Helene Cooper and
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is preparing to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with American forces to other countries in an effort to keep them safe while they apply for entry to the United States, senior administration officials said.
With the American military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, the White House has come under heavy pressure from lawmakers and military officials to protect Afghan allies from revenge attacks by the Taliban and speed up the lengthy and complex process of providing them special immigrant visas.
On Wednesday, administration officials started notifying lawmakers that they will soon begin what could be a wholesale move of tens of thousands of Afghans. Officials said the Afghans would be moved out of Afghanistan to third countries to await the processing of their visa requests to move to the United States.
The officials declined to say where the Afghans would wait, and it is not clear whether third countries have agreed to take them. The opportunity to move will be given to people who have already begun the application process.
More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the United States during the war have been trapped in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government.
Those applicants have 53,000 family members, officials said.
A senior administration official said that under the plan, family members of applicants would also be moved out of Afghanistan to a third country to await visa processing. Transportation out of Afghanistan will not come with any assurance that a visa to the United States will be granted. It was unclear whether people who somehow do not qualify would be sent back to Afghanistan or left in a third country.
The officials spoke on grounds of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the decision.
The decision comes as President Biden prepares to meet on Friday with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan amid a worsening security situation in the country.
Aides said Mr. Biden would press Mr. Ghani on the need for unity among the country’s leaders, urging them to stop fighting among themselves when the country is in crisis and government forces are at risk of losing control of the nation to the Taliban.
They said he would assure Mr. Ghani of continued financial support from the United States to the Afghan government and people, including a $266 million humanitarian assistance package and $3.3 billion in security assistance, as well as significant aid to help combat the coronavirus pandemic with vaccines, testing kits and personal protective equipment.
Officials said the administration has been working to streamline the visa process for Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, and has added people to handle the applications.
Pressure on the administration to act swiftly on the Afghans’ behalf has grown steadily in recent weeks in both the House and the Senate. Lawmakers pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon budget hearing on Wednesday.
“These brave Afghan partners, these Afghan and American heroes, people who we asked to risk their lives not just for Afghanistan, but for America because we had their backs, their future is in your hands,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former Marine officer.
“This much is certain,” Mr. Moulton said during the hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “The Taliban will kill them if they can. And they will rape and murder their wives and kids first, if they can.”
Mr. Austin appeared to hint at the plans. “I am confident that at some point, we’ll begin to evacuate some of those people soon,” he said.
General Milley said the military was ready to begin moving Afghans who had applied for the special visas. “I consider it a moral imperative to take care of those that have served along our side,” he said. “We are prepared to execute whatever we are directed.”
Chronic delays and logjams have plagued the special immigrant visa program for more than a decade. Democrats have accused former President Donald J. Trump of exacerbating the problem by starving the program of resources and staffing.
The coronavirus pandemic did not help matters; a surge in cases at the embassy in Kabul shut down in-person interviews and vetting.
A State Department report in January cited “limited staffing” and “local safety conditions directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic” as “severely” affecting the visa application process.
In recent weeks, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have introduced bills to speed up the process and waive certain requirements, such as mandating applicants to undergo costly medical examinations. And in December, as part of a huge catchall spending bill, Congress raised the total cap for the visa program by 4,000, to 26,500.
The Biden administration has also come under pressure from several nonprofit groups and advocates for refugees to do more.
About 70 organizations recently wrote a letter to Mr. Biden urging his administration to “immediately implement plans to evacuate vulnerable U.S.-affiliated Afghans” — a step the White House is now taking.
U.S. to evacuate Afghan interpreters before military withdrawal complete
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is planning to evacuate a group of vulnerable Afghan interpreters before the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan so they can wrap up their visa applications from safety, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The decision by President Joe Biden’s administration risks creating a sense of crisis in Afghanistan, just a day before Biden meets Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for talks aimed at projecting a sense of partnership despite the U.S. military exit.
The White House meeting comes as Taliban insurgents press a major offensive in Afghanistan, triggering growing concern in Congress here for Afghan interpreters who worked for the U.S. military during its two-decade-long engagement and fear Taliban reprisals after American troops depart.
The U.S. officials did not disclose where the Afghans would be transported or say how many would be involved, but said the group consisted entirely of Afghans who have already started the visa process.
“Should it become necessary, we will consider additional relocation or evacuation options,” one of the officials said.
Fighting between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban has surged in recent weeks, with the militants gaining control of territory. The Pentagon now estimates the Taliban control 81 of the country’s 419 district centers.
But as the clock ticks down, Afghans who have applied for visas increasingly fear that the insurgents will target them and their families, in retribution for helping foreign forces during America’s longest war.
Samey Honaryar, a former Afghan interpreter who was granted asylum in the United States after his life was threatened, said at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday that time was running short for his compatriots.
“Please evacuate them,” he said. “They were good people, they helped you.”
The U.S. military has completed more than half of its withdrawal from Afghanistan and is set to finish in the coming weeks. That leaves little time to process applications for special immigrant visas already filed by roughly 9,000 Afghans, or the thousands of others who have formally expressed interest.
Although the U.S. State Department has increased staffing, U.S. officials say there is a limit to how fast a 14-step, multiple-agency process that includes security vetting can move without changes to legislation. If all goes well, a visa could normally be processed in nine to 12 months, officials say.
Administration officials say changes in legislation could accelerate the process, but its plans have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which has repeatedly forced the U.S. embassy in Kabul to postpone visa interviews.
U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat and former Marine, introduced legislation on Thursday to help Afghans who worked for the United States. With Honaryar and other former interpreters, he told reporters he welcomed reports of the planned evacuations.
“This is a good day in this story, but it is far from the final chapter,” Moulton said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Daniel Wallis