(CNSNews.com) - Around 53,000 Afghan evacuees are currently living on eight military bases in the United States as part of the Biden Administration's Operation Allies Welcome, General Glen VanHerck, the Commander of US Northern Command, told a Pentagon briefing on Thursday.
Another 14,000 Afghans will be arriving soon, once the evacuation flights resume in various foreign countries. Those flights were suspended several weeks ago because of a measles outbreak among the evacuees.
"And how long are the Afghans going to be on U.S. military bases?" a reporter asked VanHerk:
"That's a great question," VanHerk responded. “We're prepared to be here as long as we need to, to conduct this mission. That's best addressed by DHS, the lead federal agency. We stand ready to support. We'll be ready if we need to support through the winter months and into the spring.”
Another reporter asked about the length of time it may take to resettle the evacuees: “Is it mostly security checks? Are you flagging anything of concern in the security component, or is it mostly the vaccination/immigration process?” she asked.
“It is not the security checks and it's not the vaccination or the medical portion,” VanHerk responded. "The lead federal agencies and the non-governmental organizations are very conscious to ensure that each of the Afghan guests have a great place to land, and have assurances for where they're going to relocate to. So, I understand that that, right now, is the limiting factor on output."
In other words, people involved in the relocation effort haven't found permanent places to put everyone, although VanHerk said around 2,600 Afghans have already been resettled under Special Immigrant Visas or refugee status. VanHerk said "slightly over 4,000" of the 53,000 evacuees have completed the medical and security screening process and are now awaiting relocation.
VanHerk said he's "not aware of any significant problems" regarding security clearances for the evacuees who are awaiting relocation.
But as CNSNews.com has reported, some lawmakers are very concerned about the ability of U.S. agencies to properly vet Afghans about whom we know nothing.
"How do you do a background check back in Afghanistan to determine who they are and what their affiliations might have been?” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked in an interview with CNSNews.
Many of the 53,000 evacuees are designated as "parolees," meaning they did not work for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan and therefore have not been granted Special Immigrant Visas. Until they are cleared for resettlement, they are living as comfortably as possible, VanHerk said -- similar to the living conditions of U.S. servicemembers during exercise or training missions.
We've built housing capacity, and we are providing our Afghan guests the environment they need, while they work through the immigration process. Essentials such as a safe and secure environment, nutritious (halal) meals, warm clothing, primary medical care and other services. Today, total capacity at the eight different installations is over 64,000, and our Afghan evacuee population is approximately 53,000. More than 10,000 DOD personnel are currently supporting Operation Allies Welcome.
Since we last spoke, my team and I have continued traveling to the DOD installations and task forces across this country. I've seen firsthand seven of the eight task forces, and I plan to visit the eight task force, when I visit Camp Atterbury in the very near future. Following each visit, I walk away impressed with how well the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guard members, and the interagency team are working together to ensure our Afghan guests, as well as the personnel supporting the mission, feel safe, secure and respected.
VanHerk acknowledged "reports of various law enforcement challenges" at a few of the military installations, including an attack on a female soldier at Fort Bliss in Texas, which he said the FBI is investigating; and two incidents at Fort McCoy.
So, there are two Afghan evacuees that are currently detained in federal custody. Those cases occurred, I believe, at Fort McCoy. Those folks have been charged and will be charged, and through the federal process, not by the Department of Defense.
What I would tell you is, for a population of approximately 53,000 personnel, I've done some research on how that compares to populations across the United States. And what we're seeing is law enforcement violations that are on par, and in most cases, significantly lower than the rates that we're seeing in similar-sized populations across the United States.
For example, in six weeks in Operation Allies Welcome, in a population of 53,000, there have been eight reported cases of robbery and theft. An average six-week period in a similar place is in excess of 150.
VanHerk said each report is taken seriously, and "the reports are often coming from Afghan guests, who are seeking out our servicemembers and our law enforcement professionals" at the military installations. He said the fact that Afghans are reporting incidents "is a good indicator of their commitment to keeping the community safe, as well as their confidence in our people."
On the health front, VanHerk said he's aware of 24 total cases of measles, 12 of which he described as "active." But he said all 53,000 evacuees have now received measles vaccinations. And 100 percent of the Afghans have been tested for COVID. Eighty-four percent have received COVID vaccinations so far.
At this week's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted that the Defense Department is responsibility for housing the refugees, while the Departments of State and Homeland Security are responsible for "integrating them into our society."
"It's very important that we do this the right way and it's very important that we do this carefully but as rapidly as possible. Because we do have you know children that need education and all those kinds of things."