The Biden administration plans to evacuate a group of Afghans who helped the United States during the 20-year war and who now face reprisals from the Taliban to an Army base in Virginia in the coming days, three American officials said on Monday.
About 2,500 Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with American forces will be sent to Fort Lee, Va., south of Richmond, to complete their processing for formal entry into the United States, the officials said.
The White House last week announced that it would begin evacuating Afghans the last week of July, in an effort called “Operation Allies Refuge,” but officials declined to comment on many details of the rapidly evolving program, including where the initial visa applicants would go.
With the American military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the White House has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies who helped the United States and speed up the process of providing them with special immigrant visas.
More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the United States during the war have been trapped in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, which are available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government.
American diplomats have been scrambling to reach agreements to relocate the Afghans to third countries, including some in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, as well as United States territories like Guam, to complete the visa application process in safety.
But with those negotiations dragging on and the security situation in Afghanistan worsening, the administration came up with a stopgap measure for applicants who had completed most, if not all, vetting: Bring them directly to the United States for final processing.
Administration officials are still working out last minute details about sending the first group of Afghans to Fort Lee.
John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, spoke opaquely about this option last week when he told reporters that the administration might potentially house some of the Afghans at bases inside the United States on a “short-term” basis while their applications are processed.
The vast majority of Afghan applicants and their families, however, would go through the relocation process and be moved to an American base in another country.
The mission fulfills a pledge by President Biden to not repeat the abandonment of U.S. allies during the withdrawal from Vietnam, and comes as the Taliban gain more ground throughout Afghanistan, seizing swaths of territory, displacing tens of thousands, and wounding or killing hundreds of civilians.
House members from both parties, who are expected to approve legislation later this week increasing the number of State Department special-immigrant visas and streamlining the application process, praised the administration’s efforts but complained they should have happened much faster.
“The ability to conduct an evacuation now is going to be different from the ability to conduct an evacuation in August, September, October, November,” said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said on MSNBC this month. “It’s going to get worse with each passing month.”