By AAMER MADHANI and DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration said Wednesday it was ready to begin evacuation flights for Afghan interpreters and translators who have aided the U.S. military effort in the nearly 20-year war — but their destinations are still unknown and there are lingering questions about how to ensure their safety until they can board planes.
Operation Allies Refuge flights departing Afghanistan in the last week of July will first be available to special immigrant visa applicants already in the process of applying for residency in the United States, according to the House. White.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say how many Afghans should be among the evacuees on the first flights or where those evacuated will be taken, citing security concerns.
“The reason we are taking these steps is because they are brave individuals,” Psaki said. “We want to make sure that we recognize and value the role they have played over the past few years.”
Confirmation of the evacuation flight schedule came when President Joe Biden met on Wednesday with General Austin “Scott” Miller, who stepped down earlier this week as US commander-in-chief in Afghanistan. PSAki said Biden personally wanted to thank Miller for conducting an “orderly and safe” withdrawal of US troops.
Miller, who oversaw the war effort for nearly three years, expressed deep concern in his final days as commander about the rapid loss of districts across the country to the Taliban, telling reporters that “A civil war is certainly a path that can be viewed if it continues on the trajectory it is currently on. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who met Miller separately at the Pentagon, praised the general for planning a “complex withdrawal of millions of tons of equipment and thousands of personnel” that “so far has took place without a single victim”.
Biden has come under pressure from lawmakers on both sides to draw up a plan to help evacuate Afghan military aides before the withdrawal of US troops next month. The White House began briefing lawmakers on the outline of its plans last month.
Evacuation planning could potentially affect tens of thousands of Afghans. Several thousand Afghans who have worked for the United States – along with their family members – are already applying for special immigrant visas.
The Biden administration has also been working to identify a third country or U.S. territory that could host Afghans while their visa applications are processed.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said much about Biden’s escape plan remains unknown, including how the administration will help those located outside the capital of Kabul to evacuate. The Taliban have made rapid progress taking control of large swaths of the country, especially in more rural areas.
“Unfortunately, there are still far too many unanswered questions, including who exactly and how many people are eligible for evacuation. … How will those outside the capital get to safety?” said Vignarajah, whose group has helped resettle thousands of Afghans in the U.S. “And to which countries will they be evacuated? We have serious concerns about protecting the human rights of our allies in countries that are said to be are potential partners in this effort.
The administration weighs in using commercial planes chartered by the State Department, not military planes, according to an administration official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke under the guise of anonymity.
But if the State Department requests military aircraft, the US military would be ready to help, the official said. The Pentagon said Wednesday that no such request for assistance had been made by the state.
Tracey Jacobson, three-time chief of mission in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo, leads the State Department’s coordination unit overseeing Operation Allies Refuge. This unit also includes representatives from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, is coordinating the interagency political process for the evacuation, officials said.
Separately, the White House announced that Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House Homeland Security Advisor, will lead a US delegation to a security conference in Uzbekistan this week to discuss Afghanistan security issues with Central Asian leaders.
The Biden administration is considering a number of locations, including military installations overseas and in the continental United States, to temporarily house Afghans while their visa applications are considered.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday that the Pentagon has identified an undetermined number of overseas sites as “potential candidates,” but no final decision has been made.
The US Embassy in Kabul issued 299 special immigrant visas in March, 356 in April and 619 in May, according to the State Department. Biden said last week that the federal government had approved 2,500 special immigrant visas to come to the United States since his inauguration in January.
An estimated 18,000 Afghans who have worked for the United States as interpreters, drivers and other positions have applied for visas and are waiting for their applications to be processed. PSAki reiterated that the White House is working with Congress on legislation to streamline the application process.
Biden announced last week that the US military operation in Afghanistan would end on August 31.
The confirmation of the end date for the war comes after President Donald Trump’s administration brokered a deal with the Taliban to end the US military mission by May 1, 2021. Biden, after taking office , announced that US troops would be out by the 20th anniversary. the attacks of September 11, 2001. The attacks were plotted by the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, from Afghanistan, where he had taken refuge with the Taliban.
George W. Bush, who as president launched the war, criticized Western withdrawal in an interview with a German broadcaster published on Wednesday, saying he feared for Afghan women and girls as the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan. much of the country.
“It’s amazing how this society has changed since the brutality of the Taliban, and all of a sudden – sadly – I’m afraid that Afghan women and girls will suffer untold harm,” Bush said.
Associated Press writers Roberts Burns and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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