their service. And he said that there would be time moving forward to reflect on the missteps in Afghanistan over the past 20 years and in recent months.
“There’s going to be time to have a debate, but the missteps and mistakes of the past 20 years, there have been many,” he said, adding that Congress and the nation would work to address them. “And certainly, the mistakes of the last couple weeks and days as this scene unfolds at the Kabul airport.”
Crow said when President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in April that he supported the decision and looked forward to hearing more about the administration’s withdrawal plans.
A week later, he and some of the bipartisan House members who spoke Monday sent their first letter to Biden pushing the administration to be sure Afghans who helped Americans and their allies work to speed up the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and U.S. Refugee Admissions programs to help those Afghans get safely out of the country before troops left.
By mid-May, Crow again pressed the issue in a House Armed Services Committee hearing, discussing a man who had helped troops in Afghanistan who applied for a SIV in 2010 but was denied repeatedly before he was shot and killed by the Taliban in January.
He also introduced a bill that would waive the requirement for Afghan SIV applicants to undergo a medical examination in country.
In early June, Crow met with the deputy secretary of the State Department for a briefing on updates to expediting the application process.
On June 17, Crow and others in his bipartisan working group introduced the ALLIES Act, a bill aimed at expediting the SIV process for Afghans, increasing the cap by 8,000 visas and removing certain requirements, and continued pressing the issue in the week after.
The House passed the first bill, the HOPE for Afghan SIVs Act of 2021, waiving the medical exam requirement, at the end of June. On July 8, Crow said Biden had “committed to an evacuation of Afghan interpreters and other partners who are now at risk and promised them they would have a home here in the United States if they choose.”
And on July 22, the House voted 407-16 to pass the ALLIES Act to increase the SIV allotment, remove extra paperwork requirements and more. The Biden administration issued a statement saying the bill “supports the President’s goal of ensuring the United States meets our commitments to those who served with us in Afghanistan” and that the changes in the bill “are critical to expediting the application process and helping us get more Afghan partners through the process and into safety.”
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., was one of the 16 House members who voted against the bill. In a statement, she told Denver7 she voted against it because it did not go through the standard legislative process with a hearing, markup, or expert witness testimony.”
The Senate has not taken it up since receiving it July 22, however.
As American troops have started to withdraw over the past several months, along with some SIV recipients already approved, the Taliban have rapidly moved across the country. Over the weekend, they quickly amassed in the nation’s capital of Kabul.
The U.S. hastily evacuated its embassy and moved to the Kabul airport, as have thousands of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban and the country, which most of the nation’s leaders abandoned in recent days. Seven people were killed Monday at the airport, including several who fell off military planes there to evacuate people.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former Green Beret, called the scenes from Afghanistan “devastating” for the nation’s credibility and resolve.
“The State Department cannot be in the position of giving people a death sentence over typos and the wrong forms,” he said, urging the government to get approved Afghans out and worry about paperwork later. “The very documentation the people need to prove they stood with us is documentation that will get them killed if found at their home or a Taliban checkpoint.”
“Any other conclusion other than the one that keeps our allies safe will be a dark and shameful moment in this nation’s history,” added Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., saying he did not believe there would be “any disagreement” within Congress about doing as much as possible to help hold the Kabul airport “and make sure we don’t end this mission early.”
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., compared the current situation and the U.S. response to two other famous evacuations that went very differently.
“The question here is whether this is going to be Saigon or Dunkirk,” he said.
Albright, like the others, said there was both a moral and national security imperative to get the Afghan allies out of the country after 20 years of their assistance.
Crow said his bipartisan group was clear the evacuations should have started months ago, which would have led to a safer and more methodical situation than what is unfolding this week.
“We think that was a missed opportunity. I have extreme concerns over the late nature in which this evacuation was started,” Crow said. “Our call today here is there is still an opportunity to do the right thing.”
Addressing the nation about an hour after Crow and the bipartisan group spoke, President Biden said he stood “squarely behind my decision” to get U.S. troops out of the country on the same timeline established under the Trump administration after agreements reached in 2020.
Biden has already authorized 6,000 troops to assist in the evacuation. He said 2,000 Afghans eligible for SIVs have already been moved and that the administration was working to get more out and to expand refugee access.
He said part of the reason that the evacuation did not begin sooner was some Afghans did not want to leave earlier and were “still hopeful for the country.” He added that the Afghan government “discouraged” an earlier withdrawal because it could trigger a “crisis of confidence.”
Biden said he has made clear to the Taliban that if they attack American personnel or disrupt the evacuation process that the “response will be swift and forceful.”
“I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face but I don’t regret my decision,” he went on to add.
The Colorado Department of Human Services said Monday afternoon that families from Afghanistan have already started arriving to Colorado, but a spokesperson said they could not release specific numbers or data. So far in 2021, about 55% of refugee arrivals have come from Afghanistan. During Fiscal Year 2020, 205 of 422 new arrivals to Colorado (new refugees and special immigrant visa holders) came from Afghanistan.
Crow and the others who spoke alongside him Monday said the time to act was now.
“We have time, still, to do the right thing,” Crow said. “But we have to do it today.”