How lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation

Source: The Hill | September 15, 2021 | Rebecca Beitsch and Laura Kelly

Congressional offices went to extraordinary measures to help in the evacuation effort of Americans and vulnerable Afghans stuck in Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s takeover of the country last month.

While Kabul’s quick fall shocked the world, Senate and House lawmakers soon found their offices overwhelmed with desperate pleas from Afghan Americans, military veterans of the war in Afghanistan, workers of nongovernmental organizations and others scrambling for contacts to save people stranded in the country suddenly under the rule of a terrorist organization.

The Hill spoke to nearly 20 lawmakers and staffers in both parties about what their offices went through over the fraught two weeks between when Kabul first fell, on Aug. 15, and the last U.S. military flight, just before midnight Aug. 30.

The mission was personal for many of them: Some are veterans, or relatives of veterans, of the 20-year war, and some had even worked with local interpreters whom they considered key to their survival.

Lawmakers and staffers also said they felt obligated to answer requests from constituents as well as those beyond their districts looking for help. Many offices found success in helping people evacuate, but those victories are dampened by the sheer numbers of people left behind.

While the administration evacuated about 125,000 people from Afghanistan last month, independent analysts estimate that more than 100,000 people who fall into a priority for evacuation were left behind.

“It was tough, honestly. I was in communication with probably five to 10 people on the ground in Kabul and that was just emotionally frustrating and demoralizing,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), whose district includes one of the largest Afghan American communities in the U.S., said in an interview with The Hill.

“My staff, they were in contact with almost 1,000 times that, so for them it was even worse. We all felt helpless more times than we felt like we were successful,” he said. “But success stories propelled us forward, and I kept telling my staff that soon we will be able to meet many of the people we helped face-to-face and that itself will be fulfilling.”

But others said their work on evacuations is still weighing on them.

“There’s a bit of … let’s say guilt. We had a big role to play. We did save a lot of lives. But it was very emotionally stressful — when you’re making life and death decisions and pleading with people on the ground at the airport itself to let these people in,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill.

“Because you know if they get in, they will escape. And if they don’t get in, they will die,” he said.


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