The United States will begin an evacuation operation at the end of July for Afghans who helped the U.S. military during the nearly 20-year war, but it was not clear how many will be evacuated or where they will go while their visa applications are processed.
The White House announced Operation Allies Refuge on July 14, saying flights out of Afghanistan will be available first for special immigrant visa applicants already in the process of applying for U.S. residency.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki cited security concerns as the reason she could not say how many Afghans are expected to be among those evacuated in the first flights or where they will be taken.
"The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals," Psaki said. "We want to make sure we recognize and value the role they've played over the last several years."
Biden has faced pressure from members of Congress to come up with a plan to help interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. military and therefore face retaliation from the Taliban after the U.S. completes its withdrawal next month.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month told a congressional committee that there were about 18,000 applicants "in the pipeline." Half of them were actively in the process of applying for special immigrant visas, he said.
The Biden administration has not yet announced a third country or U.S. territory that could host Afghans while their applications are processed.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on July 14 the Pentagon has identified an unspecified number of overseas locations as "potential candidates," but no final decisions have been made.
Much about the Biden evacuation plan remains unknown, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which has helped resettle thousands of Afghans in the United States.
One of her concerns is how the plan will help people in areas outside Kabul evacuate, especially in light of gains made by the Taliban in more rural areas.
"Unfortunately, there are still far too many questions left unanswered, including who exactly and how many people are eligible for evacuation," Vignarajah told the Associated Press. "How will those outside the capital access safety?"
The official who will lead the State Department coordination unit charged with overseeing Operation Allies Refuge is Tracey Jacobson, a former chief of mission in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kosovo.
Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, is coordinating the interagency policy process for the evacuation, officials said.
The White House also announced that Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White House homeland security adviser, would lead a U.S. delegation to a security conference in Uzbekistan this week to discuss Afghanistan’s security issues with leaders from Central Asia.