Evacuations for Afghans who helped US troops will begin this month

By Glenn Thrush, Adam Nossiter, Eric Schmitt and Katie Rogers

The Biden administration said earlier this week that it would begin evacuating Afghans this month who helped the United States during the 20-year war and who could face revenge attacks by the Taliban.

The evacuation, called “Operation Allies Refuge,” will start the last week in July, officials said.

“The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “We want to make sure we recognize and value the role they’ve played over the last several years.”

But the White House kept crucial details under wraps, including who would ultimately be eligible for evacuation, what role the U.S. military would play and where evacuees could safely be sent while their visa applications were reviewed. Those details are most likely not going to be made public until the Afghans’ safety can be assured, Psaki said.

With the U.S. military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the White House has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies who helped the United States and speed up the process of providing them with special immigrant visas.

President Joe Biden has vigorously defended his administration’s decision to end the war and has maintained that the United States will formally complete its military mission at the end of August.

He has faced criticism for the decision, notably from former President George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush has argued that the pullout will lead to a geopolitical and humanitarian crisis.

“I am afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm,” the former president said in an interview Wednesday. “They are scared.”

Afghans who want to participate needed to already be in the “pipeline” of the State Department’s special immigrant visa program, said the administration official who announced the mission, adding that it would be limited to those who “supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan.”

More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the United States during the war have been trapped in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government. The applicants have 53,000 family members, U.S. officials have said.

Last month, when he announced his plan to assist the Afghans who had aided U.S. forces, Biden insisted that his administration would not be leaving them to fend for themselves.

“Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” he said at the time.

The question now is where they will go once they are evacuated. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Wednesday that officials may potentially house some of the Afghan visa applicants at bases inside the United States on a “short-term” basis while their applications are processed. This would most likely be through humanitarian parole, a government program that allows people to apply to enter the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons.

“I would say that the reason why we’re being careful about the information we’re putting out is because just like we’ve been careful about the information regarding the U.S. drawdown,” Kirby said, “we don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”

The vast majority of applicants and their families would go through the relocation process and be moved to an American base in another country. The options include Qatar, Kuwait and bases throughout Europe, as well as U.S. territories, including Guam.

The mission fulfills a pledge by Biden to not repeat the abandonment of U.S. allies during the withdrawal from Vietnam, and comes as the Taliban gain more ground throughout Afghanistan, seizing swaths of territory, displacing tens of thousands, and wounding or killing hundreds of civilians.

But among former Afghan interpreters, the news was greeted with skepticism.

“They’ve promised a lot, and so far they’ve given nothing,” said Omid Mahmoodi, a former interpreter. “I’m still not believing it. There are thousands who will be left behind.”

Some interpreters have minor blemishes on their service records that have hurt, or even destroyed, their chances at securing a visa. Others criticized plans to send former interpreters to countries other than the United States while their applications are processed.

Sherin Agha Jafari, another interpreter, said there were dozens like him who were considered ineligible for “very small reasons,” even though they were greatly at risk in the event of a Taliban takeover.

“I feel we will not be getting a visa,” he said. “The problem is that nobody is talking about the terminated combat interpreters. Their service is called ‘unfaithful’ so they will not be given visas. There are a lot like this.”

Others who worked with American forces were relieved, but anxious about where they might fall on the priority list.

“Very glad to hear the news,” said Wahidullah Rahmani. “I think I’m on the list. But it’s going to take a little bit of time for them to process me.”

In December, Congress added an additional 4,000 slots to the special visa program in preparation for a pullout that was supported by Biden and former President Donald Trump. Since 2014, the program has issued about 26,500 visas to foreign nationals deemed at risk because of their cooperation with U.S. forces.

The evacuations will be directed by Ambassador Tracey Jacobson, a three-time chief of mission in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo, and will include representatives from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the official added.

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