The United States House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to authorize 8,000 additional special visas for Afghans who served the US during the occupation of Afghanistan now coming to an end after 20 years.
The bill, which now goes to the US Senate, would expand special visa eligibility to families of Afghans who were killed working for the US and for employees of non-governmental organisations.
The Taliban is threatening to take over Afghanistan after US and NATO forces leave at the end of August and have won battlefield advances across half the country, seizing local districts and key border crossings amid slow peace talks.
In “Operation Allies Refuge”, the US government is planning to evacuate as many as 20,000 Afghan interpreters, contractors and security personnel with their families to the US, beginning with about 2,500 Afghans who are to be flown to Fort Lee, a US Army base in the state of Virginia. Thousands more are being lined up for evacuation to US bases in third countries as their immigration applications are processed.
The House bill was sponsored by Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat and former US Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drew broad support from both Democrats and Republicans, passing on a vote of 407 to 16.
As we withdraw from Afghanistan, we must do right by our Afghan partners who served alongside us.
Today, we took action, led by @RepJasonCrow, to expand the visa program and ensure our Afghan partners can be evacuated to safety.
Their lives depend on us keeping our promises.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) July 22, 2021
A coalition of more than 20 US news organizations sent letters to President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and members of Congress asking for safe passage out of Afghanistan for Afghans who have been working with US media as journalists, interpreters, and support staff.
Now that American troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, these individuals “fear retaliation from the Taliban for having courageously associated themselves with the American press”, according to the media letters.
“They and their families face the same threat of retaliation from the Taliban” as Afghans who worked for the US military and government agencies.
The Taliban “views the American press as a legitimate target” and “has long conducted a campaign of threatening and killing journalists”, the letters said.
With President Biden’s support, a bipartisan group in the US Senate is preparing similar legislation to expand the US visa quota for Afghans and ease administrative requirements to expedite the programme.
“The deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan are alarming and underscore how precarious the situation is for those who are most vulnerable to the violence and oppression of the Taliban,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a leading Democrat, said in a statement on July 19 in support of the pending legislation.
The top US military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, said at the Pentagon on July 21 that armed Taliban fighters appeared to have gained “strategic momentum” against forces of the Western-backed government in Kabul.
“What they’re trying to do is isolate the major population centres,” Milley said.