By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Some 200 Afghans were set to begin new lives in the United States on Friday as an airlift got under way for translators and others who risk Taliban retaliation because they worked for the U.S. government during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The operation to evacuate U.S.-affiliated Afghans and family members comes as the U.S. troop pullout nears completion and government forces struggle to repulse Taliban advances.
The first planeload of 200 evacuees arrived at Fort Lee, a military base in Virginia, for final paperwork processing and medical examinations.
The Afghans are being granted Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) entitling them to bring their families. As many as 50,000 or more people ultimately could be evacuated in “Operation Allies Refuge”.
“These arrivals are just the first of many as we work quickly to relocate SIV-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,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement that the U.S. would continue to use “the full force of our diplomatic, economic, and development toolkit” to support the Afghan people.
The first group of arrivals is among some 2,500 SIV applicants and family members who have almost completed the process, clearing them for evacuation, said Russ Travers, Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser.
The Afghans were expected to remain at Fort Lee for up to seven days before joining relatives or host families across the country.
The evacuees underwent “rigorous background checks” and COVID-19 tests, Travers added. Some were already vaccinated, and the rest will be offered jabs at Fort Lee.
Approximately 300 U.S. service members from several installations will provide logistics, temporary lodging, and medical support at Fort Lee, said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Around 75,000 other Afghans have been resettled in the United States in the last decade, he said in a statement, adding there is a “moral obligation” for the country “to help those who have helped us.”
The surging violence in Afghanistan has created serious problems for many SIV applicants whose paperwork is in the pipeline amid reports – denied by the Taliban – that some have been killed by vengeful insurgents.
Some applicants are unable to get to the capital Kabul to complete the required steps at the U.S. embassy or reach their flights.
The SIV program has been plagued by long processing times and bureaucratic knots – which the Biden administration and Congress are working to undo – that led to a backlog of some 20,000 applications. The State Department has added staff to handle them.
“The U.S. has had 20 years to anticipate what the withdrawal would look like,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal aid to refugees. “It’s unconscionable that we are so late.”
Kim Staffieri, co-founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, which helps SIV applicants, said surveys conducted over Facebook (NASDAQ:) show that about half of SIV applicants cannot reach Kabul, including many approved for evacuation.
Congress created SIV programs in 2006 for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who risked retaliation for working for the U.S. government.