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The US is stepping up efforts to rescue Afghan allies amid the Taliban offensive

The Biden administration will begin evacuating thousands of Afghans who have worked for the US government later this month before the August 31 deadline for ending US military operations in Afghanistan.

Current and former Afghan translators, interpreters and others who have worked with the US government in Afghanistan are in mortal danger as the US withdrawal continues and the Taliban recapture areas that were once controlled by Afghan and coalition forces.

As Task & Purpose reported this month, "an estimated 70,000 Afghans who have worked for the United States – and their family members – are at risk of being killed while the Taliban push for an ultimate victory."

Because of this danger, according to a senior administrative official, flights for "interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the pipeline for special immigrant visa applications" will be canceled in the last week of July as part of the Operation Allies Refuge.

The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program enables Afghans who work or have worked “by or on behalf of the US government in Afghanistan” and family members to qualify for visas and legal permanent residence in the US.

JUST IN: The White House launches Operation Allies Refuge to evacuate Afghan nationals who have helped the US and Allied Forces (plus families) from Afghanistan.

From a senior administrator: pic.twitter.com/4Bet68C6hb

– Andrew Feinberg (@AndrewFeinberg) July 14, 2021

“Our message to these women and men is clear,” said President Joe Biden in a speech on Afghanistan earlier this month. "There is a home for you in the United States, if you wish, and we will be with you as you were with us."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that around 20,000 Afghans have applied for SIVs to date, although the number of those eligible is likely to be far greater – potentially up to 100,000, according to Deutsche Welle.

Psaki says about 20,000 Afghans have applied for special immigrant visas for Afghans who supported the US during the war in Afghanistan and explains how the visa review process will work. pic.twitter.com/PDhEx6QZnk

– CBS News (@CBSNews) July 15, 2021

The news comes after sustained bipartisan scrutiny from lawmakers, including Senator Angus King (I-ME), who said last month he "(wanted) the hair of the White House to be on fire" – and a swift Taliban offensive Afghanistan only has heightened concerns.

"It's not just a moral issue, it's a national security issue," King told reporters in a telephone briefing, according to Military.com. “It can't just go on in the Foreign Ministry. … History judges you according to how you go to war, but also how you leave it. "

Currently, however, according to NBC News, only about 2,500 of these evacuees are allowed to travel directly to the United States in the SIV program. Many others – about 10,000 people pending background checks for a visa – will likely be flown to third countries or overseas US military bases instead. Details are still unclear, but Guam, a U.S. territory, is reportedly being considered as an intermediate location.

Congress wants to do more for the US's Afghan allies

Congress welcomed the announcement by the Biden administration – but lawmakers are still urging the White House to do more to protect and facilitate entry into the US, as well as push for legislative solutions, to protect US Afghan allies.

One such bill, the proposed HOPE for Afghan SIVs Act, would postpone the SIV medical examination requirement until applicants arrive in the US, removing a major hurdle for many Afghans.

As things stand, the limited access to clinics in Afghanistan that can carry out the test has led to a bottleneck in the process. According to Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), a supporter of the bill and a former US Army ranger who has toured Iraq and Afghanistan, “There is currently only one facility in Kabul that does all immigrant visa exams for the whole country carries out ". whereby applicants from the outer provinces are forced to travel to Kabul under often dangerous circumstances. "

Naseri, a former interpreter for the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan, poses for a portrait in Kabul.

Andrew Quilty / The Washington Post / Getty Images

The measure was passed in the House of Representatives with 366 votes to 46 at the end of last month and is supported by both parties in the Senate.

"About 20,000 Afghans are currently lagging behind," Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) said in a statement with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). "This law is a sensible solution that will help pave a faster path to safety for these Afghans and their families."

In many cases, the Taliban mark interpreters for death specifically for their cooperation with the US. Some have already been killed or their family members have been targeted – more than 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed since 2014, according to the No One Left Behind advocacy group.

"I gave the Americans everything I had, but when they are gone I will be killed," a former Afghan interpreter for the US armed forces, Abdul Rashid Shirzad, told the Washington Post. “They are chasing us and not shooting us like Afghan soldiers. If they catch me, they will behead me. "

According to the Post, Shirzad's SIV application is currently pending. In 2016, he was refused a visa for reasons that are still unclear.

"Why didn't we do this before we withdrew our troops?" Matt Zeller, co-founder of No One Left Behind, tells a harrowing story to illustrate the desperate despair of Afghan interpreters who worked with the United States to escape the Taliban advance. @mattczeller @ n1leftbehind pic.twitter.com/0fSWouSEGA

– Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) July 15, 2021

Regardless of the HOPE for Afghan SIVs Act, Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) is also pushing for Congress to raise the cap on SIVs to 46,500 visas – a potential increase of 20,000 from current levels.

According to the State Department, there are currently several permutations of the SIV program. Specialized immigrant visas are also available for Iraqis who have worked with the US, and particularly Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters who have worked with the US military.

Leahy's proposed increase in the cap is part of a potential $ 3.7 billion security allowance that Leahy introduced last week to increase funding for Capitol security following the January 6 attack.

The package would also make a number of other changes to the SIV program. According to Roll Call's Caroline Simon, the Leahy plan would "reduce the eligibility requirement from two years to one year, postpone the required medical examination until the applicant reaches the United States, revise the appeal process for denials, and revise SIV status for give the family ". Members of Murdered Applicants, among others.

And it would include $ 100 million in "emergency aid" for an expected surge in Afghan refugees as the Taliban continue to recapture territory in Afghanistan.

Many of these provisions are also contained in the standalone Afghan Allies Protection Act, a bipartisan bill backed by King, Leahy, and 15 other Senators. A version of the bill also has bipartisan support in the House.

The Leahy plan for the Afghan SIV program does not have general support, however: Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the senior member to Leahy on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has instead proposed a much tighter add-on package that includes only Capitol security and security no money for the Afghan SIV program.

"We made a promise to Afghans who risked their own lives to support and protect our troops and our country," Leahy said in a statement on the security amendment. “As a country, our word is our bond, and we all agree, Republicans and Democrats, that this bond will not be broken under our supervision. If we don't address that now, then when? "

The US deadline to leave Afghanistan is getting closer

As Leahy's statement suggests, the Afghans who have worked with the US are running out of time – and the US is running out of time to find a solution for its allies that suits the moment. In the same July speech announcing U.S. evacuation efforts for Afghan visa recipients, Biden also set a new withdrawal date for U.S. forces: August 31.

That is about a week and a half earlier than the previously announced date, September 11, and most US troops – more than 90 percent of all armed forces according to the US Central Command – have already withdrawn from the country.

Earlier this month, the US withdrew from Bagram Air Base, the largest US airfield in the country. According to the AP, US soldiers made a quiet take-off overnight, cut the power to the base and left the room without alerting the incoming Afghan base commander.

Bagram has long been the center of US operations in Afghanistan and has additional symbolic meaning as "a gateway to and from a war that crosses constant change on the battlefield and in the presidential administration," writes New York Times reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff .

Last week Army General Austin "Scott" Miller officially resigned from his post as US Supreme Commander in the country, marking the effective completion of the US presence in Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, there are only about 600 US soldiers in the country – mainly to protect the US embassy and the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"Our job now is not to forget," Miller said before leaving Kabul on Monday. "With the families who have lost people to this conflict, it will be important to know that someone remembers that someone cares and that we can talk about it in the future."

The two men shake hands on a military runway, Austin, a tall black man in a navy suit; Miller, a white man with gray hair in brightly patterned army uniforms and boots.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (left) greets Army General Scott Miller, former U.S. Supreme Commander in Afghanistan, upon Miller's return to the U.S. on July 14, 2021 at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.

Alex Brandon / AFP / Getty Images

The Trump administration had previously set May 1 of this year as the deadline for ending the US troop presence in Afghanistan; under Biden, May 1st became the starting date for a definitive US withdrawal.

The withdrawal has led to significant setbacks: Former President George W. Bush criticized it as a “mistake” in an interview with Deutsche Welle last week, and former US chief Afghanistan commander, General David Petraeus, told CNN on Sunday: “Me fear we will look back ”. and regret the decision to withdraw. "

"I fear Afghan women and girls will suffer untold suffering," said Bush, who started the US war in Afghanistan in 2001. "You're just being left to be butchered by these very brutal people and it breaks my heart."

Biden said the US will continue to support the Afghan government and provide humanitarian aid, but he stood in his remarks earlier this month on his decision to withdraw US troops.

"Almost 20 years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that fighting in Afghanistan for 'just one more year' is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely," he said.

The Taliban offensive does not bode well for the Afghan government

While the US withdrawal continues, a major Taliban offensive against the Afghan army has succeeded in retaking large areas, raising fears that Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, could collapse shortly after the US mission there.

Since the start of the US withdrawal in May, the Taliban have steadily expanded their reach in Afghanistan and, according to the AP, are supposed to control "more than a third of the 421 districts and district centers of Afghanistan".

The increasing power of the Taliban over Afghanistan. # AFPgraphics map shows parts of Afghanistan under state control and areas under Taliban influence, from April to July 13 pic.twitter.com/f1Mbeuqvla

– AFP News Agency (@AFP) July 16, 2021

The number of victims is also increasing: the Taliban murdered at least 22 Afghan commandos last month when they tried to surrender, and Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was shot dead in Kandahar on Friday.

Afghan troops also fled the country in the face of the Taliban offensive and crossed the border to neighboring Tajikistan in the north.

These stories reflect what the Washington Post reported last month is “the new consensus” from US intelligence services: That the Kabul-based Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, will pass to the Taliban for the next six months to a year could fall.

The Taliban's rapid advance reportedly led the US to consider delaying its withdrawal from Bagram, but officials ultimately decided against it.

But even if the Afghan government remains intact, the Taliban offensive is a bad sign. In June Miller, the former US commander in Afghanistan, warned that Afghanistan could slide into civil war if the US presence there wanes.

Whatever happens after that, however, the US timetable is clear: after two decades of war, US military operations will cease on August 31.

And with most of the troops already out of the country, the fight to save America's Afghan allies is more urgent than ever.

"This is a massive step in the right direction," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-MA, a Marine Corps veteran of the newly announced Operation Allies Refuge. "Now all we have to do is put pressure on the White House to make sure they pull this off until all of our Afghan allies are brought to safety."

"That is a huge step in the right direction." says Rep. Seth Moulton about the Biden administration's plan to evacuate Afghan allies.

"Now all we have to do is put pressure on the White House to make sure they pull this off until all of our Afghan allies are brought to safety." pic.twitter.com/uyxt6WAIqD

– The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) July 14, 2021

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