President Biden has defended his decision to end the campaign by Aug. 31, despite Taliban gains and bleak assessments of Afghanistan’s security forces, saying the country must now defend itself but promising not to abandon those who were crucial to U.S. operations there. “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose,” Biden said last week.
The president was expected to meet Wednesday with Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who earlier this week stepped down as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and flew home, marking a symbolic end to U.S. military involvement there.
A senior administration official said the evacuation flights would begin this month as part of a program that officials are calling Operation Allies Refuge. The initiative 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,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The flights are expected to start the last week of July and are being coordinated by officials from the State, Defense and Homeland Security departments.
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.
The Biden administration, facing mounting pressure from lawmakers and veterans, has been scrambling in recent weeks to respond to concerns about the safety of the former U.S. employees. Many of those individuals, some of whom have visa applications that have taken years to move through a complex and meandering process, say their lives are in jeopardy as the Taliban gains ground.
The militant group has swept across northern Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn in recent months, cutting off key transport routes and encroaching on provincial capitals. The Taliban advance, 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 20 years.
Still unanswered as the White House promises to accelerate the evacuation process is how many people 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 at first.
A decision to bring the Afghans to bases within the continental United States would represent a shift for the Biden administration, which has previously said it was considering transporting them to third countries or U.S. territories.
Experts have previously said that bringing the visa applicants to the mainland United States could be complicated from a legal perspective, in part because it would make it easier for them to access U.S. courts and attorneys if their applications are rejected.
If they are not moved to the continental United States, possible destinations could include bases on U.S. territories such as Guam, as well as Persian Gulf nations or countries in Central Asia.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration was not sharing information about where the Afghans will go because of “operational and security” reasons.
Kirby said the Pentagon has activated a working group to help identify applicants who may not necessarily be in the program but would qualify.
It is unclear to what degree the Pentagon has asked current and former service members to help keep communication lines open or reach applicants in hiding. Troops and veterans have strong bonds with their interpreters, often keeping in close contact over WhatsApp and social media, whereas diplomatic officials may not have recent contact information for those who have fled their homes or changed their numbers.
Matt Viser and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.