President Joe Biden has vowed that Afghans who helped the U.S. military will not be left behind as U.S.-led international forces work to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year.
"Those who helped us are not going to be left behind," Biden said at the White House on June 24, a day before he meets with visiting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the country's High Council for National Reconciliation.
The process to relocate Afghans who assisted the United States has already begun, he told reporters. But he said he didn't know where they would be relocated as they await U.S. visas.
The Taliban has taken control of dozens of districts from government forces in recent weeks, raising concerns the Western-backed government in Kabul and the battered Afghan security forces may collapse after U.S.-led international forces withdraw from Afghanistan by a self-imposed September 11 deadline.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has come under pressure from members of Congress and veterans to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or otherwise helped U.S. military operations during a 20-year deployment in the country.
Administration officials have been cautious about discussing the relocation plans amid concerns about the advance of Taliban militants and the appearance of a mass exodus.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged on June 8 that there were about 18,000 applicants, including 9,000 actively in the process of applying for an immigrant visa.
Representative Michael McCaul (Republican-Texas) said the evacuation plan was "great news" but urged Biden to push his effort to secure a third country to host them while they wait for their applications to be processed.
Representative Seth Moulton (Democrat-Massachusetts) said that can take more than two years, and unveiled a plan recommending Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean, to be designated for Afghans while they wait.
"We don't want a single Afghan ally to die because we can't find a third country or the program is moving too slowly," he said, noting that refugees were processed on the island after the Vietnam and the two wars against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
In their White House meeting with Biden, Ghani and Abdullah will be looking for assurances of U.S. aid for the Afghan government.
"This visit is first about our ongoing commitment and support to the Afghan people and to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on June 24.
"The president will emphasize the need for unity, cohesion, and for the Afghan government to focus on key challenges Afghanistan faces."
The looming exit of U.S. and international troops has created uncertainty, especially amid the Taliban's recent gains on the ground.
Some U.S. lawmakers have openly worried about the Taliban returning to power, recalling their treatment of women and girls under a strict version of Islam when they ruled from 1996-2001.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that a new U.S. intelligence report assesses that the Taliban could possibly capture Kabul within six months. The report was a revision of previous analyses that said that Afghanistan's government could stand for as long as two years after the troops leave.
The U.S. military says it has already withdrawn more than half of its 3,500 troops from the region and its equipment.
Roughly 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main military force completes its withdrawal, AP quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying on June 24.
According to the officials, several hundred additional U.S. troops are to stay at Kabul's international airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place.
They said Ankara had largely agreed to provide security at Hamid Karzai International Airport as long as it receives support from U.S. forces.
A U.S. delegation is meeting with Turkish officials in Ankara this week to finalize arrangements.
Overall, the U.S. officials said Washington expected to have U.S. and coalition military command, its leadership, and most troops out by July 4, or shortly after that.
The Pentagon said it would complete the withdrawal by early September, as Biden had ordered.
"Nothing has changed about that goal," spokesman John Kirby said. "The situation is dynamic, and we review our progress daily. Speculation by unnamed sources about potential changes to that timeline should not be construed as predictive."
In other news, the White House said it will provide Afghanistan with 3 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on June 24 that the single-dose vaccines could be shipped to Afghanistan as soon as next week. The United States is also providing oxygen and other supplies.