The first group of Afghan interpreters and other workers, who worked with American troops and diplomats during the 20 years the United States was in the country, have been evacuated from Afghanistan and are due to arrive in the US at any moment, according to multiple news reports.
Many Afghans who worked with the US-led NATO forces fear reprisals from the Taliban with US troops scheduled to depart by the end of August nearly 20 years after they first arrived.
In a news conference in Kuwait on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Afghans would be arriving in the US “very, very soon”.
“(The) US is committed to helping those who helped us during hard times in Afghanistan over the last 20 years – translators and interpreters,” Blinken said during a news conference with his Kuwaiti counterpart.
“We’re actively engaged in that process (of) relocation planning.”
The US-based broadcaster ABC News reported that the Afghans will arrive in the US late on Thursday or early Friday morning.
Meanwhile, BBC News reported that the Afghans would arrive on Thursday and be taken to the Fort Lee Army Base near Washington, DC to complete their immigration papers.
Earlier, the US government announced that some 750 Afghans who have already been approved and cleared security vetting would be flown to the US with an estimated 1,750 family members.
Citing security concerns, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to detail how many of those Afghans were included in the first flights.
“The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals,” Psaki was quoted as saying.
“We want to make sure we recognise and value the role they’ve played over the last several years.”
In what the White House has dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, most of the Afghan interpreters and workers as well as their families are likely to be taken first to US overseas military bases before they are resettled in the country or elsewhere.
About 20,000 Afghans who worked as interpreters for the Americans have applied for evacuation under the US State Department programme of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs).
“I see children scream, old women crying. Everything a young man should not see. This is a dark place for everyone. This is not the place you want to live,” @AbMatin4 and my report for @AJEnglish about the growing insecurity in Kandahar (Afghanistan)https://t.co/VUITem0ZS1
— Ali M Latifi (@alibomaye) July 28, 2021
Some estimates suggest the total number of prospective evacuees could be as high as 100,000 once family members are counted.
The Taliban have stepped up a sweeping offensive across Afghanistan in recent months, capitalising on the last stages of the US troop withdrawal.
Their offensive has raised fears of a potential humanitarian crisis.
The Taliban have publicly stated that interpreters who worked with foreign forces have nothing to fear as the US and its allies complete their withdrawal.
But many question the Taliban’s sincerity.
At the news conference on Thursday, Blinken also confirmed that the subject of relocating Afghans came up during his meetings in Kuwait.
Washington is still seeking third countries to host some of those evacuated while their cases, including detailed security checks, are finalised.
There had been speculation that some could be housed at US facilities in Kuwait but there was no such announcement during Blinken’s lightning trip to the Gulf state.
On Thursday, the US Congress approved a $2.1bn emergency funding bill, part of which would go towards the Afghan evacuation.
US Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said part of the money will pay for expanding the number of special US visas for translators and other Afghans and to provide humanitarian aid for an anticipated rush of migrants seeking refuge outside of Afghanistan.
The funding includes “humanitarian aid for the inevitable flood of Afghans fleeing to neighbouring countries. The United Nations has estimated that could swell to 500,000 refugees in just the next few months,” Leahy said.
The bill also includes the expansion of the visa programme for the Afghans to include at least 8,000 more individuals.
Canada has also promised to evacuate those Afghans who helped Canadian troops.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said they should be flown out of Afghanistan and resettled as soon as possible.
“People who have worked for Canada, who therefore absolutely have the right to come to Canada, should be getting on those planes as quickly as possible,” Freeland told a news conference.
“Our desire is to move very, very quickly with this process.”