WASHINGTON – Weeks after their dramatic escape from Kabul, tens of thousands of Afghans hoping to be resettled in the United States remain on military bases across the country and abroad as medical and security checks slow the process.
A small but worrisome measles outbreak has contributed to the delays, causing evacuation flights to halt as federal officials scramble to contain cases and vaccinate new arrivals against disease and other illnesses, including the coronavirus .
As of September 14, approximately 64,000 evacuees from Afghanistan had arrived in the United States. The vast majority were in danger under the Taliban after the United States withdrew from the country last month. Nearly 49,000 people live on eight national military bases, awaiting relocation to the United States, according to an internal federal document obtained by The New York Times. Around 18,000 are on bases abroad, mainly in Germany. Some go away in a few weeks, but most stay longer.
The projections, which involve an array of federal agencies, follow a condensed and frenzied evacuation effort last month shortly before the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. About 100 Americans who want to leave and an unknown number of vulnerable Afghans remain in the country.
Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, defended the Biden administration’s evacuation operation during Congressional testimony hours this week, which included calls from critical Republican officials for his resignation and accusations that the he administration had not adequately planned for the collapse of the Afghan government against the Taliban. .
Mr Blinken said there was no deadline to get the locals out and that “in the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated in safe place”.
As Afghan evacuees escaped the Taliban, their lives remain in limbo, with children restless and little to do on bases across the United States, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where more than 12,700 people were hosted last week, and Fort Bliss in Texas, which received more than 9,700.
“We will be here a month or more,” said Milad Darwesh, who arrived at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey on Saturday after traveling for days to reach the United States. There are nearly 8,000 evacuees at the base.
Mr Darwesh said he and his family narrowly escaped Kabul during a grueling journey with the Taliban at their heels to the airport gates. They spent four days in Doha, Qatar, along with thousands of other evacuees, with little water to drink or wash. He and his family were then transported to an aircraft hangar at a base in Italy before finally making their way to Fort Dix.
“It’s nice here,” said Mr. Darwesh, a former military translator who has been waiting two years for his visa to be processed. “We now have our own room. “
Afghanistan under the Taliban
With the departure of the US military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. Across the country, concern for the future is widespread.
Zainullah Zaki, who is traveling with his family, landed in Qatar on August 18 and traveled to Germany, where he has been told repeatedly that he could be on a flight “in a few days”.
“Due to measles, all flights are on hold for now,” John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday of those still in military installations overseas. “So no one is going anywhere. But our goal has been to try to move them as quickly as possible. We know that these men and women and their families want to take charge of their lives.
Seven cases of measles have been found among Afghans at national military bases. Very few evacuees have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an internal government update on September 10. Afghan nationals settling in the United States must undergo a series of vaccinations, which are administered at military bases in the United States and will soon be administered abroad as well.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Many evacuees have arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and state hospitals have complained to the federal government of being overwhelmed by Afghans in need of medical attention. Healthcare providers have asked for financial help, and the two Virginia senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, sent a letter to officials in the Biden administration calling for better coordination.
Virginia ambulances and hospitals, already busy with the regular needs of patients and dealing with the added stress of Covid, have done a remarkable job of partnering with the federal agencies managing this treatment effort and ensuring that the needs Emergency health needs of our Afghan partners are satisfied, “Katie Stuntz, a spokesperson for Mr. Kaine, said. “Healthcare providers deserve reimbursement for this work, and Senator Kaine is working with all stakeholders to make sure this happens.”
Refugee groups rushed for weeks to prepare to welcome large numbers of Afghan refugees, but so far have seen only a small number of people ready for resettlement.
“In the past few weeks, we have served over 100 people,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, managing director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency that has branches in 22 states. “Some come with little more than a backpack. We know the importance of an orderly system that treats and prepares these new Afghan arrivals, helping them make informed decisions about where they ultimately wish to resettle. “
Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, said Wednesday that the administration was trying to move evacuees out of military bases “as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
“We would like to see them resettled in the communities,” said Price. “So it’s not in our best interests, it’s not in their best interests that they reside on a US military base or any other official facility longer than necessary, and I think you’ll see that we are able to to administer these vital steps with great efficiency.
The US military supported the Afghans at the bases by raising funds and delivering items such as prenatal vitamins, nutritional supplements and clothing. Many nonprofits, including the Armed Services YMCA and the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, have also helped, but the distribution of supplies has been slow due to understaffing.
Myriam Jordan contributed to Los Angeles reporting, and Michael crowley from Washington.