US evacuation flights for Afghan staff to begin in late July

Jennifer Jacobs

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.

Former workers who had been employed with U.S. troops at the Bagram airbase hold placards during a demonstration against the U.S. government in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, July, 9, 2021.

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.

Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, an Army veteran from Grand Rapids Township, has been among the lawmakers pressing the administration to expedite the process of evacuating the Afghan staff who served the U.S. 

"The Biden administration must step up now & mobilize a mass evacuation for these individuals & their families. Delaying this any longer is not an option," Meijer tweeted Tuesday. 

An Army veteran from Grand Haven, Gerald Keen, has been trying for years to help his former Afghan interpreter, Rahim, secure one of the Special Immigrant Visas, which allow Afghans and their immediate family to resettle in the United States.

Keen fears that Rahim, who The Detroit News is not identifying due to safety concerns, will be hunted down and killed by the Taliban or other militant groups as retaliation for working with American forces. He worked for U.S. and coalition forces for 27 months.

"If they leave me in Afghanistan, they will kill us. They're not going to leave us alive," Rahim told The Detroit News.​​​​

Keen's wife Lynnette last month was concerned about how Rahim and his family could safely get to Kabul to be evacuated as the provinces near their home came under Taliban control.

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.