WASHINGTON – The Biden administration plans to evacuate at least some of the Afghans who worked with the US military and face the threat of retaliation from the Taliban before the official completion date of the US 9/11 withdrawal, said Thursday senior administration officials.
The White House had previously refused to approve the idea, but President Joe Biden gave the green light to evacuation plans on Thursday, telling reporters: “Those who helped us will not be left behind.”
The decision follows internal debate and urgent appeals in recent weeks from lawmakers on both sides, veterans of the war in Afghanistan, Afghans who risked their lives to support U.S. soldiers and diplomats in the America’s longest war.
Asked about the fate of Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other jobs, Biden said, “We have already started the process” of helping Afghan partners.
When asked which country they would be transferred to, the president said he did not know and mentioned that he would meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House on Friday.
An unknown number of Afghans who have worked as interpreters for the US government and have applied for visas will be transferred to a third country, where their documents will be reviewed, senior administration officials have said.
It was still not clear how many Afghans would be evacuated, which third country would accept them and when the operation would begin.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the relocation could involve civilian planes, not military planes. An evacuation of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to Guam in 1996-97 also used chartered civilian planes.
To help Afghans threatened by the Taliban because of their work for US forces, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa Program. But the SIV program has been hampered by bureaucratic delays, and advocates say Afghan partners face serious threats from the Taliban as they wait for their requests to be processed.
“While we have increased our resources and significantly accelerated the processing times for the SIV, we recognize that some of these interpreters and translators have been in the process, in some cases for years, and are still waiting to receive their visas,” said a senior administration official. .
“We identified a group of SIV candidates who served as interpreters and translators to be transferred to another location outside of Afghanistan before completing our military withdrawal by September, in order to complete the application process for visa, ”the official said.
The US withdrawal is expected to be effectively completed next month, officials said.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said the evacuees would come from the 18,000 Afghans already in the special immigrant visa pipeline. She declined to say which countries they would be evacuated to, but said the relocation would be “in full compliance with all applicable laws, as well as in full coordination with Congress.”
The administration identifies Afghans who worked with the US government to be resettled in a third country to allow Afghans to “safely complete” the rest of the visa application process, she said.
The senior administration official has left open the possibility that the evacuations should be extended. “We anticipate all eventualities, in order to be prepared for all scenarios. If necessary, we will consider additional resettlement or evacuation options,” the official said.
Lawmakers, veterans groups and rights organizations have welcomed the announcement.
Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First, said the Biden administration should transport Afghans to U.S. territory of Guam, where the governor has already said Afghans would be welcome.
“It’s America’s responsibility, we don’t need to outsource to another country,” he said.
Purdy added that the administration should “publish their plan to make sure we get as many people out as possible.”
Advisers on both sides in Congress said the White House had informed lawmakers of the decision to carry out an evacuation and that some administration officials were in favor of sending Afghan partners to Guam.
Visa applicants in Guam would be granted more rights than in a third country, and it would be more difficult to send them back to Afghanistan from US territory, rights activists said.
Advocates have accused the Biden administration of acting far too slowly to protect the tens of thousands of Afghans whose lives are in mortal danger because of their association with American and Western organizations.
Veterans’ and refugee organizations have said they have been inundated with requests for help from former interpreters.