The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to evacuate an initial group of Afghans who helped the United States during the 20-year war and who now face reprisals from the Taliban to an Army base in Virginia in the coming days, the State and Defense Departments said on Monday.
About 2,500 Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with American forces, as well as their family members, will be sent in stages to Fort Lee, Va., south of Richmond, to await final processing for formal entry into the United States, officials said.
“This is a group who have completed that step, the security vetting process, the rigorous process that is required before we bring the applicants and their families to the United States,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, told reporters.
The White House announced last week that it would begin evacuating Afghans the last week of July, in an effort called Operation Allies Refuge, but officials declined to comment on many details of the rapidly evolving program, including where the initial visa applicants and their eligible relatives would go in the United States.
With the American military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the White House has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies who helped the United States and speed up the process of providing them with special immigrant visas.
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, which are available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government. The applicants have 53,000 family members, U.S. officials have said.
American diplomats have been scrambling to reach agreements to relocate the Afghans to third countries, including some in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, as well as United States territories like Guam, to complete the visa application process in safety.
But with those negotiations dragging on and the security situation in Afghanistan worsening, the administration came up with a stopgap measure for applicants who had completed most, if not all, vetting: Bring them directly to the United States for final processing.
Administration officials are still working out last-minute details about sending the first group of Afghans to Fort Lee.
John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, spoke opaquely about this option last week when he told reporters that the administration might potentially house some of the Afghans at bases inside the United States on a “short-term” basis while their applications are processed. This would most likely be through humanitarian parole, a government program that allows people to apply to enter the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons.
The vast majority of Afghan applicants and their families, however, would go through the relocation process and be moved to an American base in another country.
“Clearly, we are planning for greater numbers than just this initial 2,500,” Mr. Kirby said. “But what that looks like over time, I just couldn’t be able to predict right now.”
Applicants and their families will stay in available barracks or family housing units at Fort Lee. The Pentagon also will provide “food and water, proper sustenance, appropriate medical care,” including coronavirus screening, Mr. Kirby said.
The mission is aimed at fulfilling a pledge by President Biden to not repeat the abandonment of U.S. allies during the withdrawal from Vietnam, and comes as the Taliban gain more ground throughout Afghanistan, seizing swaths of territory, displacing tens of thousands, and wounding or killing hundreds of civilians.
House members from both parties, who are expected to approve legislation this week increasing the number of State Department special immigrant visas and streamlining the application process, praised the administration’s efforts but complained they should have happened much faster.
“The ability to conduct an evacuation now is going to be different from the ability to conduct an evacuation in August, September, October, November,” Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said on MSNBC this month. “It’s going to get worse with each passing month.”
Despite a congressional mandate that the State and Homeland Security Departments process the visas within nine months, more than 8,000 applicants had been stalled longer than that, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, which filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the delays.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.