Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Defense Department was looking at "all options" to help the thousands of Afghan nationals seeking to emigrate, including the suitability of domestic and overseas facilities, as the United States ends its 20-year mission there and the Taliban continues its violent, alarming push to retake lost territory and undermine the central government.
President Joe Biden has defended his decision to end the campaign by Aug. 31, despite Taliban gains and bleak assessments of Afghanistan's security forces, saying the country must now defend itself but promising not to abandon those who were crucial to U.S. operations there. "There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose," Biden said last week.
The president was expected to meet Wednesday with Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, who earlier this week stepped down as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and flew home, marking a symbolic end to U.S. military involvement there.
A senior administration official said the evacuation flights would begin this month as part of a program officials are calling Operation Allies Refuge. The initiative will support "interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the [special immigrant visa] application pipeline," said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The flights are expected to start the last week of July and are being coordinated by officials from the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security.
Tracey Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, will lead a State Department unit overseeing the effort. Deputy homeland security adviser Russell E. Travers, a longtime intelligence professional and former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will coordinate the interagency policy process.
The Biden administration, facing mounting pressure from lawmakers and veterans, has been scrambling in recent weeks to respond to mounting concerns about the safety of the former U.S. employees. Many of those individuals, some whose visa applications have taken years to move through a complex and meandering process, say their lives in jeopardy as the Taliban gains ground.
The militant group has swept across northern Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn in recent months, cutting off key transport routes and encroaching on provincial capitals. The Taliban advance, often the product of negotiated withdrawals by Afghan forces, underscores the shortcomings of the security forces that the United States and other NATO nations worked to build over 20 years.
Still unanswered as the White House promises to accelerate the evacuation process is how many will be airlifted initially. The State Department has said that about half of the approximately 18,000 applicants to the special Afghanistan visa program are at the very beginning of the process, suggesting those individuals may not be among those evacuated initially.
A decision to bring the Afghans to bases within the continental United States would represent a shift for the Biden administration, which has previously said it was considering transporting them to third countries or U.S. territories.
Experts have previously said that bringing the visa applicants to the mainland United States could be complicated from a legal perspective, in part because it would make it easier for them to access U.S. courts and attorneys if their applications are rejected.
If they are not moved to the continental United States, possible destinations could include bases on U.S. territories such as Guam, or Persian Gulf nations or countries in Central Asia.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said the administration was not sharing information about where the Afghans will go due to "operational and security" reasons.
Kirby said the Pentagon had activated a working group to help identify applicants who may not necessarily be in the program but would qualify.
It is unclear to what degree the Pentagon has asked current and former service members to help keep communication lines open or reach applicants in hiding. Troops and veterans have strong bonds with their interpreters, often keeping in close contact over WhatsApp and social media whereas diplomatic officials may not have recent contact information for those who've fled their homes or changed their numbers.
Published : July 15, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Missy Ryan, Felicia Sonmez, Alex Horton