Tom Cotton Is Jeopardizing Help For Afghan Allies, Former Military Leaders Say

The Arkansas Republican has introduced a bill tying help for Afghans who supported the U.S. to limits on President Biden's immigration policies.

The latest effort to help tens of thousands of Afghans who supported the 20-year American mission in their country is at risk because of a hard-line new bill spearheaded by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), say former military leaders and advocates.

More than 40 retired military officers ― including four-star generals including Stanley McChrystal ― and more than 20 veterans groups sent letters to congressional leaders in both parties this week expressing “strong opposition” to Cotton’s legislation.

“Its introduction betrays America’s veterans by undercutting our efforts over the last two years,” the messages argue.

When the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan put U.S.-linked Afghans in new danger and forced many of them to flee, supporters of the Afghans began urging Congress to pass legislation called the Afghan Adjustment Act. The proposal would help Afghan evacuees gain permanent residency in America through additional screening, push the State Department to better support U.S. partners still in Afghanistan, and make more Afghans eligible for special visas.

Backers of the bill in the Senate and the House reintroduced it last week. Lawmakers and activists hope to attach it to the annual defense spending bill ― noting that it has more GOP support than ever before, and that in the next few months, many of the 80,000 Afghans evacuated to the U.S. in 2021 will lose their temporary status to live and work in the country.

But on the same day, Cotton, an immigration hawk and a veteran himself, unveiled his own legislation: the Ensuring American Security and Protect Afghan Allies Act.

Cotton’s pitch is only supported by Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who torpedoed the last attempt to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. And it would make it significantly harder for any president to provide a form of temporary protection, known as parole, to foreign citizens, as President Joe Biden has done for Afghan evacuees.

Critics of Cotton’s gambit say it would distract from the bipartisan alternative, making it harder for Congress to pass overdue help for Afghans who were promised U.S. loyalty.

“It’s an anti-immigration bill that’s masquerading as... helpful to Afghans,” said Arash Azizzada, co-founder of the Afghan-American organization Afghans for a Better Tomorrow.

Cotton’s legislation would not “meaningfully expand” the number of special visas for U.S.-linked Afghans or “adequately support those left behind,” the retired military leaders and veterans argued in their letters to Congress. Instead, they said, it would focus on “unrelated issues regarding the Southwest border.”

Biden has used the parole powers that Cotton is trying to curtail to redirect migration away from the border and offer legal alternatives to migrants from Latin America and Ukraine. As the 2024 election nears, Republicans are ramping up attacks on the president over border security.

“This is not the proper venue for large-scale immigration reform,” the former troops wrote. “Our focus must now be on protecting our Afghan allies. These allies have been waiting years for Congress to do its duty and honor America’s promise to Afghanistan; they should not be used as pawns in a political debate on immigration.”

Representatives for Cotton did not respond to a request for comment.

Azizzada said Cotton’s gambit could “ensure both bills sink.”

Supporters of the vulnerable Afghans are focusing on the Senate to secure reforms, because the version of the annual defense bill that House Republicans passed along party lines this month did not include any boost for the Afghans. If the Senate’s equivalent version does include some changes, there is a chance they will be included in the final draft of the defense legislation that House and Senate negotiators will need to agree on by the end of the year.

Advocates for the U.S.’s Afghan allies worry that Cotton’s bill could splinter GOP commitment on the issue, turning it into a partisan matter.

His approach contains “a poison pill” by targeting Biden’s parole powers, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council tweeted. “It’s basically a ‘screw you’ to any future allies that might end up in a similar situation.”

Two key Republicans who support the Afghan Adjustment Act, Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.), are also co-sponsoring Cotton’s bill. Spokespeople for both did not respond to requests for comment about concerns that it will undermine the Afghan Adjustment Act.

Other supporters of the act are holding out hope that it will ultimately seem like the clear reasonable choice for lawmakers from both parties.

“I think we’re aligned in terms of goals, and I’m hoping he and others will support this measure,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told HuffPost on Thursday, when asked about Cotton’s effect on the Afghan Adjustment Act.

“This bill does right by Afghans who worked alongside our troops and shows the world that the United States of America ― when we make a promise, we keep it,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the lead sponsors of the act, said on the Senate floor Thursday. She noted that another Republican, Sen. Markwayne Mullin (Okla.), had recently agreed to support the legislation.

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.

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