US to start evacuating Afghans who helped American forces this month

The US will this month begin evacuating from Afghanistan special immigration visa applicants whose lives are at risk because they worked for the US government as translators and in other roles, the White House said on Wednesday.

The evacuation, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, is set to start during the last week of July, the press secretary, Jen Psaki, told a briefing. Fighting between US-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban has surged, with the militants gaining territory and capturing border crossings.

“The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals,” Psaki said. “We want to make sure we recognize and value the role they’ve played over the last several years.”

Joe Biden has set a formal end to the US military mission in Afghanistan for 31 August. The US general leading the mission, Austin Miller, relinquished command at a ceremony on Monday, a symbolic end to America’s longest war, which began in late 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Psaki said she could not provide the number of Afghans who would be in the initial evacuation flights “for operational and security reasons”.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the initial evacuation would include about 2,500 people and that they will probably be housed in US military facilities while visa applications are processed. A final decision has not been made on the bases to be used.

The special immigrant visa program is available to people who worked with the US government or the US-led military force during the Afghanistan war. A similar program was available for Iraqis who worked with the US government after the 2003 American-led invasion, but no applications were accepted after September 2014.

The news of the new Afghanistan operation was first reported by Reuters.

The Biden administration has been under pressure from lawmakers of both parties and advocacy groups to begin evacuating thousands of special immigration visa applicants – and their families – who risk retaliation because they worked for the US government.

That concern has been increased by the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains and deadlocked peace talks.

Psaki said the objective was to get “individuals who are eligible relocated out of the country” in advance of the withdrawal of US troops at the end of August.

It is expected that the initial evacuation will be carried out by civilian chartered aircraft and will include Afghans who are waiting for visa applications to be processed, according to sources familiar with the issue.

James Miervaldis, chairman of a group called No One Left Behind that has been pressing for the evacuation of US-affiliated Afghans, called the start of the evacuation operation “a very positive development”.

Miervaldis said the move was still not enough as there are potentially tens of thousands of Afghans who may want to leave while they await their visa process.

A state department unit coordinating the evacuations will be run by the veteran ambassador Tracey Jacobson and include representatives from the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, Psaki said.

The White House deputy homeland security adviser, Russ Travers, will coordinate an interagency policy process related to the evacuations.

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