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As the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan enters its final week, Texans in Congress face a mixture of despair and optimism as they fight to rescue people still trying to get out and welcome Afghan newcomers to the United States
In Kabul, fears turned into tragedy on Thursday when at least 13 US officials were killed in two terrorist attacks near the site of a massive airlift. Estimates of the total number of deaths and wounded varied widely, stretching as high as 40 killed and 120 wounded.
Twelve time zones away, El Paso’s Fort Bliss was a scene of relief and exhaustion as approximately 1,200 Afghan refugees began a new life in the United States. Texans in Congress were central to the ongoing process of helping more people get out, including friends and family members of Texans.
“Our hearts and minds are with what’s going on in Kabul right now, and so I’m very sensitive to that,” U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, said in a Thursday interview with The Texas Tribune. “It is important to talk about … the long-term commitment that we all have to this effort, because it does not end at Kabul Airport.”
Because of Fort Bliss and her award to the House Armed Services Committee, Escobar is one of the Texas House members most involved in the evacuation effort. In this role, she was one of the first members of Congress to visit refugee facilities.
“The part of the installation where all the families are being held is like a small town and it’s obviously only going to grow,” she added. “When I was there yesterday, there were about 1,200 guests, but they obviously expected more flights, and those flights are likely to start landing with more frequency.”
She said Fort Bliss officials expect 10,000 refugees to eventually arrive there.
Another Texan at the center of the drama is the American rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Unlike Escobar, he is outwardly furious at the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation.
“We will leave Americans, we will leave interpreters, with the hope that we can keep the airport open,” he told the Tribune on Wednesday before the Kabul attacks. “The hope is that the Taliban, if you trust them, will allow flights … to keep getting Americans out of there …. the problem with that is that you have to trust them.”
McCaul has been one of the most vocal Republican critics of the administration in recent weeks. He is also the recipient of high-level intelligence briefings.
In a statement Thursday, McCaul called the attacks “horrific” and “a scathing reminder of the selfless victims of our soldiers and women.”
McCaul also on Wednesday called President Joe Biden’s deadline to remove troops before Aug. 31 “arbitrary.” Although the mission has five days left, McCaul said there are already logistical signs that it is winding down.
He added that the State Department is now a “clearinghouse and repository” where members of Congress and their staff continue to search thousands of requests, including Texans trying to get family, interpreters and friends out of Afghanistan.
But Escobar pointed to Thursday’s Kabul terrorist attack as evidence of the danger of getting longer and of the need for U.S. troops to leave Biden’s deadline of August 31.
“I no longer think we should stay longer,” she said. “I think now it changes from the minute, and probably in the second, and the faster we can speed this up, the better.”
She urged Biden to present a plan for what will happen on the ground in Afghanistan after this deadline.
McCaul confirmed Wednesday that there are Texans on the ground in Afghanistan trying to leave the country. Referring to security concerns, he declined to elaborate on their circumstances.
“Every office now runs pretty much their own operation through [the State Department] and [the Defense Department] to get these people out, ”he said.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday that about 1,500 Americans are still in Afghanistan, but he stressed that it is a “dynamic” number subject to change.
Escobar praised the administration for the airlift that has moved tens of thousands of people out of the Afghan capital.
“I think the administration deserves enormous credit for the speed with which they have been able to evacuate people from Afghanistan,” she said. “We have to give credit where to be credited.”
Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain announced Wednesday night that about 100,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan. Yet an estimated 250,000 Afghans who worked with Americans and qualified for visas have not yet escaped the country, according to a New York Times report on Wednesday.
McCaul said the airlift began too late.
“It should have started months ago, and they did not, and now we see the results. And the results will honestly be that they will be executed, “he said of Afghan allies on the ground.” We are leaving them and there is a death sentence on their backs, especially the interpreters. And it is very sad when we promised them, with a moral obligation, that we would protect them, and we did not. ”
He also said the United States would pay a diplomatic price for the desperate situation.
“It really hurts our position in the world,” he added.
Even in the midst of the misery in Afghanistan, Escobar painted an encouraging picture of Afghans arriving at Fort Bliss in her district. She was one of the first members of Congress to observe the reception of exhausted Afghan men, women and children at military facilities on Wednesday night.
She praised the military’s sympathy for the newcomers and noted that some of the service members at Fort Bliss were building a football goal for the Afghan children at the base.
“I was so impressed with everything Fort Bliss has been able to accomplish in such a short time,” she said.
“Guests” is the term Escobar, service members and other support staff use to describe the Afghan arrivals.
She also assured her constituents that the Afghans coming to the United States are being tested for and vaccinated against COVID-19 and that they are also subject to thorough security investigations.
“All of these people, I think it’s important to share with the public, have been thoroughly researched,” she said. “[Military] management repeatedly told me, ‘We know exactly who these people are.’
Both Escobar and McCaul expect congressional investigations into the withdrawal.
“We want to keep a close eye on how this happened, how did we get here, how could we have taken it so wrong?” That’s what McCaul said at a news conference Wednesday. “Secretary Blinken is going to testify, we think, in a week or two. We’re trying to put the date on it. “
Escobar said she was prepared to raise questions with the Biden administration, but accused the Trump administration of setting in motion some of the circumstances that put a bottleneck in the emigration. She also expressed frustration over criticisms made by members of Congress without considering their own responsibility for the deterioration of Afghanistan’s military and political situation.
“As members of Congress, we all need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves where there may have been levels of oversight, not just over the last few months, but over the last 20 years,” she said.
McCaul and Escobar both urged Americans to embrace the Afghan refugees. But Escobar warned that those who come forward to help the refugees may have to wait.
“The infrastructure for donations does not exist yet, not at the base.… They need some time to build that infrastructure. They do not have storage capacity and they do not have the staff to work through it,” she said, adding that the US The Red Cross is at the forefront of relief efforts.
McCaul reminded Texans that many Afghans, especially the interpreters, put their lives at risk for the Americans over the past 20 years and were the most valuable members of many U.S. military units.
“For those who question it, I think it’s un-American,” he said. “It is not our value system. So I would hope that we would open our arms to them. ”
Bethany Irvine contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, impartial news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial support does not play a role in Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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