The United States plans to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who worked with American forces during the war while their applications for US entry are processed.
A senior Biden administration official said planning has accelerated in recent days to relocate Afghans, and their families who assisted Americans during the nearly 20-year-old war to other countries or US territories.
The administration intends to carry out the evacuation later this summer, probably in August.
Both officials added that no country or countries for the planned temporary relocation have been settled on. Evacuating Afghans to a US territory, however, is seen as complicated because it could lead to the visa applicants having greater legal rights as they are vetted.
The White House has begun briefing lawmakers on the outlines of the plans.
The administration has begun to identify a group of interpreters to be relocated outside of Afghanistan before US completes its drawdown by September, said a senior administration official.
Those individuals have already begun the process of applying for special immigrant visas available to Afghans who have worked with the US.
The official stressed that administration relocation efforts would comply with U.S. consular law and would be coordinated with Congress.
The White House is planning for a variety of scenarios including “additional relocation or evacuation options” if necessary, the official said.
With US and NATO forces facing a Sept 11 deadline to leave Afghanistan, the Biden administration has faced increased pressure from lawmakers, veterans and others to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or who otherwise helped US military operations there in the past two decades.
“We have a moral obligation to protect our brave allies who put their lives on the line for us, and we’ve been working for months to engage the administration and make sure there’s a plan, with few concrete results,” Republican congressman Peter Meijer of Michigan said during a House hearing last week.
Despite unusual bipartisan support in Congress, the administration has not publicly gone on record in support of an evacuation as it unwinds a war that started after the 911 attacks.
I want to see an operational plan to know how this is going to unfold and have confidence that it will be successfulSeth Moulton, US congressman
The Biden administration and US military officials have spoken carefully about relocation — and largely sidestepped talk of a mass evacuation — amid growing concerns about the precarious security situation for the Afghanistan government in the face of diminished US military presence.
In part, US officials have been concerned that word of an evacuation could trigger a panic in Afghanistan, not to mention further complicate the present security situation.
The Taliban issued a statement earlier this month saying those who worked for US and western interests would not be targeted.
Still, for many the runaway corruption, deep insecurity and fear of violence from Taliban and from the many heavily armed US-allied warlords has many Afghans seeing the special immigration visas as their last chance to leave their war-tortured nation.
As part of its plan, the White House will also push to surge resources to help process special immigration visa applications to help those who remain in Afghanistan after the US military drawdown but want to leave for the US, according to the official.
The official added that the administration is looking to work with Congress to find quick fixes to make the application process more efficient including eliminating paperwork and adjusting requirements that do not impact national security.
The move to accelerate plans to relocate Afghans who helped the US effort comes as Biden is set to meet on Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
Congressman Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been pushing the administration to move more quickly on the issue, said on Thursday he had not yet seen details of the White House plan.
“As a Marine, I want to see a specific plan,” Moulton said. “I want to see an operational plan to know how this is going to unfold and have confidence that it will be successful.”
The stepped-up relocation effort was first reported by The New York Times.