U.S. is formally launching “Operation Allies Refuge” to evacuate Afghans who helped U.S. troops during the 20-year war and are facing threats to their lives from the Taliban, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.
No further details on when the evacuations will start will be released, the statement said, citing “operational security.” Officials also did not say where the Afghans would be sent.
Flights out of Afghanistan for those who are already in the process of obtaining special immigrant visas (SIVs) will start in the last week of July, a senior administration official said in a statement.
“At President Biden’s direction, the United States is launching Operation Allies Refuge to support relocation flights for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the SIV application pipeline,” the official said.
“As the President made clear, the United States remains confident that Afghanistan’s Armed Forces have the tools and capability to defend their country and that the conflict will ultimately have to be resolved at the negotiating table,” the official added.
The Biden administration has faced increasing pressure from lawmakers and advocates to evacuate Afghans who served as interpreters or otherwise helped the U.S. military during the war as the United States nears its final exit from Afghanistan.
The withdrawal is about 95 percent done, U.S. Central Command said this week. One of the last major steps in the withdrawal happened Monday when Gen. Scott Miller, who was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, left his command.
Amid fears the Taliban could overrun the country, lawmakers and others have been sounding the alarm about delays in the SIV program, which Congress created to allow Afghans who helped the U.S. government during the war to come to the United States.
Amid the withdrawal, the Taliban have racked up battlefield successes, seizing several key border crossings and sweeping through the north.
An estimated 18,000 applicants are already awaiting visas, with an estimated 53,000 family members seeking to accompany them. The application process can take as long as 800 days.
The Biden administration said last month it would evacuate Afghans who are waiting for their SIV applications to be processed, but offered few other details of its plan.
Last week, President Biden also pledged to start evacuating Afghan allies by the end of the month, but again offered few other details.
“Our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose,” Biden said in an address defending his order to withdraw. “We will stand with you, just as you stood with us.”
On Wednesday, the senior administration official said Tracey Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo, is leading a State Department coordination unit to run Operation Allies Refuge. The unit also includes representatives from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
Deputy homeland security adviser Russ Travers is also coordinating the interagency policy process on Operation Allies Refuge, the official said.
Wednesday’s statement does not elaborate on key details of the plan, such as how many people will be evacuated or where they will go.
Pressed later Wednesday for numbers and locations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say, citing security reasons.
The Pentagon has identified installations outside the United States where the Afghans could be sent, but no final decisions have been made on where to send them, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a briefing Wednesday afternoon.
The department has also been looking at the potential to house some people at military installations inside the continental United States, Kirby confirmed, saying “we’re trying to provide as many options to the State Department-led effort as we can.”
The department has also started an “action group” to help identify Afghans who worked with the U.S. military but are not yet in the SIV program, Kirby said, though he stressed, as the White House did, that the evacuations would be begin with those who are already in the middle of the application process.
The U.S. military has not been asked to provide transportation for the Afghans to get out of the country, nor has it been asked to help Afghans who live outside of Kabul make the journey to the capital for the flights, Kirby added.
While advocates and lawmakers welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, they also continued to press for further details.
“It’s heartening to hear that something might be happening, but it’s quite disappointing to not hear any actual details about who is going to be evacuated, where they are going to go and what’s going to happen to the folks that are not evacuated,” Sunil Varghese, policy director with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The Hill, adding that such information is vital to those in Afghanistan who are waiting.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), who previously warned there “blood will be on [Biden’s] hands” if he did not evacuate the interpreters, called Wednesday’s announcement “belated but welcomed news.”
“I hope to see more details on the number of those being evacuated, how they are being prioritized, how the United States is helping them safely travel to evacuation sites given the Taliban’s gains, and an expedited timetable,” added Waltz, a retired Green Beret. “We must also prioritize helping those in Afghan civil society, especially women, who may be outside of the SIV requirements but that the Taliban will continue to target.”
Lawmakers and advocates have been pushing for the Afghans to be sent to Guam, citing the historical precedent of sending South Vietnamese refugees there during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Additionally, advocates say, using a U.S. territory would allow the Afghans to have legal protections they wouldn’t have in a third country, such as being able to apply for asylum if their SIV applications are denied.
Psaki would not say Wednesday whether Guam remains an option for the administration, saying she will not “rule in or rule out any places.”
“The security and safety of the individuals who are relocating is of utmost focus and concern,” she said at a White House press briefing.
The administration has reportedly asked three Central Asian countries near Afghanistan — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — to take in the evacuees while they wait for their visas to be processed.
Homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is leading a U.S. delegation to Uzbekistan this week to “discuss opportunities to bolster regional economic development, enhance stability, and strengthen American partnerships,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement earlier Wednesday.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. envoy for the Afghan peace process, is part of the delegation and will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders to “discuss how to promote peace, security and development in Afghanistan, and advance shared regional security interests, including counterterrorism cooperation,” the statement added.