The U.S. will begin flying Afghan nationals who supported U.S. and coalition operations in Afghanistan, according to a senior Biden administration official. Evacuation flights will begin in the last week of July.
During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan citizens served as interpreters, provided intelligence and assisted the U.S. and its coalition partners as drivers, security guards and in other roles.
Roughly 18,000 Afghan nationals, along with tens of thousands of their family members, have applied for special immigrant visas to the U.S. But administrative delays have long meant the visa process can take years, allowing the backlog to grow.
Now, with the U.S. withdrawal 95% complete — and Taliban control of the country growing by the day — the threat of revenge attacks on those known to have worked with the U.S. is at a renewed high.
Under the effort, called Operation Allies Refuge, as many as 70,000 people will be flown out of Afghanistan to one or more third countries while they await visa processing. Those third countries could include Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or a country in the Middle East or Europe, according to a senior Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak publicly. It could also include the U.S. territory Guam.
According to the administration official, the operation will be led by longtime State Department veteran Ambassador Tracey Jacobson, who previously served as chief of mission in Kosovo, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, will help coordinate among federal agencies.
The evacuation faces serious challenges, defense analysts say. Many of the applicants and their families live outside of Kabul in regions already captured or contested by the Taliban. It may be difficult for embassy officials to contact people in rural areas.
A key to the future of U.S. and other diplomatic missions in Afghanistan is the security of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the country's lone international airport. Turkey is expected to provide security for the Kabul airport, together at least for a time with U.S. troops who will also provide security for the U.S. Embassy.
Pressure had been mounting on the White House for months to take concrete steps to evacuate the interpreters and other Afghan nationals.
Last month, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, several of whom served in the Middle East alongside interpreters and fixers from Afghanistan and Iraq, introduced legislation to ease administrative obstacles.
Those obstacles included requiring visa applicants to get a medical exam that was only available at a single clinic in Kabul, lawmakers said. Now, applicants can get the exam within 30 days of arriving in the U.S.
The bill was authored by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican who served as a combat surgeon in Iraq, and Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat who did three tours as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. It passed the House late last month with overwhelming bipartisan support and has gone to the Senate.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As U.S. forces exit Afghanistan, the Biden administration has announced a plan to evacuate Afghans who worked for the U.S. as interpreters and translators. It is called Operation Allies Refuge, and it will begin this month. The plan involves flying those Afghans and their families - as many as 70,000 people - to a third country to process their visas. This as security continues to worsen in Afghanistan. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to tell us about it.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: All right. We've got a name for this operation now. Do we have any other detail?
BOWMAN: You know, not much. We don't know which countries they'll be flown to. Two senior officials told me they're looking at Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, countries in the Middle East, Europe as well and also the U.S. territory, Guam. And we're told the contract flights will begin the last week of July, and it will be overseen by Ambassador Tracey Jacobson, who served in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo.
Now, Mary Louise, such an effort has been pushed for months by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill - a rare moment of bipartisanship. And there's a concern that many of these people who work for the U.S. will be left behind and threatened or killed by the Taliban. They say there's a moral obligation here. You know, already there have been some of these interpreters targeted. And I just spoke with one interpreter who made it to the United States last year. He said his friend, a fellow interpreter for the U.S. military, was shot and killed right in front of his house in Kunar Province just a couple of days ago. And his 5-year-old son was wounded.
KELLY: Oh, gosh. That's awful. I mean, the situation clearly is urgent. It's also clearly really complicated to fly as many as 70,000 people out. You said an ambassador is in charge, so the State Department. What is the U.S. military involvement here?
BOWMAN: Well, it's possible you could see some military involvement in this operation as it proceeds. You might need larger military cargo aircraft to move people, as opposed to a contract passenger aircraft. I know the U.S. military already is poised to help and has worked out the possibilities here. Now, of course, the Taliban is grabbing more and more territory all around the country. It gets, you know, large and unwieldy, this effort, and security the airport is threatened. That is a concern.
BOWMAN: I think what many are afraid of is a specter of Vietnam, where you had this hasty dash out of Saigon in 1975 and also an effort to evacuate Vietnamese to Guam. That was called Operation New Life.
KELLY: Go back to the interpreter you mentioned, Tom - the one who made it here last year and you managed to speak with. What is he hearing from friends still in Afghanistan?
BOWMAN: Well, this interpreter who lives in Virginia said the plan is wonderful, but he worries about the applicants outside Kabul in areas controlled by the Taliban or areas where there is a lot of fighting. How will they be able to get to Kabul airport to get out, and how will the U.S. embassy contact them? A lot of times, the Taliban turn off cell coverage. He told me his friends - some have been approved for a visa but haven't heard anything. Others have sent their paperwork in and haven't heard much as well. He said overall, they're hopeful but anxious and worried.
KELLY: That is NPR's Tom Bowman.
Thanks for your reporting.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.