Kaine: 'I wish the entire American public' could see Fort Lee's Afghan evacuation work
Saying 'we have a long way to go' in the process, Virginia's junior senator says there is a nervous, yet positive vibe being given off by the refugees as they prepare for a new life here
FORT LEE — Had Sen. Tim Kaine relied on a report about the Afghan processing operation at Fort Lee instead of seeing it for himself, he said it would only covered "one one-hundredth of what I just saw."
Using words such as "emotional," "nervous" and "positive," the junior senator from Virginia described the scene going on inside the Holiday Inn Express on post where thousands of Afghan nationals have come since July 30. That's when the United States launched Operation Allies Refuge, a military-humanitarian effort to evacuate Afghans who worked for the U.S. during its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan that officially ended Monday [Tuesday over there due to the time change].
"I wish the entire American public could have seen the scenes I saw or heard the stories I just heard," Kaine told reporters Monday at the Fort Lee Welcome Center. Fort Lee, however, has been sealed to the press and public since the first wave of Afghans arrived by bus from Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County.
Kaine said he understood why access has been curtailed.
"What they need is a chance to be together and to heal and to think about their next step," he said. "They can't do that with cameras all around them."
Kaine said he saw a range of Afghan citizens, from singles to young families with large numbers of children. Fort Lee had set up a tent outside of the hotel where the children could play.
He also noted that there have been two births recorded at Fort Lee since the operation began.
Despite the uncertainty of relocating to a country halfway around the world from their homeland, Kaine said many of the Afghans he talked to were glad to make the trip.
"Nervous? Yes. Afraid? Yes," he said, "but ultimately excited to be in the United States."
There are numerous Afghan communities across the United States, including ones in Richmond and northern Virginia. Kaine said he hoped some who come through Fort Lee will opt to stay in Virginia, but that depends upon if they have family members elsewhere.
Kaine was asked several times his thoughts on how the troop pullout was carried out and how the Taliban seemed to easily take control of the country in the waning days of the withdrawal. While he said he supported the Biden administration's decision to pull out when it did, he also said "there would be plenty of time to analyze" the decision. The focus now should be on acclimating the Afghans to America.
Kaine said some of his colleagues wanted to see the U.S. stay longer, but no matter how long troops stayed, "the next chapter of Afghanistan has to be written by the Afghans.
Asked his thoughts about the Taliban, Kaine bluntly said, "I have low confidence in the Taliban." He said the Taliban appears to want to reach out to other nations rather than be a "hermetically sealed country like North Korea," but insisted that their future actions be closely monitored to see how well they keep their word.
As for the possibility of future U.S. military presence in the country, Kaine said he thought that would be "off the table." The evacuation has turned from a military into a operation overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, and Kaine said he was confident any future evacuations would have a more diplomatic look than military.
In addition to Fort Lee, two other Virginia-based military installations — Fort Pickett in Nottoway County and Marine Corps Base Quantico in northern Virginia — and four bases in other states are acting as temporary shelter for Afghans.
Veteran journalist Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is the regional daily news coach for the USA TODAY Network Southeast Region's Unified Central group, which includes Virginia, West Virginia and portions of North Carolina. He is based at The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.