U.S. lawmakers called for the thousands of allies in Afghanistan to be evacuated from the war-ravaged country before international troops pull out, fearing they could be “slaughtered by the Taliban.”
However, the top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan on May 18 played down the dangers to those who worked with the Americans and other coalition forces, saying there was no need to create “panic” over the planned withdrawal of international troops later this year as part of an agreement with the Taliban.
In April, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of remaining forces -- about 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops and about 7,000 NATO troops -- by September 11, 2021, after two decades of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon on May 18 said the withdrawal was about 13-20 percent complete and that five facilities had been handed over to the Afghan Defense Ministry, including the massive Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.
The pullout will be a major test for Afghan security forces, with U.S. generals and other officials expressing concerns that it could lead to the collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover by the Taliban.
Many of the estimated 18,000 Afghan interpreters, commandos, and others who worked with U.S. forces have applied for visas to emigrate to the United States -- a process that lawmakers say could take more than two years to complete, possibly subjecting them to revenge attacks by the Taliban.
“It seems all but certain the Taliban will try to overrun the country and return it to a pre-9/11 state after we have withdrawn,” Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a congressional hearing.
The vocal critic of the U.S. withdrawal added that the Taliban would likely deepen ties to terror groups such as Al-Qaeda.
McCaul displayed a message from a U.S. Special Forces soldier that relayed concerns over an Afghan colleague who feared the Taliban would kill him after the Western pullout.
"I'm concerned that his prediction -- many predictions -- will come through and these people will be slaughtered by the Taliban," McCaul said.
McCaul urged that U.S. leaders consider keeping Afghan allies safe by airlifting those with pending visa applications to a nearby third country -- perhaps Bahrain, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates -- for processing.
"None of us want to see one of those individuals that worked with us have their head cut off on the Internet," Republican Representative Brian Mast added.
Democrat Tom Malinowski also expressed fears over the fate of Afghan allies.
"We all hope for peace and we all wish the peacemakers success," he said. "But our policy should be based on a realistic assessment of what might happen rather than magical thinking."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, said the State Department would expedite visas, but he also cautioned against presuming "the inevitability of a worst-case outcome."
"We don't want to signal panic and the departure of all educated Afghans by worst-casing and undermining the morale of the Afghan security forces," Khalilzad said.
“I personally believe that the statements that [Afghan] forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken,” he told lawmakers.
Khalilzad, who recently met with Taliban representatives in Qatar, said such fears are overblown, arguing that the group's leadership has reason not to push for a military victory.
Instead, he argued, the Taliban would pursue a negotiated political settlement that could give the militant group international legitimacy and removal from certain American and United Nations sanctions.
“They say they seek normalcy in terms of relations -- acceptability, removal from sanctions, not to remain a pariah,” Khalilzad said.
The Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996. After the Taliban defied demands by President George W. Bush to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, U.S. forces in October 2001 invaded and drove out the extremist group.
Khalilzad led negotiations on the February 2020 power-sharing deal between the Kabul government and the Taliban.