The Taliban is all set to take control of Afghanistan officially, with Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar returning to the country on August 18, after being out of the country for over 20 years. There has been a sense of chaos in the country ever since the US-trained Afghan forces fell to the Taliban and the militant group took over the capital city of Kabul on August 15. people desperate not to be left behind were seen clamoring to get in aircrafts departing Kabul.
Pakistan is already seeing an influx of refugees. In the aftermath of what has been a 20-year war, India too is seeing an influx of refugees. Western nations are likely to see a large number of refugees too. The US has said that it would issue up to 80,000 special immigrant visas to those who helped US personnel and troops on the ground.
Joe Biden’ Plan for Afghan Refugees
The Biden administration agreed to relocate thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military as interpreters and translators while their visa applications are vetted, according to a senior administration official. “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” President Joe Biden told reporters on Thursday when asked about the plan.
The decision comes amid growing pressure from lawmakers in both parties, who fear Afghans who served alongside American troops will be killed by the Taliban as the United States completes its military withdrawal. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, declined to say exactly how many Afghans would be relocated or where they would go while their visas are processed. The United States could fly them to a third country or a U.S. territory.
The administration intends to carry out the evacuation later this summer, likely in August, before its September deadline to withdraw U.S. forces, according to a second official familiar with the deliberations but not authorized to discuss them publicly. Both officials added that the administration has not settled on a country or countries for the planned temporary relocation. Evacuating Afghans to a U.S. territory is seen as complicated because it could lead to the visa applicants having greater legal rights as they are vetted. Asked if he had determined where Afghans would be relocated as they await U.S. visas, Biden said he did not know.
The Taliban issued a statement earlier this month saying those who worked for U.S. and Western interests would not be targeted. Still for many the runaway corruption, deep insecurity and fear of violence from the Taliban and the many heavily armed U.S.-allied warlords have many Afghans seeing the special immigration visas as their last chance to leave their war-tortured nation. The move to accelerate plans to relocate Afghans who helped the U.S. effort comes as Biden is set to meet on Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
The administration has begun to identify a group of interpreters to be relocated before the U.S. completes its drawdown by September, the senior administration official said. Those individuals have already begun the process of applying for special immigrant visas available to Afghans who assisted Americans during the nearly 20-year-old war. The White House is planning for a variety of scenarios including “additional relocation or evacuation options” if necessary, the official said.
Baradar is expected to play a key role in negotiations between the Taliban and officials from the Afghan government that the militant group deposed. Afghan officials familiar with talks held in the capital say the Taliban have said they will not make announcements on their government until the August 31 deadline for the troop withdrawal passes. Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government, tweeted that he and ex-President Hamid Karzai met Saturday with Taliban’s acting governor for Kabul, who assured us that he would do everything possible for the security of the people of the city.
President Joe Biden said the US is looking at evacuating between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans in total, a figure that includes the Afghan visa and refugee applicants plus their families. There were 17,000 SIV applicants in the pipeline when Biden took office, according to the State Department, and no interviews had taken place in Kabul since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Interviews resumed in Kabul in early February but were forced to temporarily shut down again this summer due to a coronavirus outbreak and now remain in flux with the rapidly changing security situation on the ground.
A group of US diplomats wrote an internal cable to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in mid-July laying out how the State Department could take more swift action to process Afghans who assisted the United States and get them out of Afghanistan as they watched the situation in the country deteriorate and feared a catastrophe.
‘Red-headed stepchild of immigration’
Special immigrant visas “have always been the redheaded stepchild of immigration processes,” the administration official told CNN. “Very slow, but little attention to fix.”
Pentagon ramping up Kabul evacuation efforts as many struggles to reach the airport
The visa program was established in 2009 specifically for Afghan citizens, along with their spouses and unmarried children under 21, who work for the US government in Afghanistan, and who face threats for their allegiance to the US.
While Afghans are thoroughly vetted before working alongside US forces, they still go through a cumbersome and meticulous process riddled with checks before obtaining a visa to come to the US. That process is now being tested in a tense situation, requiring a surge of resources to comb through the thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan who face reprisals, even death, for working for the US.
Working Against Time
But another major issue right now is the rush of Afghans who are trying to apply for these various programs and did not do so previously because they didn’t know the Taliban would overrun the country so quickly, or at all. State Department officials have created a database to add new people into the system but they are facing a shortage of personnel to enter in the Afghans’ information, which is creating a major bottleneck, explained two State Department officials familiar with the situation.
In addition to getting Afghans on the list and getting them started in the vetting process, Afghans also need to get out of the country before it is too late. Some people with proper credentials have reported challenges getting through the gates at the Kabul airport despite being directed to go there. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the US has “repeatedly communicated” to the Taliban what proper credentials are and what they look like.
The administration said it will launch a program that would permit thousands of Afghans to resettle to American soil, including those who worked for U.S.-funded projects, U.S.-based media outlets and non-governmental organizations. But the program will not offer evacuation flights for these Afghan refugees, who would have to find a way to leave the country on their own, officials said.