Washington, DC – Afghan-American activist Halema Wali says she receives dozens of texts daily from people trying to flee Afghanistan.
Her cousin, whose father worked with the US, and his family were unable to get on an evacuation flight from the capital Kabul this month after two failed attempts and a fruitless 36-hour wait with no food or water at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Now, Wali’s relatives are living between safe houses in fear of Taliban repression, the community activist said, as calls are growing for the Biden administration to do more to help vulnerable Afghans who remain in the country after the last US troops left on Monday.
“While President Biden triumphs in withdrawing from one of the United States’ longest wars, it leaves behind … US citizens, legal permanent residents, visa holders and at-risk members of Afghan civil society,” Wali said during a virtual news conference on Tuesday.
Wali, the co-founder of the Afghans For A Better Tomorrow Campaign, added that the US has a moral responsibility to the people of Afghanistan after the 20-year war followed by a “messy and irresponsible” withdrawal.
“President Biden was elected on a values-based platform, and that needs to be extended at this moment to the mess he created in Afghanistan now; millions of lives are at stake,” she said.
During the same news conference, Lida Azim, co-founder of Afghan Diaspora For Equality and Progress, laid out a list of demands for the Biden administration, including ending US drone attacks in Afghanistan, taking in refugees, and delivering humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.
On Sunday, a US drone attack that Washington said targeted fighters from Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate, killed 10 Afghan civilians, including several children, according to family members.
ISKP had claimed responsibility for an attack near the airport last week that killed at least 175 people.
“We’re not interested in the failed war on terror policies of the past 20 years,” Azim said.
President Joe Biden and his top aides have lauded the evacuation operation, describing it as the largest in history and stressing that the chaos that accompanied it was inevitable.
The withdrawal began on August 14, a day before the Taliban seize control of Kabul following a blistering offensive in advance of an August 31 US military withdrawal deadline set by Biden. The Taliban takeover came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Afghan security forces collapsed.
US troops remained in control of Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) until Monday. According to the State Department, Washington and its allies airlifted 123,000 people – American citizens, third-country nationals and Afghan allies – out of the country.
Biden has repeatedly defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by Monday, even amid mounting criticism from US allies and lawmakers in Washington who described chaotic scenes at Kabul airport as a failure for the administration.
Bilal Askaryar, an Afghan-American activist who leads the #WelcomeWithDignity campaign at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the death of Afghan civilians on Sunday is the direct result of a “mismanaged” withdrawal.
“We in Afghan civil society in the Diaspora and others have been saying for years, if not decades, that any withdrawal needs to be responsibly managed,” Askaryar said. “What we’re seeing now in Afghanistan is a humanitarian crisis that is compounded by the way the United States has left in a haphazard manner.”
On Tuesday, the Afghan-American activists said the crisis could have been handled better, starting with streamlining visas in the early stages of withdrawal.
Both Azim and Wali said the US military should have expanded the security perimeter around the airport to ensure better and safer access to the site, while Azim also said the State Department could have bypassed some of the bureaucratic requirements to streamline visa processing.
“They could have had a better withdrawal, to say the least,” she said. “They could have expanded the perimeter around the airport to provide more security … They could have done a lot better.”