10,000 Afghans resettled two months after evacuation as questions mount over vetting

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Nearly 10,000 Afghans brought out of their country during the U.S. airlift have been processed, released and resettled into the U.S. over the last two months, with some 53,000 still at military bases getting ready to be discharged.

As the Afghans begin to build their new lives, more concrete details are emerging about who made it out and how they got here, and who got left behind in the largest evacuation airlift in world history.

The number of American citizens who didn’t make it out has soared in recent weeks, as the government says more people are coming forward to ask for help.

In congressional testimony last week, a top Defense Department official revealed there are 216 Americans looking to get out, and another 243 who have alerted the U.S. government they are in Afghanistan but not yet looking to be brought out. That was 76 more people than the administration had said just days earlier, and far more than the 100 or so the State Department had said were there in early September, after the airlift operation ended.

The State Department says the rising number is actually a good sign, because it means people see American successes in getting others out even in the weeks since the Taliban resumed control of the nation.

Republican senators, though, have labeled the situation a “hostage crisis,” and demand President Biden do more to make up for his broken vow not to withdraw troops until every American was out.

A deputy secretary of state told Congress that at the current pace, everyone who wants to get out can be brought out “in the next couple of weeks.”

Even as the number of Americans left behind rises, there are just as many questions swirling about the 76,000 or so Afghans who did make it out on a U.S.-orchestrated flight.

Government officials say about 3,000 are still at “lily pad” sites overseas awaiting more scrutiny or, in a small number of cases, have been deemed too risky to bring to the U.S. and are awaiting relocation elsewhere.

And about 4,000 Afghan evacuees already had legal permanent resident status in the U.S.

That leaves the vast majority who were brought in under Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ parole powers, short-circuiting the usual checks that would have been done overseas.

Of those, nearly half are expected to be eligible for the special visa available to Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort, or their families. The rest will have to seek out some other longer-term legal status.

Some 53,000 Afghans are at military bases in the U.S., spread across eight states, while nearly 10,000 have been released and resettled into communities, government officials said.

The vetting process is also becoming clearer.

A senior Defense Department official told senators last week that evacuees were flown from Afghanistan to “lily pad” sites in other countries where they were fingerprinted and had biographic information taken. That data was then run through systems from the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and Customs and Border Protection to spot any serious criminal record or potential terrorism flags.

Those whose data came back clean were allowed to board planes to the U.S., while those who were flagged in the records check were put through in-person interviews.

That is already a departure from the refugee or special visa process that would have required an in-person interview for any applicant before reaching the U.S., and the deviation has raised concerns among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Biden officials counter that there’s still an in-person inspection at the port of entry, where a CBP officer can recheck databases, ask questions, search belongings and require a more intense secondary inspection.

Indeed, it was CBP officers who flagged two Afghan evacuees who’d been flown to the U.S. despite major felony records and previous deportations.

That they were nabbed at the second check “shows our system is working,” said Emily Horne, spokesperson for the National Security Council.

Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, challenged the administration over the lack of overseas interviews for all Afghans at a hearing last week.

“Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was an absolute disaster that left 13 American service members dead and hundreds of Americans and allies stranded behind enemy lines. Now we’re learning that there are major issues with the vetting of people we did manage to evacuate and bring to America,” Mr. Hawley said in a statement to The Washington Times. “Joe Biden and his administration need to be held accountable for their failures and they must provide answers on their vetting procedures.”

Homeland Security said the vetting is multi-layered and aimed at protecting Americans.

“This process includes intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals reviewing fingerprints, photos, and biographic data for each Afghan national before they are cleared to travel to the United States,” the department said in a statement. “As with other arrivals at U.S. ports of entry, Afghan evacuees undergo a primary inspection when they arrive at a U.S. airport, and a secondary inspection is conducted as the circumstances require.”

Then there are the Afghans who did assist the U.S. war effort who didn’t make it out on evacuation flights and who most lawmakers on Capitol Hill say should be a priority.

Sen. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, said senators were working on more than 16,000 cases of such people around the end of the evacuation, and only about 110 were found to have been successfully evacuated. That suggests thousands still left behind with their lives in danger.

Brian McKeon, deputy secretary of state for management, said he understood the frustration, but said they have to be careful about who they bring out. He pointed to some flights out of Mazar-i-Sharif that were supposed to be carrying a few Americans and some Afghan evacuees.

Without Americans on the ground, it’s difficult to get a manifest for who’s coming. And they’ve had stowaways who reached Qatar, which then creates a new challenge.

“We have an agreement with Qatar. If these planes come, these people are likely coming to the United States. We’re not going to leave them in Qatar,” Mr. McKeon told senators.

Officials declined to speak about the number of Afghans who’ve been deemed too risky to bring to the U.S. and about Afghans who reached here but have since been deemed deportable.

The Biden administration is not removing people back to Afghanistan right now, so officials have said they will try to find third countries to take them.

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