‘Cut the bureaucratic BS’: Inundated lawmakers call for speeding up Afghanistan evacuations

“We need to stop overthinking this,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. “Cut the bureaucratic BS. Put people on planes, land them at bases and deal with the paperwork later.”

As the situation spun out of control Monday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the administration was looking at two stateside locations to house potentially thousands of at-risk Afghans in the coming days. Biden, after days of silence, was also scheduled to speak on the escalating crisis Monday afternoon.

In the meantime, lawmakers and aides said they feel helpless as they struggle to reach government agencies to try to coordinate evacuations from the war-torn nation, where the Taliban have cut off phone and Internet access. After a tense call between lawmakers and administration officials Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office sent around a State Department email address for members to use as a point of contact for desperate constituents.

But Democratic members and staff said Monday the system was inundated with requests and they were struggling to get through. Some of those Democrats even shared with POLITICO messages and images they were receiving from terrified Afghans stuck in the country and fearing death at the hands of the Taliban.

With an overloaded State Department, some lawmakers attempted to take matters into their own hands. Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who served in Afghanistan as a civilian official at the State Department, used Twitter to crowd source names of trapped evacuees that he said he would use to push for a swift rescue.

It’s not unusual for congressional offices to help constituents deal with bureaucratic hurdles across a web of federal agencies. But this type of casework has taken on far more urgency — and more uncertainty — with hundreds of Americans and allies now stranded in Taliban-controlled territory after the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

“I am focused now on the practical operational challenge of getting people out,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who previously served in a top State Department role where he pushed for human rights overseas. “We’ll have the bigger debate later.”

The New Jersey Democrat said it was unclear exactly how much Congress could do as chaos unfolded in Afghanistan, apart from keeping pressure on the Biden administration “to meet its responsibilities” and ensuring every person who is on the U.S. list is pulled out.

But he said if the evacuation succeeds, lawmakers may have a short-term role in ensuring food and housing for the evacuees.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who served in the Air Force for more than a decade, said two staffers in his office — a retired colonel who was a provincial reconstruction team commander in Afghanistan and another staffer who used to work with the country’s first lady’s office — have both been hearing frantic pleas for help.

“Pictures of a dozen or so Afghans holding on for dear life [to] a taxiing aircraft does not instill confidence … and seeing people falling off airborne aircraft is absolutely terrible,” Bacon said, noting that “heads need to roll” at the Pentagon and State Department.

Several House offices said they were directly hearing from contacts in Afghanistan — including the office of Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), who conducted combat missions in Afghanistan — who said they are directly engaged with dozens of Afghans. Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), also a veteran, said his office is receiving “tons” of calls.

It’s not just House offices. A spokesperson for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said her office is collecting the names of vulnerable individuals and giving them to the State Department. Last month, the Senate passed a security supplemental that included a provision from Shaheen and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) that increased the number of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas.

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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