WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to evacuate at least some of the Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and who face the threat of retribution from the Taliban before the U.S. withdrawal’s official completion date of Sept. 11, senior administration officials said Thursday.
The White House had previously declined to endorse the idea but President Joe Biden gave the green light to evacuation plans on Thursday, telling reporters, “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”
The decision follows an internal debate and urgent appeals in recent weeks from lawmakers from both parties, veterans of the war in Afghanistan, the Afghans who risked their lives to support U.S. soldiers, and from diplomats in America’s longest war.
Asked about the fate of Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other jobs, Biden said: “We’ve already begun the process” of helping the Afghan partners.
Asked which country they would be relocated to, the president said he didn’t know and mentioned he would be meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House on Friday.
An unspecified number of Afghans who worked as interpreters for the U.S. government and who applied for a visa will be moved to a third country, where their paperwork will be reviewed, senior administration officials said.
It remained unclear how many Afghans would be evacuated, which third country would accept them and when the operation would begin.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby indicated the relocation might involve civilian aircraft and not military planes. An evacuation of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to Guam in 1996-97 also used chartered, civilian planes.
To help Afghans facing threats from the Taliban due to their work for U.S. forces, Congress created the special immigrant visa program. But the SIV program has been hampered by bureaucratic delays and advocates say Afghan partners are in grave danger from the Taliban while they wait for their applications to be processed.
“Although we have surged resources and sped up SIV processing times significantly, we recognize that some of these interpreters and translators have been in the process, in some cases for years, and are still waiting to receive their visas,” a senior administration official said.
“We have identified a group of SIV applicants who have served as interpreters and translators to be relocated to another location outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown by September, in order to complete the visa application process,” the official said.
The U.S. withdrawal is likely to be effectively complete next month, according to officials.
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said the evacuees would come from the 18,000 Afghans already in the Special Immigrant Visa pipeline. She declined to say which countries they would be evacuated to but said the relocation would be done in “full compliance with all applicable laws, as well as in full coordination with Congress.”
The administration is identifying Afghans who worked with the U.S. government to be relocated to a third country to allow the Afghans to “safely complete” the remainder of the visa application process, she said.
The senior administration official left open the possibility that evacuations might have to be expanded. “We are planning for all contingencies, so that we are prepared for all scenarios. Should it become necessary, we will consider additional relocation or evacuation options,” the official said.
Lawmakers, veterans groups and rights organizations welcomed the announcement.
Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First, said the Biden administration should fly the Afghans to the U.S. territory of Guam, where the governor already has said the Afghans would be welcome.
“This is America’s responsibility, we don’t need to outsource to another country,” he said.
Purdy added that the administration should “release their plan to ensure that we get as many people out as possible.”
Congressional aides from both parties said the White House had informed lawmakers of the decision to proceed with an evacuation and that some officials in the administration favored flying the Afghan partners to Guam.
Visa applicants in Guam would be accorded more rights than in a third country, and it would be more difficult to deport them back to Afghanistan from U.S. territory, rights advocates said.
Advocates have accused the Biden administration of moving far too slowly to protect the tens of thousands of Afghans whose lives are in mortal danger because of their association with the U.S. and Western organizations.
Veterans and refugee organizations said they have been inundated with pleas for help from former interpreters.