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US to move Afghans who aided troops to third countries

Afghan National Army soldiers from the 209th Corps prepare to board helicopters on their base in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Afghan National Army soldiers from the 209th Corps prepare to board helicopters on their base in Mazar-i-Sharif.Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is preparing to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters, drivers, and others who worked with US forces to other countries in an effort to keep them safe while they apply for entry to the United States, senior administration officials said.

With the US military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, the White House has come under heavy pressure from lawmakers and military officials to protect Afghan allies from revenge attacks by the Taliban, and speed up the lengthy and complex process of providing them special immigrant visas.

Roughly 650 US troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main American military force completes its withdrawal, which is set to be largely done in the next two weeks, US officials told the Associated Press on Thursday.

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In addition, several hundred additional American forces will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security, as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place, the officials said. Overall, officials said the United States expects to have American and coalition military command, its leadership, and most troops out by July 4, or shortly after that, meeting an aspirational deadline that commanders developed months ago.

The officials were not authorized to discuss details of the withdrawal and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

On Wednesday, administration officials started notifying lawmakers that they will soon begin what could be a wholesale move of tens of thousands of Afghans. Officials said the Afghans would be moved out of Afghanistan to third countries to await the processing of their visa requests to move to the United States.

The officials declined to say where the Afghans would wait, and it is not clear whether third countries have agreed to take them. The opportunity to move will be given to people who have already begun the application process.

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More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers, and embassy clerks for the United States during the war have been trapped in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, available to people who face threats because of work for the US government.

Those applicants have 53,000 family members, officials said.

A senior administration official said that under the plan, family members of applicants would also be moved out of Afghanistan to a third country to await visa processing. Transportation out of Afghanistan will not come with any assurance that a US visa will be granted. It was unclear whether people who somehow do not qualify would be sent back to Afghanistan or left in a third country.

The officials spoke on grounds of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the decision.

The decision comes as President Biden prepares to meet Friday with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan amid a worsening security situation in the country.

Aides said Biden would press Ghani on the need for unity among the country’s leaders, urging them to stop fighting among themselves when the country is in crisis and government forces are at risk of losing control of the nation to the Taliban.

They said he would assure Ghani of continued financial support from the United States to the Afghan government and people, including a $266 million humanitarian assistance package and $3.3 billion in security assistance, as well as significant aid to help combat the coronavirus pandemic with vaccines, testing kits and personal protective equipment.

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Officials said the administration has been working to streamline the visa process for Afghans who worked with US forces and has added people to handle the applications.

Pressure on the administration to act swiftly on the Afghans’ behalf has grown steadily in recent weeks in both the House and the Senate. Lawmakers pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon budget hearing Wednesday.

“These brave Afghan partners, these Afghan and American heroes, people who we asked to risk their lives not just for Afghanistan, but for America because we had their backs, their future is in your hands,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, a former Marine officer.

“This much is certain,” Moulton said during the hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “The Taliban will kill them if they can. And they will rape and murder their wives and kids first, if they can.”

Austin appeared to hint at the plans.

“I am confident that at some point, we’ll begin to evacuate some of those people soon,” he said.

Milley said the military was ready to begin moving Afghans who had applied for the special visas.

“I consider it a moral imperative to take care of those that have served along our side,” he said. “We are prepared to execute whatever we are directed.”

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Chronic delays and logjams have plagued the special immigrant visa program for more than a decade. Democrats have accused former president Donald Trump of exacerbating the problem by starving the program of resources and staffing.

The coronavirus pandemic did not help matters. A surge in cases at the embassy in Kabul shut down in-person interviews and vetting.

A State Department report in January cited “limited staffing” and “local safety conditions directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic” as “severely” affecting the visa application process.

In recent weeks, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have introduced bills to speed up the process and waive certain requirements, such as mandating applicants to undergo costly medical examinations. And in December, as part of a huge catchall spending bill, Congress raised the total cap for the visa program by 4,000, to 26,500.

The Biden administration has also come under pressure from several nonprofit groups and advocates for refugees to do more.

About 70 organizations recently wrote a letter to Biden urging his administration to “immediately implement plans to evacuate vulnerable US-affiliated Afghans” — a step the White House is now taking.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.