U.S. Evacuation Flights for Afghan Staff to Begin in Late July

The Biden administration is arranging flights for later this month to protect Afghan interpreters and other staff who worked with U.S. forces and could be targeted by the Taliban, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The relocation flights to neighboring countries will be for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who are already in the application pipeline for the Special Immigrant Visa program, which allows those who have worked for U.S. and NATO forces to claim refugee status.

Bloomberg News previously reported that the administration asked three Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- to temporarily house the Afghans as U.S. troops aim to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August, almost two decades after they first arrived to oust the Taliban government.

Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is heading to Uzbekistan this week to meet with leaders “to discuss opportunities to bolster regional economic development, enhance stability, and strengthen American partnerships,” Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement Wednesday. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, is traveling with her.

President Joe Biden inherited President Donald Trump’s 2020 agreement to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan this year, though he delayed the final departure from May. But he’s come under intense, bipartisan pressure to both reconsider that move and ensure that tens of thousands of Afghans who aided the U.S. -- and their families -- won’t be targeted by the Taliban, which is capitalizing on the withdrawal by seizing more territory.

White House aides said for security reasons they won’t share further details on when flights will depart but said they will begin in the last week of July.

Leading the effort, which the administration is calling Operation Allies Refuge, is a State Department official, Tracey Jacobson. Staff from the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security are assisting. Russ Travers, Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser, is leading the policy review.

The U.S. remains confident that Afghanistan’s armed forces are capable of defending their country, a senior administration official said, and that the conflict will ultimately have to be resolved at the negotiating table.

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