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Evacuation of Afghan interpreters who worked with US military to begin last week of July

U.S. soldiers and their interpreters pose for a photo in Paktia province, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2012. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Trumbull)
July 15, 2021

The Biden administration will begin this month evacuating thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military as interpreters and translators.

The administration announced Wednesday that it was launching a program called “Operation Allies Refuge” to relocate eligible Afghan nationals and their families while their visa applications are vetted.

The first flights out of Afghanistan will begin the last week of July for applicants who are already in the pipeline, a senior administration official said. Details on when the flights will depart or where the Afghans will be relocated won’t be made public because of “operational security,” the official said.

The operation will be led by veteran Ambassador Tracey Jacobson and will include representatives from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

“Our objective is to get individuals who are eligible relocated out of the country in advance of the removal of the withdrawal of troops at the end of August,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The operation’s launch comes as the administration has faced pressure from lawmakers in both parties who fear Afghans who served alongside American troops will be killed by the Taliban as the United States completes its military withdrawal.

Because of such dangers, Congress created a special visa program in 2006 for Afghans and Iraqis who worked alongside American troops in those two conflicts.

The program is backlogged and limited. It takes an average of nearly three years for Afghans’ applications to be processed, in part because of the rigorous vetting involved, according to the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in June that about 18,000 Afghans had expressed interest in the special visa program. About 9,000 have filled out the necessary paperwork and the other 9,000 are at the beginning of the process, Blinken said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday that additional resources have been added to help expedite the processing of the visa applications. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued 299 of the visas in March, 356 in April and 619 in May, the most recent month for which data is available, he said.

Biden announced last week that the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would conclude by Aug. 31, bringing America’s longest war to a swift end weeks before the Sept. 11 deadline he set this year.

The advocacy group Human Rights First called the relocation program “a welcome first step” but lamented that key details, such as who will be evacuated and where they will be sent, are still unknown.

“To meet our promises to our Afghan allies, any evacuation must include all 18,000 Afghans who worked with U.S. forces and their families,” said Jennifer Quigley, the advocacy group’s senior director of government affairs. “To limit the evacuation by allies’ status in the visa application ‘pipeline’ would do a terrible wrong to them and to America’s reputation around the world.”

Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., also called for the release of information on the number of people to be evacuated, how they are being prioritized, and how the U.S. will help them safely travel to evacuation sites.

The U.S. must place a priority on helping women and others who may be outside of the special visa requirements but who the Taliban will continue to target, Waltz said.

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