U.S. plans to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters, support staff
Decision comes ahead of U.S. drawdown set for September following 20 years of war
U.S. President Joe Biden vowed on Thursday that Afghans who helped the U.S. military "are not going to be left behind" as his administration stepped up planning to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters while their applications for U.S. entry are processed.
A senior administration official said planning has accelerated in recent days to relocate Afghans and their families, who assisted Americans during the nearly 20-year-old war, to other countries or U.S. territories. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss unannounced plans.
The administration intends to carry out the evacuation later this summer, likely in August, according to a second official familiar with the deliberations but who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.
Both officials said that the administration has not settled on a country or countries for the planned temporary relocation.
Evacuating Afghans to a U.S. territory is seen as complicated because it could lead to the visa applicants having greater legal rights as they are vetted. Asked if he had determined where Afghans would be relocated as they await U.S. visas, Biden said he didn't know.
"They're going to come," Biden said in an exchange with reporters after an event to highlight a bipartisan agreement reached on infrastructure legislation. "We've already begun the process. Those who helped us are not going to be left behind."
Thousands of Afghans to consider
The White House has begun briefing lawmakers on the outlines of the plans. The evacuation planning could potentially affect tens of thousands of Afghans. Some 9,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. — plus their family members — are already in the application pipeline for special immigrant visas.
With U.S. and NATO forces facing a Sept. 11 deadline to leave Afghanistan, the Biden administration has faced increased pressure from lawmakers, veterans and others to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or who otherwise helped U.S. military operations there in the past two decades.
Despite unusual bipartisan support in Congress, the administration hasn't publicly gone on record in support of an evacuation as it unwinds a war that started after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Careful remarks in public so far
The Biden administration and U.S. military officials have spoken carefully about relocation — and largely sidestepped talk of a mass evacuation — amid growing concerns about the precarious security situation for the Afghanistan government in the face of diminished U.S. military presence.
In part, U.S. officials have been concerned that word of an evacuation could trigger a panic in Afghanistan, not to mention further complicate the present security situation.
The Taliban issued a statement earlier this month saying those who worked for U.S. and western interests would not be targeted. Still, the runaway corruption, deep insecurity and fear of violence from the Taliban and from heavily armed U.S.-allied warlords has many Afghans seeing the special immigration visas as their last chance to leave their war-torn nation.
Biden to meet with Afghan president
The move to accelerate plans to relocate Afghans who helped the U.S. effort comes as Biden is set to meet on Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
The administration has begun to identify a group of interpreters to be relocated before the U.S. completes its drawdown by September, the senior administration official said.
Those individuals have already begun the process of applying for special immigrant visas available to Afghans who assisted Americans during the nearly 20-year-old war. The official stressed that the relocation efforts would comply with U.S. consular law and would be coordinated with Congress.
The White House is planning for a variety of scenarios including "additional relocation or evacuation options" if necessary, the official said.
As part of its plan, the White House will also push to have additional resources devoted to processing special immigration visa applications to help those who remain in Afghanistan after the U.S. military drawdown but want to leave for the U.S, according to the official.
The official added that the administration is looking to work with Congress to find quick fixes to make the application process more efficient, including eliminating duplicative paperwork and adjusting requirements that do not affect national security.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter that the evacuation plan was "great news," but urged Biden to push his effort to "secure a safe 3rd country to host them into high gear."
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been pushing the administration to move more quickly on the issue, said Thursday he had not yet seen details of the White House plan.
Moulton on Thursday unveiled a detailed plan supported by veterans that would use Guam as a way station as they go through the visa application process. He noted there is precedent for using the island, a U.S. territory where refugees were processed after the Vietnam and Gulf wars.
"We don't want a single Afghan ally to die because we can't find a third country or the program is moving too slowly," he said.
Advocates, including former interpreters living in the U.S., applauded the news, but remain concerned that the backlog of applicants is too great to overcome even with measures to accelerate the process.
Khalil Arab, who spent five years working for the coalition forces as an interpreter, fled Afghanistan in 2010 after receiving threats from the Taliban. His younger brother, also a translator, was nearly kidnapped. Both are in the United States now, but they fear for those left behind.
"Every Afghan ally, every man and woman serving for the United States government under whatever capacity, whatever their title, they are in peril," he said. "Make no mistake. Time is running out."