First group of at-risk Afghans arrives in US

The first group of Afghan interpreters, drivers and their families arrived in the United States on Friday, as the Biden administration sought to evacuate at-risk Afghans from the country.

More than 200 people arrived at Dulles airport just outside Washington DC on a chartered flight early on Friday morning and were transported to Fort Lee military base in Virginia.

They will stay there as they await the processing of special visas and are resettled.

Almost 20 years after the US entered Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, it is withdrawing its troops. But there are signs that the Taliban are already taking control of large parts of the country, prompting fears about the stability of the region and the safety of Afghan people.

Following pressure from Congress, the Biden administration announced earlier this month that it would evacuate Afghan nationals who helped the United States during the war and could now face retribution.

Many have been waiting years for their applications for “special immigrant visas” to be processed, which would allow them to live legally in the United States.

The group is the first wave of about 2,500 Afghans who are being prioritised for the operation dubbed Operation Allies Refuge by the White House. Hundreds more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

Thousands more Afghans will be sent to other countries – possibly Kuwait or Qatar – as they await their visa approvals.

Special visas

The arrival of the first planeload of evacuees to the US took place hours after Congress passed new measures to help Afghan visa applicants. With strong bipartisan support, both chambers legislated for $1.125 billion worth of funds to help with the relocation of those who assisted the US war effort and agreed to increase the number of special immigrant visas for Afghans from 11,000 to 19,000.

In a statement Mr Biden described the arrival of the Afghan evacuees as “an important milestone” in helping Afghans “who served shoulder to shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan”.

He said that the first arrivals were able to come directly to the United States because they had already completed extensive background checks and security screening by the intelligence community and the departments of state and homeland security.

The president called for an “immediate reduction in violence” in Afghanistan.

“Although US troops are leaving, we will continue to support Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces, as well as humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people to help them sustain their achievements of the past 20 years. We will also continue our diplomatic support for the peace process.”

Earlier this week former CIA director and retired US general David Petraeus expressed concerns about the trajectory in Afghanistan. “I’m very worried about the trends right now,” he said. “The Taliban has the momentum.” He added that the US could come to “regret” the decision to withdraw at this point.

The Taliban have been taking territory in Afghanistan in recent weeks. The UN compound in the western province of Herat was attacked on Friday and at least one security guard was killed.

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