The United States is launching Operation Allies Refuge to airlift thousands of Afghan nationals who helped US and NATO forces during the 20-year Western occupation of Afghanistan as the Taliban advances, White House and US embassy officials in Kabul said.
Flights for those already in a US visa application process will begin in the last week of July, according to the US embassy.
“The US Embassy will coordinate with the State Department to support Operation Allies Refuge,” said Ambassador Ross Wilson, the US Chargé d’Affaires in Kabul.
“These relocation operations will allow the United States to fulfill its commitment to those who have served our country here at great personal risk,” Wilson said.
Fears of a Taliban takeover in Kabul have risen as the armed group makes battlefield gains against Afghan government forces and police in provinces around the capital and has seized border crossings with neighbouring Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
The US force pullout, reducing 4,000 troops to 650 who will remain to protect the embassy and Kabul airport, is already 90 percent complete, according to US military officials. The US has handed over control of Bagram airbase to the Afghan military, and the US commander since 2018, General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, has been recalled to Washington.
The US’s “immediate focus” is on relocation of “eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners Afghanistan”, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington, DC, on Thursday.
(1/2) The U.S. Embassy will coordinate with the State Department to support Operation Allies Refuge. These relocation operations will allow the United States to fulfill its commitment to those who have served our country here at great personal risk. https://t.co/JaHEFb7a04
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) July 15, 2021
There are about 20,000 interpreters, clerks, drivers and others with their family members who are in process of applying for visas to enter the US under a special programme for Afghans, Psaki said. The US Congress is preparing legislation to expedite those visas and support the emergency relocation plan.
Psaki said “a large portion of that group” would be “relocated directly to a military base in the United States” where they would receive “medical checkups”, housing and assistance.
Others “who have not yet completed their background checks” would first be flown either to US military bases overseas or to third countries “where they will be safely housed until their visa processing is complete”, Psaki said.
She did not specify which US bases or third countries would be involved, citing security and safety concerns for those being relocated.
The plan to relocate Afghans who helped the US had been in the works for weeks. President Joe Biden, who has authorized the flights, has said: “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”