Joe Biden has vowed that Afghans who helped the US military “are not going to be left behind” as his administration stepped up planning to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters while their applications for US entry are processed.
Planning has accelerated in recent days to relocate the Afghans and their families to other countries before the US military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to officials.
The evacuation of the at-risk Afghans will include their family members for a total of as many as 50,000 people, a senior Republican lawmaker said.
“They’re going to come,” Biden said in an exchange with reporters after an event to highlight a bipartisan agreement reached on infrastructure legislation. “We’ve already begun the process. Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”
The decision by Biden’s administration risks inflaming a sense of crisis in Afghanistan, just a day before Biden meets President Ashraf Ghani for talks in Washington aimed at projecting a sense of partnership despite the US military exit.
Responding to questions after a White House speech, Biden said, “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind … They’re welcome here just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us.”
His meeting with Ghani comes as Taliban insurgents press a major offensive in Afghanistan, triggering growing concern in Congress for Afghan interpreters who worked for the US military during its two-decade-long engagement and fear Taliban reprisals after American troops depart.
The US officials did not disclose where the Afghans would be transported or say how many would be involved, but said the group consisted entirely of Afghans who have already started the visa process.
“Should it become necessary, we will consider additional relocation or evacuation options,” one of the officials said.
Congressman Mike McCaul, speaking to Reuters after discussing the plan with administration officials, said the evacuees will comprise about 9,000 interpreters who have applied for special immigration visas and their families.
“You are probably talking about 50,000 people. There’s no way to expedite their visas in-country … on a timely basis that would save their lives,” said McCaul, the top Republican on the House of Representatives committee on foreign affairs and a leading advocate of evacuating US-affiliated Afghans.
Countries that “could be on the table” to receive them include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, he said.
The operation “is going to involve a lot of planes”, he said, adding that while it will create the “optics” that Afghanistan “is imploding … the decision has been made to pull out our military forces and so this really needs to be part of the preparation and planning.“
Fighting between US-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban has surged in recent weeks, with the militants gaining control of territory. The Pentagon estimates the Taliban control 81 of the country’s 419 district centers.
Political talks between the government and the Taliban have largely stalled and it is unclear how Afghan security forces will perform after US troops depart. The Taliban have assured Afghans who worked with foreign forces of their safety.
But as the clock ticks down, Afghans who have applied for visas increasingly fear that the insurgents will target them and their families, in retribution for helping foreign forces during America’s longest war.
Samey Honaryar, a former Afghan interpreter who was granted asylum in the United States after his life was threatened, said at a news conference at the US Capitol on Thursday that time was running short for his compatriots.
“Please evacuate them,” he said. “They were good people, they helped you.”
The US military has completed more than half of its withdrawal from Afghanistan and is set to finish in the coming weeks. That leaves little time to process applications for special immigrant visas already filed by roughly 9,000 Afghans, or the thousands of others who have formally expressed interest.