WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration said on Wednesday it was ready to begin evacuation flights for Afghan interpreters and translators who aided the US military effort in the nearly 20-year war – but their destinations are still unknown and questions remain about how to keep them safe until they can get on the plane.
Operation Allies Refuge flights from Afghanistan in the last week of July will first be available to special immigrant visa applicants already in the process of applying for US residency, according to the House. White.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say how many Afghans should be among those evacuated on first flights or where evacuees 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 with General Austin “Scott” Miller on Wednesday, who resigned earlier this week as the United States’ commander-in-chief in Afghanistan. Psaki said Biden wanted to personally thank Miller for effecting 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 over the rapid loss of districts across the country to the Taliban, telling reporters that ‘”A civil war is certainly a way this can be visualized if it continues on the path it is currently on. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who separately met Miller at the Pentagon, praised the general for planning a “complex withdrawal of millions of tons of equipment and thousands of personnel” which “has so far been carried out without only one victim “.
Biden has come under pressure from lawmakers on both sides to come up with a plan to help evacuate Afghan military aid before US troops withdraw next month. The White House began briefing lawmakers on the outline of their plans last month.
Planning for the evacuation 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 worked to identify a third country or US territory that could host Afghans while their visa applications are being processed.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chief executive officer of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said much about Biden’s evacuation plan remained unknown, including how the administration would help those outside of the country. capital Kabul to be evacuated. The Taliban quickly took control of large swathes 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 an evacuation. … How will those outside the capital be able to access security? Said Vignarajah, whose group has helped resettle thousands of Afghans in the United States. “And to which countries will they be evacuated?” We have serious concerns about the protection of the human rights of our allies in countries that are rumored to be potential partners in this effort.
The administration weighs in using State Department-chartered commercial jets, not military jets, according to an administration official, who has not been allowed to publicly discuss internal deliberations and has spoken on condition of anonymity.
But if the State Department asks for military planes, the U.S. military would be ready to help, the official said. The Pentagon said on Wednesday that no request for assistance had been made by the state.
Tracey Jacobson, three-time Chef de Mission in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo, heads the State Department coordination unit overseeing Operation Allies Refuge. This unit also includes representatives of the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
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 has announced that Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White House’s Homeland Security Advisor, will lead a US delegation to a security conference in Uzbekistan this week to discuss Afghanistan’s security concerns. with leaders from Central Asia.
The Biden administration is considering a number of locations, including military installations both overseas and in the continental United States, to temporarily house Afghans while their visa applications are reviewed.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Wednesday that the Pentagon had identified an unknown number of overseas sites as “potential candidates,” but no final decision has been made.
The U.S. 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.
About 18,000 Afghans 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 tightening of the war end date comes after President Donald Trump’s administration negotiated 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 planned by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, where he had been taken refuge by the Taliban.
George W. Bush, who as president launched the war, criticized the Western withdrawal in an interview with a German broadcaster published Wednesday, saying he feared for Afghan women and girls as the Taliban regain control of 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 fear that Afghan women and girls are suffering indescribable harm,” said Bush.
Associated Press editors Roberts Burns and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.