The Biden administration’s first evacuation flight for Afghans who aided American and other coalition forces has arrived in the U.S., as the administration steps up efforts to relocate interpreters, other military assistants and their families ahead of a final troop withdrawal.
The plane, carrying more than 200 people, landed at Fort Lee in Virginia, where passengers were to undergo health screenings and further processing of their Special Immigrant Visas.
“Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Although U.S. troops are leaving, we will continue to support Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces, as well as humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people to help them sustain their achievements of the past 20 years.”
The urgency of evacuating the workers and their families rose after Biden announced in April that he intended to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan before Sept. 11. Advocates for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military say they fear they’ll be targeted and killed by a vengeful Taliban, who have begun to retake parts of the country.
A spokesman for the militant group has said the former U.S. military assistants will be safe and shouldn’t flee their country.
The Special Immigrant Visa program allows Afghans who have worked for U.S. and NATO forces to claim refugee status to come to the U.S.
About 750 former American military assistants — a group that also includes people who provided intelligence — who are far along in the visa vetting process will travel to the U.S. soon. With their family members, they’ll total about 2,500 people, said Russ Travers, the senior deputy national security adviser.
“This flight represents the fulfillment of the U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans’ brave service in helping support our mission in Afghanistan, in turn helping to keep our country safe,” Travers said.
In all, advocates estimate that 70,000 former coalition allies and their families are waiting for evacuations under the program. Those whose applications aren’t as far along will be moved to a third country so they can be safe while their visa processing continues, said Tracey Jacobson, director of the State Department’s Afghanistan Coordination Task Force.
Biden has come under intense bipartisan pressure in Congress to ensure the Afghans who aided the U.S. during the war, as well as their families, won’t be targeted by the Taliban, which is capitalizing on the withdrawal by seizing more territory. Already, 70,000 Afghans have settled in the U.S. since 2008 as part of the visa program.
Sen. Tim Kaine told reporters Friday that “this will go on a while.”
The Biden administration is “looking at ways to facilitate the processing of applications outside of Afghanistan,” the Virginia Democrat said. He said Kuwait and Qatar have committed to taking some of the applicants, while negotiations continue with nations including Kazakhstan and Kosovo.
Bloomberg News previously reported that the administration asked three Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — to temporarily house the Afghans as U.S. troops aim to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August, almost two decades after they first arrived to oust the Taliban government.
Those arriving in the U.S. have already undergone extensive screening, including security background checks, and were tested for COVID-19 before boarding their flight. They were offered coronavirus vaccines in Kabul and will again be offered the shots at Fort Lee, Jacobson said.
Once they’re processed at Fort Lee, the Afghan nationals will be relocated to places in the U.S. where they have family or other connections. If they don’t have domestic ties, they will be sent to locations in the U.S. where the International Organization for Migration has the capacity to resettle them.
Jacobson said the administration is also considering options for other Afghans who may not be safe after the U.S. withdrawal, including leaders of women’s rights, civil rights and civil society groups, as well as journalists. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul can already make referrals for those who face what Travers called “imminent and compelling protection concerns” to apply for visas.