Washington: As the US rushes to evacuate Americans and allies from the chaos of Afghanistan, a growing number of Republicans are questioning why the U.S. should take in Afghan citizens who worked side by side with Americans, further exacerbating divides within the party heading into next year's midterm elections.
Little more than a week ago, as the Taliban's stunning takeover of Afghanistan still was snapping into focus, former President Donald Trump issued a statement saying "civilians and others who have been good to our Country ... should be allowed to seek refuge." But in more recent days, he has turned to warning of the alleged dangers posed by those desperately trying to flee their country before an end-of-month deadline.
"How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America?" he asked.
As Republicans level blistering criticism at Biden during his first major foreign policy crisis, some are turning to the nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric perfected by Trump during his four years in office. It's causing dismay among others in the party who think the US should look out for those who helped the Americans over the last two decades.
"I think these false narratives that these are a bunch of terrorists are just - they're completely baseless in reality," said Olivia Troye, a former White House homeland security adviser who currently serves as director of the Republican Accountability Project.
"There's no basis for this at all in terms of the intelligence and national security world." Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster, said the rhetoric reflects "a general, overall increase" in concern in the country over the risk of terrorist threats after Afghanistan's fall to the Taliban - not just in the short term from those who may not have been properly vetted, but a year or two down the road.
"There's just a sense that we are less safe as a country as a result of this," he said.
The Biden administration has stressed that every person cleared to come to the US is being thoroughly vetted by officials working around the clock.
But the refugees have become an emerging flash point, with Trump and his followers loudly demanding that Americans be prioritized for evacuation and warning of the potential dangers posed by Afghans being rescued in one of the world's largest-ever civilian airlift operations.
That talk intensified Thursday after a suicide bombing ripped through the crowd at the Kabul airport, killing 13 US service members and well over 150 Afghans.
"How many American military personnel have to die to evacuate unvetted refugees?" tweeted Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. "Get American citizens out and bring our troops home." Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Friday toured the Doña Ana Range complex at Fort Bliss, where many refugees will be housed, and later tweeted the US "should rescue Afghans who've assisted the US military, but they should go to a neutral & safe third country." "They should NOT come to US w/o a FULL security vetting," he said.
That followed a call Wednesday by Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform committee, for the administration to brief lawmakers on their efforts to vet Afghan refugees and prevent terrorists from entering the country.
"In the chaotic situation left in the wake of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, we are particularly concerned that terrorists and others who wish to harm the United States may seek to infiltrate the country disguised as those who provided assistance to coalition forces in Afghanistan," he wrote in letters to the secretaries of state and homeland security.
Still others, including Republican governors and members of Congress, have taken a different stance, welcoming refugees to their states and working furiously to help those trying to flee. On Capitol Hill, the effort to help Afghan friends and family of constituents is the rare undertaking that is consuming legislative offices of members of both parties.
The US has evacuated more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan since the airlift began August 14, including more than 5,100 American citizens. While the administration's explicitly stated priority is to evacuate Americans, the numbers reflect the demographics of those trying to flee.
US officials believe about 500 American citizens who want to leave Afghanistan remain in the country; others are believed to want to stay. And many of the Afghans, including those who served as American interpreters and fixers and in other support capacities, are desperate to escape, fearing they will be prime targets for retribution by the Taliban once the US leaves.
But that hasn't stopped Republicans from accusing the Biden administration of failing to put Americans first.
"We're actually prioritizing Afghan refugees more than we're prioritizing our own citizens," said Republican JD Vance, who is running for Senate in Ohio and has made repeat television appearances blasting the administration's approach.
On Fox Business Network, he claimed, without evidence, that the US has "no knowledge" of 90 per cent of the people being evacuated and said some have shown up on wide-ranging terror databases.
"They put Americans last in every single way, but Americans pay for it all," echoed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has shot to prominence with incendiary statements.
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