By Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is set to evacuate thousands of vulnerable Afghan interpreters before the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan so they can wrap up their visa applications from safety, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The evacuation of the at-risk Afghans will include their family members for a total of as many as 50,000 people, a senior Republican lawmaker told Reuters.
The decision by President Joe Biden's administration risks inflaming a sense of crisis in Afghanistan, just a day before Biden meets Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for talks in Washington aimed at projecting a sense of partnership despite the U.S. military exit.
Responding to questions after a White House speech, Biden said, "Those who helped us are not going to be left behind ... They're welcome here just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us."
His meeting with Ghani comes as Taliban insurgents press a major offensive in Afghanistan, triggering growing concern in Congress https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-speeds-visas-vulnerable-afghans-pullout-looms-congress-wants-more-2021-06-15 for Afghan interpreters who worked for the U.S. military during its two-decade-long engagement and fear Taliban reprisals after American troops depart.
The U.S. officials did not disclose where the Afghans would be transported or say how many would be involved, but said the group consisted entirely of Afghans who have already started the visa process.
"Should it become necessary, we will consider additional relocation or evacuation options," one of the officials said.
U.S. Representative Mike McCaul, speaking to Reuters after discussing the plan with administration officials, said the evacuees will comprise some 9,000 interpreters who have applied for Special Immigration Visas and their families.
"You are probably talking about 50,000 people. There's no way to expedite their visas in-country ... on a timely basis that would save their lives," said McCaul, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and a leading advocate of evacuating U.S.-affiliated Afghans.
Countries that "could be on the table" to receive them include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, he said.
The operation "is going to involve a lot of planes," he said, adding that while it will create the "optics" that Afghanistan "is imploding ... the decision has been made to pull out our military forces and so this really needs to be part of the preparation and planning."
The Pentagon said the evacuation may not require the use of U.S. military aircraft.
"It doesn't always have to entail U.S. military aircraft to accommodate," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
He declined to speculate on how many people could be evacuated.
Fighting between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban has surged in recent weeks, with the militants gaining control of territory. The Pentagon now estimates the Taliban control 81 of the country's 419 district centers.
Political talks between the government and the Taliban have largely stalled and it is unclear how Afghan security forces will perform after U.S. troops depart. The Taliban have assured Afghans who worked with foreign forces of their safety.
But as the clock ticks down, Afghans who have applied for visas increasingly fear that the insurgents will target them and their families, in retribution for helping foreign forces during America's longest war.
Samey Honaryar, a former Afghan interpreter who was granted asylum in the United States after his life was threatened, said at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday that time was running short for his compatriots.
"Please evacuate them," he said. "They were good people, they helped you."
The U.S. military has completed more than half of its withdrawal from Afghanistan and is set to finish in the coming weeks. Officials say between 600 and 700 U.S. troops are likely to remain to help provide security for diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
There is little time to process applications for special immigrant visas already filed by the roughly 9,000 Afghans, or the thousands of others who have formally expressed interest.
Although the U.S. State Department has increased staffing, U.S. officials say there is a limit to how fast a 14-step, multiple-agency process that includes security vetting can move without changes to legislation. If all goes well, a visa could normally be processed in nine to 12 months, officials say.
Administration officials say changes in legislation could accelerate the process, but its plans have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which has repeatedly forced the U.S. embassy in Kabul to postpone visa interviews.
U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat and former Marine, introduced legislation on Thursday to help Afghans who worked for the United States. With Honaryar and other former interpreters, he told reporters he welcomed word of the planned evacuations.
"This is a good day in this story, but it is far from the final chapter," Moulton said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle, Idrees Ali, Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Daniel Wallis)