In the backdrop of the Taliban making rapid gains in taking over huge swaths of Afghanistan, the Biden administration has announced that it is preparing evacuation flights for Afghan interpreters and translators who aided the US military effort in the nearly 20-year war.
But questions abound about their final destinations and their safety till they actually board the planes that will take them away from peril.
Here's what you need to know about the evacuation efforts, the process, possible destinations, lingering questions and who said what on the troop withdrawal:
How it will work
- Afghan interpreters and translators who aided the US government or the US-led forces in Afghanistan from 2001 can apply for visas under the Special Immigrant Visa programme.
- An estimated 18,000 Afghans have worked for the US as interpreters, drivers and other positions have applied for visas and await their applications being processed.
- The Operation Allies Refuge flights out of Afghanistan during the last week of July will be available first for special immigrant visa applicants already in the process of applying for US residency, according to the White House.
- White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to detail how many Afghans are expected to be among those evacuated in the first flights or where those evacuated will be taken, citing security concerns.
- But an official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters around 2,500 people will be part of the initial evacuation.
- The Biden administration is considering a number of locations, including military installations both abroad (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, West Asia or Europe are candidates) and in the United States (possibly territory of Guam), to temporarily house Afghans while their visa applications are considered.
- The administration is weighing using state department-chartered commercial aircraft, not military aircraft, according to an administration official, who was not authorised to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
- But the Pentagon said no such requests for such assistance have been made by the state department.
- Tracey Jacobson, a three-time chief of mission in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo, is leading the state department coordination unit charged with overseeing Operation Allies Refuge. That unit also includes representatives from the departments of defence and homeland security.
- Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, is coordinating the interagency policy process for the evacuation, officials said.
Why Afghan translators and interpreters are being evacuated: The Taliban are on the rampage in Afghanistan, having gained control of several strategically valuable districts, particularly along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The situation is so dire that US forces vacated Bagram Airfield — the US epicenter of the conflict to oust the Taliban and hunt down the Al-Qaeda perpetrators of the 2001 terrorist attacks that triggered the war — under the cover of darkness and neglected to mention the news to the new base commander.
While Biden has denied that a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is 'inevitable', the US president has been facing tremendous pressure from lawmakers in both parties to come up with a plan to help evacuate Afghan military helpers before the US troop withdrawal on 31 August. The White House began briefing lawmakers on the outlines of their plans last month.
“The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals,” Psaki said. “We want to make sure we recognise and value the role they’ve played over the last several years.”
Life and death matter: For Afghans who provided any form of assistance to the United States government or US-led forces, not leaving the country in a timely fashion could literally be a matter of life and death. And the White House knows this from experience.
In Iraq, hundreds of interpreters have been murdered by militants and numerous others left facing death threats, assaults and abductions. As per this NBC report, tens of thousands of Iraqis who assisted the United States are still awaiting a final decision on their visas.
The Biden administration's stance also comes as a stark contrast to the previous Donald Trump administration, which basically slammed the door shut on the Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the US military. As per NBC news, The Trump administration in 2018 issued just two visas to former interpreters.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Kabul issued 299 special immigrant visas in March, 356 in April and 619 in May, according to the state department. Biden said last week that the federal government has approved 2,500 special immigrant visas to come to the US since his January inauguration.
Many questions on evac remain: Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said that much about the Biden evacuation plan remains unknown including how the administration will help those in areas outside the capital of Kabul evacuate.
“Unfortunately, there are still far too many questions left unanswered, including who exactly and how many people are eligible for evacuation. ... How will those outside the capital access safety?” said Vignarajah, whose group has helped resettle thousands of Afghans in the US.
“And to what countries will they be evacuated? We have serious concerns about the protection of our allies’ human rights in countries that have been rumoured as potential partners in this effort.”
Who said what on troop withdrawal
Speaking to The Times of India, General David Petraeaus, who previously served as the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, warned that the US 'will come to regret' withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. "Without the assurance of American support, Afghan forces would do “what some have already done — desert their posts, flee the Taliban or surrender,” Petraeaus added.
“I fear the decision to withdraw has consigned Afghanistan to a bloody civil war, and is likely to produce millions of refugees, cause damage to infrastructure and foist an ultra-conservative theocratic regime over much of the country that curtails the rights of women, democratic processes and human rights,” the ex-CIA chief further told the newspaper.
This, just days after, George W Bush, who launched the war while commander-in-chief, criticised the Western withdrawal in an interview with a German broadcaster released Wednesday, saying he fears for Afghan women and girls as the Taliban regains control of much of the country. “It’s unbelievable how that society changed from the brutality of the Taliban, and all of a sudden — sadly — I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm,” Bush said.
Asked whether he thought the withdrawal was a mistake, Bush replied: "Yes, I think it is. I've spent a lot of time with Afghan women and they're scared. And I think about all the interpreters and people that help not only US troops but NATO troops," he said.
With inputs from agencies