State Department: Thousands of U.S. Residents Still Stuck in Afghanistan
The Department Hasn’t Made The Numbers Public, But Angry Lawmakers Are Running Out Of Patience.
The State Department believes as many as 14,000 U.S. legal permanent residents remain in Afghanistan, Foreign Policy has learned, as the agency faces increasing scrutiny from Congress about the status of U.S. citizens and green card holders that are still stranded in the Taliban-controlled country.
The finding, disclosed by a congressional aide familiar with the matter, has been transmitted by the State Department to aides on Capitol Hill in private, but officials demurred on revealing the figure when questioned by Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, insisting the agency doesn’t track the figure.
“Isn’t the operating assumption about 14,000?” Republican Rep. Chris Smith asked Brian McKeon, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, at a hearing on Wednesday, referring to the figure briefed in private.
“We don’t track [legal permanent residents],” McKeon responded. “It’s a good question why we don’t,” he added, suggesting the lack of clarity might be because the State Department does not require Americans and legal permanent residents traveling abroad to report their whereabouts.
The new number sheds light on the extent to which the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan left U.S. citizens, residents, and important Afghan allies in the lurch as a lightning-fast Taliban offensive swept across the country. McKeon revealed 289 U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan as of Tuesday and a further 81 Americans are ready to depart. McKeon added that 140 Americans have departed in the last week.
The U.S. State Department also has to confirm that people still in Afghanistan want to leave and have the right travel documents, McKeon said. The agency has prioritized the evacuation of U.S. citizens ahead of legal permanent residents and green card holders, which Foreign Policy reported last month. The State Department did not clarify the numbers of legal permanent residents who wanted to leave, the congressional aide said.
The State Department insisted it does not have an exact tally of U.S. legal permanent residents (LPRs) in Afghanistan in a statement to Foreign Policy. “We do not have an exact number of LPRs and their immediate family members who have departed or who remain in Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “In this extraordinary situation we are facing in Afghanistan, we have helped LPRs seeking assistance to depart wherever possible.”
Lawmakers have criticized the State Department for being too slow to release specific numbers on how many citizens, legal permanent residents, and Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort remain in the country. Administration officials said the numbers are difficult to track and constantly shifting while infuriated U.S. lawmakers charge the administration is failing in its duty to keep track of the statistics or is keeping the full scope of people left behind under wraps. In the month after the U.S. withdrawal, the State Department repeatedly said there were around 100 U.S. citizens still in the country seeking to leave—until it revealed in recent weeks there were around 400 people.
The rapid U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover left many Afghan allies and their family members in hiding as they awaited news on escape routes out of the country. Some who were left behind were killed by the Taliban or other militant groups in revenge killings while others were safely ferried away to the United States or third countries awaiting U.S. visas. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed frustration at the lack of progress in evacuating U.S. citizens trapped in the Afghan northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“These girls and mothers and families, they’re all in safe houses outside Mazar-i-Sharif, and they can’t get out of the country,” McCaul said. “There are many of them. The only response I’ve gotten is that this is under State Department review.”
McKeon, the State Department official, said spotty safety records of charters flying out of Mazar-i-Sharif had prevented some flights. He also said in testimony that one U.S. citizen had recently been arrested in the Taliban-controlled country, and U.S. officials were unsure of that person’s whereabouts.
The struggle to extract Americans, green card holders, and those who qualify for special immigrant visas has gotten more difficult with the Taliban reasserting power and a humanitarian crisis looming for millions of displaced Afghans. The international community is facing increasing pressure from Afghanistan’s satellite embassies, which don’t answer to the Taliban, to address the country’s growing need for humanitarian relief. This week, the United Nations planned three trips to airlift winterization resources to Kabul ahead of cold weather.
Many Afghans who tried to flee the country were ultimately left behind: A report by Human Rights First found the majority of individuals who applied for special immigrant visas—as many as 18,000 people—were not included in the evacuation this summer. But even those who made it out of Afghanistan and touched down in the United States, around 70,000 people in total, continue to face barriers in spite of new efforts by the State Department to allow private citizens to sponsor Afghans as they craft a new life in the country.
Increasing desperation to get vulnerable Afghans out of the country is reflected in Congress. Questioning from McCaul and other Republicans turned a hearing nominally called to quiz the State Department on management reforms into an impromptu oversight hearing on Afghanistan, which sent Democrats reeling to defend the chaotic drawdown.
“When those on the inside are fleeing, you get a stampede,” said Rep. Brad Sherman of California, the second ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I’ve never seen an orderly stampede. I’ve never seen an administration be able to plan for an orderly stampede.”