WASHINGTON – The United States will begin flights later this month to evacuate interpreters and other Afghan nationals who assisted the American war effort, a senior administration official said Wednesday.
The announcement comes with an Aug. 31 deadline looming for completion of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.
“For operational security, we won’t have additional details on when flights will depart, but we will meet the president’s commitment to begin flights this month,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to publicly discuss the matter.
The fate of Afghan interpreters and others who aided the U.S. military has been one of the central concerns during the pullout. President Biden has stressed that they would not be abandoned, and in a speech last week, he declared that “there is a home for you in the United States if you so choose.” But details about his administration’s plans remain sparse.
According to the administration official, the evacuation mission, known as Operation Allies Refuge, will support “interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the [special immigrant visa] application pipeline.”
The flights are expected to begin the last week of July and are being coordinated by officials from the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security.
Tracey Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, will lead a State Department unit overseeing the effort. Deputy homeland security adviser Russell E. Travers, a longtime intelligence professional and former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will coordinate the interagency policy process.
Facing mounting pressure from lawmakers and veterans, the Biden administration has been scrambling in recent weeks to arrange for the evacuation of significant numbers of former interpreters and other employees of the U.S. government during its long mission in Afghanistan. Many of those U.S. allies, some of whose visa applications have taken years to move through the complex application process, say their lives are under increasingly acute threat as the Taliban gains ground.
The militant group has swept across northern Afghanistan in recent months, cutting off key transport routes and encroaching on provincial capitals. The Taliban advance in multiple areas of the country, often the product of negotiated withdrawals by Afghan forces, underscores the shortcomings of the security forces that the United States and other NATO nations worked to build over two decades.
Still unanswered as the White House promises evacuation flights for the Afghan visa applicants is how many will be airlifted initially. The State Department has said that about half of the approximately 18,000 applicants to the special Afghanistan visa program are at the very beginning of the process, suggesting that those individuals may not be among those evacuated initially.
Also unclear is where the applicants will be taken while their paperwork is processed. In his speech last week defending his drawdown decision, Biden said they would be taken to third countries or U.S. territories. Possible destinations include Persian Gulf nations or countries in Central Asia.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say Wednesday where the Afghan nationals and their family members might be relocated.
“For operational and security purposes for the individuals that we’re relocating, we’re not going to be providing details of that at this time,” Psaki told reporters at the White House. “I don’t foresee that necessarily changing. Once it is in a place where their security is affirmed, then we will of course provide information – as we have on the timing, as we have on the what the operation looks like.”
Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan drew criticism from former President George W. Bush, who called the move a mistake.
In an interview with German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle that was posted online Wednesday, Bush said he is “afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm” because of the withdrawal.
“You know, I think it is,” Bush said when asked whether he thinks the withdrawal is a mistake. “Yeah, because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad. And I’m sad. Laura and I spent a lot of time with Afghan women. And they’re scared.”
Bush launched the military intervention nearly two decades ago.
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The Washington Post’s Matt Viser contributed to this report.