President Joe Biden promised Thursday that Afghans who helped the US military “will not be left behind” as his administration plans to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters while their applications to enter the US are processed.
A senior administrative official said planning has accelerated in recent days to relocate Afghans and their families to other countries or U.S. territories while their visa applications are being sorted. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the unannounced plans.
The government intends to conduct the evacuation later this summer, likely in August, ahead of the September deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, according to a second official familiar with the deliberations but not empowered to discuss them publicly.
Both officials added that the administration has not agreed on one country or multiple countries for the proposed temporary relocation. Evacuating Afghans to US territory is considered complicated as it could result in visa applicants having greater rights when it comes to screening. When asked if he had determined where Afghans would be relocated to while waiting for US visas, Biden said he did not know.
“They will come,” Biden said in an exchange with reporters after an event to highlight a bipartisan settlement on infrastructure legislation. “We have already started the process. Those who helped us are not left behind. ”
The White House has begun briefing lawmakers on the outline of the plans. Evacuation planning could potentially affect tens of thousands of Afghans. Around 9,000 Afghans who have worked for the United States – and their family members – are already in the application pipeline for special immigrant visas.
With U.S. and NATO forces forced to leave Afghanistan on September 11, the Biden administration is under increasing pressure from lawmakers, veterans and others to evacuate thousands of Afghans who have served as interpreters or have had US military operations there in the past helped two decades.
Despite unusual bipartisan support in Congress, the government has not publicly spoken out in favor of an evacuation as it is conducting a war that began after the 9/11 attacks.
The Biden administration and US military officials have spoken carefully about resettlement – and largely bypassed talk of a mass evacuation – amid mounting concerns about the Afghan government’s precarious security situation in the face of the reduced US military presence. In some cases, US officials were concerned that news of an evacuation in Afghanistan could cause panic and further complicate the current security situation.
The Taliban issued a statement earlier this month saying that those who worked for American and Western interests would not be targeted. Yet many Afghans see the special immigrant visas for many Afghans as their last chance to leave their war-tortured nation.
The move to accelerate plans to relocate Afghans who have supported the US effort comes when Biden will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah on Friday.
The government has started to identify a group of interpreters to be relocated before the US completes its withdrawal by September, the senior administration official said.
These people have already started applying for special immigrant visas for Afghans who helped Americans during the nearly 20-year-old war. The White House is planning 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 urge additional resources to process special immigrant visa applications to help those who remain in Afghanistan after the US military withdrawal but want to travel to the US, the official said.
The official added that the administration wants to work with Congress to find quick solutions to make the application process more efficient, including eliminating duplicate paperwork and adjusting requirements that do not compromise national security.
Rep. Michael McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter the evacuation plan was “great news,” but urged Biden to press ahead with his efforts to “secure a safe third country to keep them in full swing.” accommodate “.
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who has urged the government to move faster on the matter, said Thursday that he has not yet seen details of the White House’s plan.
Moulton on Thursday unveiled a detailed plan backed by veterans who would use Guam as a stopover in going through the visa application process. He noted that there is a precedent for the use of the island, a US territory where refugees were handled after the Vietnam and Gulf wars.
“We do not want a single Afghan ally to die because we cannot find a third country or because the program is progressing too slowly,” he said.
Lawyers, including former US-based interpreters, welcomed the news but remain concerned that applicants have been lagging behind, even with measures taken to expedite the process.
Khalil Arab, who worked as an interpreter for the coalition forces for five years, fled Afghanistan in 2010 following threats from the Taliban. His younger brother, who was also a translator, almost got kidnapped. Both are now in the United States, but they are afraid for those left behind.
“Every Afghan ally, man and woman who serves for the United States government, regardless of role or title, is at risk,” he said. “Make no mistake. Time is running out.”
AP Radio Washington correspondent Sagar Meghani, AP military writer Robert Burns, and AP reporters Julie Watson and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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