The United States has announced an expansion of its push to evacuate at-risk Afghan citizens from Afghanistan amid a surge in Taliban violence as a U.S. military pullout enters its final weeks.
The State Department said on August 2 that current and former Afghan employees of U.S.-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive U.S. funding as well as of U.S.-based news organizations are now eligible for refugee status in the United States.
The move comes as Taliban militants continue their offensive to capture territory across Afghanistan since the U.S. and other foreign forces started their official withdrawal in May, with a planned U.S. completion date of August 31.
Employees and ex-employees of the U.S. government or NATO's military operation who don’t meet the criteria for a dedicated program for such workers are also included, the State Department said in a statement.
President Joe Biden has faced pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to aid Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation because of their association with the United States during the 20-year war.
The creation of a “Priority 2” category for Afghans within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) will cover Afghans and their immediate families who “may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation” but are unable to get a Special Immigrant Visa because they did not work directly for the U.S. government or didn't hold their government jobs long enough.
The State Department said the addition means that “many thousands” of Afghans and their immediate families will now have the opportunity for permanent resettlement in the United States as refugees.
“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” it said in a statement. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”
To be eligible for the Priority 2 category, Afghans must be nominated by a U.S. government agency or by the most senior U.S. citizen employee of a U.S.-based media outlet or nongovernmental organization.
Applicants must leave Afghanistan to begin the adjudication process, which may take 12-14 months in a third country and the United States does not intend to support their departures or stays there. Some relief organizations expressed concern that it would potentially create a major hurdle for successful applicants.
"This is unacceptable, as several critical border crossing checkpoints are now under Taliban control and Afghanistan’s neighbors may not necessarily welcome these individuals and their families,” said InterAction, an umbrella organization for scores of international relief and development groups.
The first group of 221 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants -- most of whom served as translators or did other work for U.S. troops or diplomats -- who cleared security vetting arrived in the United States on July 30 as some of 2,500 Afghans expected to reach the United States in the coming days.
Another 4,000 SIV applicants, plus their families, who have not yet cleared the security screening are expected to be relocated to third countries ahead of the completion of the U.S. pullout.
An estimated 20,000 Afghans have voiced interest in the program.
Biden has vowed that Afghans who helped the U.S. military will not be left behind.
"Those who helped us are not going to be left behind," Biden said at the White House on June 24, a day before he met with visiting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the country's High Council for National Reconciliation.
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.
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 said that Afghanistan’s government could stand for as long as two years after the troops leave.
Roughly 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main American military force completes its withdrawal, AP quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying on June 24.
According to the officials, several hundred additional American 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.