“Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” President Biden said in a statement.
The evacuees escaped the clutches of Taliban militants who have targeted interpreters, in some cases killing them as retribution for their work with U.S. troops on the front lines and as crucial workers for diplomats and humanitarian agencies. The urgency has mounted in recent months as the Taliban has wrested control of wide swaths of the country from the Afghan government. The insurgent group has seized about half the country’s district centers, U.S. officials have said.
The Afghans on the initial flight are among a broader group of about 2,500 who are furthest along in the special immigrant visa process and who will arrive on subsequent flights, said Russell E. Travers, a senior adviser at the National Security Council, in a call with Biden administration officials Thursday.
“These arrivals are just the first of many as we work quickly to relocate [Special Immigrant Visa]-eligible Afghans out of harm’s way — to the United States, to U.S. facilities abroad, or to third countries — so that they can wait in safety while they finish their visa applications,” Biden said.
Officials have said about 4,000 applicants and their relatives who are not as far along in the process would be flown to unspecified third countries for longer-term processing.
But the first flight is a small fraction of thousands of Afghans who have spent years in bureaucratic limbo waiting for their visas to be approved after the rigorous and, many say, at times confounding screening process.
About 20,000 Afghans had applied for the special immigrant visa as of July 15, according to the White House. That number does not include family members; a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer an estimate, said the total number of people in the applicant pipeline including family members could be as high as 100,000.
That is more than the roughly 74,000 Afghans resettled in the program since it began in 2008, according to the State Department.
The Senate on Thursday cleared more than $1 billion to pay for the evacuations, including transportation and housing provided by the Defense and State departments. The bill would also reduce requirements for applicants and allow 8,000 more visas on top of the 26,500 currently allocated for the program. Biden is expected to sign the bill.
Underscoring the complexity of the effort, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, is the fact that applicants live all over Afghanistan, many in territory controlled or contested by the Taliban.
The Association of Wartime Allies, an interpreter advocacy group, estimates that about half of the applicants still waiting live outside Kabul. Many roads outside the capital are dotted with Taliban checkpoints, and commercial flights are disappearing in some cities as clashes threaten airport operations.
“The reality is some of these people are going to die. Why didn’t the U.S. military evacuate them when we had the ability?” asked Matt Zeller, a former Army officer and board chair of the advocacy group. He said Biden administration officials ignored his warnings in January to prepare for mass evacuations.
Tracey Jacobson, the State Department’s Afghanistan Coordination Task Force director, told reporters on a call Thursday that the United States had no ability to bring applicants to the capital or house them while they wait for clearance to fly.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has accelerated processing to accommodate the requests and will establish channels to help people navigate the complex application, Wilson said.
There was a “great sense of urgency” to resume processing after operations were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said, and many interested in the program have been able to make it to Kabul, he said.
But Wilson declined to say whether the Afghan air force, beleaguered and overtaxed in its battle with militants, could be tapped to help extract interpreters from Taliban-dominated regions.
“We’re focusing our effort on those we can get out,” Wilson said. “We cannot through this program solve every problem in this country.”
It is unclear what will happen to interpreters denied visas, including those denied for what advocates say are circumstances beyond their control, such as former contract employers failing to provide necessary documentation. The State Department is “concerned” about the population of applicants who did not qualify, Wilson said, adding that officials in Washington are discussing a solution.
Advocates and interpreters have said the evacuation so far has been beset by confusion and tension.
One former interpreter, who said he worked with a U.S. contractor for eight years in Kandahar, including time translating for U.S. troops training Afghan soldiers, said he was notified to pick up his passport but that he had received no further information.
The former interpreter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from the Taliban, watched news of the first flight trickle out while waiting to see if he, his wife and six children would be among the next wave.
“Pray for me,” he texted a reporter on WhatsApp. “Very tired … faced with too much problems to get out of here.”
Anne Gearan and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.