Biden administration intends to relocate thousands of Afghans who helped US while they apply for visas
(CNN) -- President Joe Biden vowed that the thousands of Afghan nationals who have worked alongside US diplomats and troops "are not going to be left behind" as his administration looks to relocate them in order to protect their safety while they wait for their visa applications to be approved.
"We've already begun the process," Biden said at the White House on Thursday. "They're welcome here just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us."
Biden indicated he plans to discuss the matter with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during their meeting at the White House on Friday. The administration's intention to relocate the Afghans to a third country, first reported by The New York Times, is being finalized after several weeks of an opaque process that has frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The US President told reporters Thursday that he did not know which country the Afghans would be sent to, and congressional sources told CNN that a decision on a location has not yet been made. Several people familiar with the discussions, as well as advocates, have pointed to the US territory of Guam as an option.
Senior administration officials said the evacuation process is not imminent, and the details are still being worked out amid several logistical and bureaucratic hurdles. However, one official noted that some of the Afghans who helped the US have been targeted for murder by the Taliban, and the concern is that their safety will be in even greater jeopardy as US troops continue to withdraw from the country.
The relocation plan would apply only to those who are already being processed for the Afghan special immigrant visa program, though that could shift if the administration sees a major uptick in visa applications in the weeks ahead, one official said. The proposal would allow for applicants' family members to join them.
Members of Congress met with national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday morning about the visa issue and other matters related to the withdrawal, sources said. A senior congressional aide said that in briefing members, the administration had not yet outlined the cost of the relocation, the resources it would require or a step-by-step plan. Another congressional aide said the administration is eyeing late summer to move them.
State Department principal deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter confirmed that they "are identifying SIV applicants who have served as interpreters, as well as translators, to be relocated outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown by September, in order to safely complete the remainder of the special immigrant visa application process."
"These are individuals who are actually already in the SIV pipeline," she said during a news briefing Thursday, adding that she did not have any updates on potential third countries for relocation.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday that they are involved with the planning for the evacuation and had already been working on "some planning" for such a scenario, and that "chartered aircraft, commercially leased aircraft or contracted aircraft" may be used instead of military aircraft.
"We know we have an obligation to these men and women, and their families, and we're working our way through how best to meet that obligation," he said at a Pentagon briefing. "Lots of options available, both in terms of transportation and in terms of potential locations, and we're just not there yet where I can specifically announce exactly how this is going to transpire."
Kabul airport is vulnerable
One administration official said it is unclear whether the Taliban will allow a departure of the Afghans from Kabul airport, which is currently secured by Turkish and American forces but remains a vulnerability.
As the administration develops its plans, there are a number of sensitivities and complications that are leading to "careful messaging," an administration official said, including that a rapid evacuation will lead to a panicked brain drain from Afghanistan of doctors, engineers, government officials and professional experts who scramble to leave amid a US-sanctioned evacuation. Administration officials have acknowledged this risk in talks with lawmakers about the plan, the senior congressional aide said.
"Evacuation is the wrong word," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN earlier this month. "We're determined to make good on our obligation to those who helped us, who put their lives on the line, put their families' lives on the line working with our military, working with our diplomats."
Blinken said this week that about half of the more than 18,000 visa applicants have only just begun the process and that they "are focused on making sure that we actually can make good on the folks who are in the system."
"We've surged resources to make sure that we could make good by the people who are seeking these special immigrant visas," Blinken said. "We've added about 50 people here at the State Department. A lot of the work actually gets done here at State. We have additional people in the field. We've reduced and in fact eliminated some backlogs that existed."
For weeks, bipartisan lawmakers and advocates have pushed the administration to develop and institute a plan to evacuate the special immigrant visa applicants amid fears of reprisal by the Taliban, who have been gaining ground in Afghanistan amid stalled peace negotiations in Doha. They have argued that efforts to expedite the visa processing alone would not be sufficient.
At a news conference Thursday, Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the "news this morning that the Biden administration recognizes that the existing visa process will not be sufficient to meet this need and there needs to be an evacuation is news that we have been fighting for for a long time."
"So this is a good day in this story, but it is far from the final chapter. There is much more work ahead of us. We need to work with the administration on the details of the plan, and that is one of the important reasons why we came forward with our own plan today to show the world and America and our leadership that we can do this and it's not that hard, and we all know it is the right thing to do," said Moulton, who called on the administration to designate a point person for the process and lay out a "precise plan."
Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the reports about planning for an evacuation "great news" but urged Biden "to put negotiations to secure a safe 3rd country to host them into high gear."
"The retrograde is moving quickly & time is of the essence. @POTUS has the ability to save tens of thousands of lives if he takes steps to implement this evacuation immediately," McCaul said in a tweet Thursday.
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