Saturday, December 4, 2021

Senate votes to block Afghan repatriation program

WASHINGTON — The Senate will vote Wednesday on a Republican plan to undo a longstanding Obama-era program that helped thousands of Afghans who had been evacuated because of threats to their safety because of the U.S. military presence in their country.

The bill’s sponsor, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, described the measure as the “last resort” and a “last step” in his work to resolve the issue of Afghans stranded abroad in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He said it would prevent those Afghans from having a “nightmare like situation.”

But critics of the Tillis plan said the measure would send a terrible message to Afghanistan’s extremist groups that they can make good use of the fragile repatriation process. Several Democrats denounced the legislation as ill-conceived, adding that it was more likely to make matters worse.

“We do need to find a permanent solution, but what this bill is proposing is not the final way to do it,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. “This is just another statement that America doesn’t care.”

More than 30,000 Afghans had been evacuated by the end of 2017 because of the security risks. The U.S. spent about $600 million in providing the Afghans with assistance, in addition to in-kind help such as financial assistance and food.

The White House also denounced the bill, accusing Tillis of not providing the administration with proper information about the bill before it was introduced. The White House had no immediate comment on the measure’s defeat in the Senate.

Tillis’ measure would prohibit administration officials from making any meaningful changes in the repatriation process until Congress has a chance to weigh in on it. In addition, it would prohibit the Department of Defense or the State Department from providing assistance to Afghanistan government institutions related to repatriation for at least three years.

Tillis’ office said the measure would ensure that those seeking to repatriate to Afghanistan only have to leave voluntarily, rather than be coerced or threatened. He said he hoped the measure would represent the last Congress’ attempt to resolve the issue, rather than bring it up during the coming House-Senate negotiations over a legislative fix to the repatriation problem.

“This is the last round that we’re playing,” Tillis said. “I don’t intend to get involved in more than this final debate.”

Tillis told his colleagues during debate that it was critical to pass his bill because the Republican-controlled House was not likely to pursue a version that contained it.

“We need to take this bill to the House where the majority leader just said, ‘No, we’re not going to put it into the bill,’ ” Tillis said, referring to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “It’s a good piece of legislation. It will serve the purpose. But if there’s not an amendment process, it’s like passing an ad hoc bill without any amendment process.”

Trump announced a plan last summer to significantly reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, withdrawing the roughly 15,000 U.S. forces he inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump signed an order that halved the U.S. force in July, and the administration hopes to fully end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by the end of March 2020.

Many other military allies — including countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany — also plan to reduce their forces. Afghan civilians have suffered since 2014 when the Taliban took control of large swaths of the country. In the past 15 years, 1.5 million Afghan refugees returned home, according to the United Nations.

Widespread corruption has marred the Afghan government and NATO forces. Protests have also been held by Afghans at home and abroad who believe the U.S. troop withdrawal complicates an already complex situation.

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