Some 200 Afghans were set to start new lives in the United States on Friday as an airlift was launched for translators and others who risk retaliation from the Taliban for working for the US during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, said US officials.
The operation to evacuate US affiliated Afghans and family members comes as the withdrawal of US troops nears completion and Afghan government forces struggle to fend off the Taliban advance.
The first planeload of 200 evacuees arrived at Fort Lee, a military base in Virginia, for final paperwork processing and medical examinations.
Afghans are issued special immigrant visas (SIVs) that give them the right to bring their family with them. As many as 50,000 or more people could eventually be evacuated in “Operation Allies Refuge”.
“These arrivals are just the first of many as we work quickly to put SIV-eligible Afghans out of harm’s way — to the United States, to U.S. facilities abroad or to third countries — so they can wait in safety while their visa applications,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement that the US would continue to use “the full power of our diplomatic, economic and development toolkit” to support the Afghan people after the longest war in the United States.
The first group of arrivals is one of 2,500 SIV applicants and family members who have nearly completed the process and cleared them for evacuation, said Russ Travers, Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser.
The Afghans would stay in Fort Lee for up to seven days before joining relatives or host families across the country.
The evacuees underwent “rigorous background checks” and Covid-19 testing, Travers added. Some had already been vaccinated and the rest are being offered injections in Fort Lee.
About 300 U.S. military personnel from various installations will provide logistics, temporary shelter and medical support at Fort Lee, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
About 75,000 other Afghans have been resettled to the US in the past decade, Austin said in a statement, adding that there is a “moral obligation” for the country “to help those who have helped us.”
‘Unreasonable that we are so late’
Rising violence in Afghanistan has caused serious problems for many SIV applicants whose paperwork is in the pipeline, amid reports – denied by the Taliban – that some have been killed by vengeful insurgents.
The SIV program is also plagued by long lead times and red tape, which have led to a backlog of some 20,000 applications. The State Department has added staff to handle them.
The majority of applicants left behind would likely miss out on the airlift operation, including the roughly 50 percent who were in the early stages of the process as the clock counts down to the US withdrawal in September.
Candidates in the trailing group have staged multiple protests in Kabul in recent months, and they and supporters say they face a risk of violence while waiting that will increase once the troops withdraw.
Ross Wilson, charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Kabul, told reporters that after the first round of flights that removed those who had security clearances, about 4,000 applicants and their families who were in the later stages but still needed would be interviewed. somewhere outside the United States for processing.
That left about 15,000 applicants waiting in Afghanistan at earlier stages.
“We have found it appropriate that we focus our energies on those parts of the SIV applicant pool that have demonstrated that they meet the law’s criteria and then work to move them,” he said, adding that efforts are underway in Washington. were made to help applicants gain access to documents at an early stage.
Adam Bates, policy adviser to the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal aid to refugees, said the US had 20 years to anticipate what the withdrawal would look like.
“It is unscrupulous that we are so late,” he said.
Kim Staffieri, co-founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, which assists SIV applicants, said surveys via Facebook show that about half of applicants cannot reach Kabul, including many who have been approved for evacuation.
Wilson said they believed the “overwhelming majority” of people offered the airlift were able to reach Kabul.
“We’re focusing our efforts on those we can get out of,” he said. “We cannot solve every problem in this country with this program.”
Congress created SIV programs in 2006 for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who risked retaliation for working for the US.
Attack on UN compound in Herat
“Anti-government elements” in Afghanistan on Friday attacked the main UN compound in the capital of western Herat province, killing at least one guard, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.
The attack involved rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire and took place hours after Taliban fighters penetrated deep into the city of Herat. There were heavy clashes with Afghan security forces near UNAMA’s provincial headquarters, officials said.
The UN said it was urgently seeking a full picture of the attack and was in contact with relevant parties in a statement following the attack.
It was not immediately clear who attacked the compound, but a Western security official told Reuters that all diplomatic compounds in the city were on high alert.
( Jowharwith REUTERS)