About 200 Afghan interpreters and their families arrived in Virginia on Friday, the first evacuations of thousands imperiled because of their work with the United States in Afghanistan as the Taliban gains control of more territorynationwide.
“Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” President Biden said in a statement.
But the first flight is a small fraction of thousands of Afghans who have spent years in bureaucratic limbo waiting for their visas to be approved after the rigorous and, many say, at times confounding screening process.
While many Republicans scrutinized Biden’s decision to withdraw forces from the region, both Democrat and Republican officials determined that the U.S. should help those who aided the Armed Forces as interpreters and translators, Politico reports. There have been mounting fears that those who have aided the U.S. will be tortured or killed by the Taliban forces that are sweeping through Afghanistan.
“It’s my view that the evacuations should have started right after the announcement of our withdrawal. That evacuation started too late,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-WI), said in an interview. “But it started and I appreciate the fact that it’s going, and aggressively now.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) remarked, They spent so much time debating what direction they wanted to go in on Afghanistan writ-large. When they finally made the decision of a hasty surrender and withdrawal, they didn’t anticipate some of the unintended consequences or really play out a lot of the detail, visa among them.”
The Biden administration is facing mounting criticism from both sides of the political aisle as visa applications pour in from Afghan nationals who have been displaced as the United States withdraws its forces from the area. Bipartisan criticism from members of congress who feel as though the administration did not adequately prepare for the wave of applications there were going to come in, and many argue that the plans for handling the refugees should have been put in place before the public announcement of the withdrawal in April.
About 20,000 Afghan had applied for the special immigrant visa as of July 15, according to the White House. That number does not include family members, a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer an estimate, said the total number of people in the applicant pipeline including family members could be as high as 100,000.
That is more than the roughly 74,000 Afghans resettled in the program since it began in 2008, according to the State Department.
The Senate on Thursday cleared more than $1 billion to pay for the evacuations, including transportation and housing provided by the Defense and State departments. The bill would also reduce requirements for applicants and allow 8,000 more visa on top of the 26,500 currently allocated for the program. President Biden is expected to sign the bill.
Underscoring the complexity of the effort, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, is the fact that applicants live all over Afghanistan, many in territory controlled or contested by the Taliban.
The Association of Wartime Allies, an interpreter advocacy group, estimates that about half of the applicants still waiting live outside Kabul. Many roads outside the capital are dotted with Taliban checkpoints, and commercial flights are disappearing in some cities as clashes threaten airport operations.
The reality is some of these people are going to die. Why didn’t the U.S. military evacuate them when we had the ability?” asked Matt Zeller, a former Army officer and board chair of the advocacy group. He said Biden administration officials ignored his warning in January to prepare for mass evacuations.