WASHINGTON – A group of Afghan interpreters who had feared for their safety after working with American troops are on their way to new lives in the United States, the Biden administration announced Thursday.
Two of President Joe Biden's national security advisers said a plane carrying 200 people had left Afghanistan Thursday and was heading to the United States. The group includes Afghans who worked with U.S. troops during the war as interpreters, translators and in other roles, along with members of their families.
The group is the first to be relocated under the “Operation Allies Refuge” program, which the White House created to evacuate eligible Afghan nationals and their families before the U.S. military withdrawal is complete. The initial arrivals are near the end of the vetting process for special U.S. visas, which includes extensive background checks by intelligence officials.
Some 2,500 Afghans – roughly 700 visa applicants and members of their immediate families – are expected to be relocated in the coming weeks.
The evacuation “honors these Afghans’ brave service in helping support our mission in Afghanistan," which in turn helped keep the U.S. safe, said Russ Travers, senior deputy homeland security adviser for the National Security Council.
The initial group will be temporarily housed for about seven days at Fort Lee, a 6,000-acre Army post in Virginia. There, they will be given a medical exam, offered a COVID vaccination and undergo final processing before they are resettled in cities across the country, said Tracey Jacobson, director of the Biden administration’s Afghanistan task force.
Biden has promised the U.S. would honor the sacrifices of Afghans who worked with closely with the U.S. military during the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Biden announced earlier this month that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would conclude by Aug. 31, bringing America's longest war to a close ahead of his initial Sept. 11 deadline.
The Biden administration has faced pressure from lawmakers in both parties to relocate thousands of Afghans who served alongside American troops and now fear they will be killed by the Taliban, who view them as traitors and spies.
Because of such dangers, Congress created a special visa program in 2006 for Afghans and Iraqis who worked as translators, drivers and in other roles for the U.S. military during in those two conflicts.
Some 70,000 Afghans have received visas and started new lives in the United States since 2008, Travers said. But the program is backlogged and limited. It takes an average of nearly three years for Afghans' applications to be processed, in part because of the rigorous vetting involved, according to the State Department.
The Biden administration says there are 20,000 Afghan applicants for the visa program so far, half of whom have not completed initial stages of review.
Critics have urged the U.S. to speed up the visa processing and conduct evacuations so Afghans get leave their country before the U.S. withdrawal. The Taliban has been making territorial gains and civilian deaths have spiked in recent weeks amid the American retreat. .
“To keep our promise to our allies, we must evacuate them to U.S. territory NOW,” the advocacy group Vets for American Ideals wrote Wednesday on Twitter.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghan interpreters who worked with troops are relocating to U.S.