The Pentagon is in the early stages of planning for the potential evacuation of thousands of Afghan nationals whose work for the US could make them Taliban targets when the American military withdraws from the country, according to four administration officials.
The officials emphasized that a formal request to develop a contingency plan has not been made by the White House but there is significant pressure on the administration from Capitol Hill and outside groups to safely remove the Afghans before US troops leave.
President Joe Biden’s April announcement that the US would withdraw troops by September 11 has created uncertainty for thousands of Afghans who risked their lives to help the US military working as translators and in other roles since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001.
Officials have privately said the troop withdrawal could be completed in July which increases the sense of urgency. There has also been an uptake in Taliban violence against Afghan security forces and civilians in recent weeks and Afghans who are waiting for visas to come to the US have been killed by the Taliban.
In one recent instance, the Taliban cracked the skull of an Afghan national with an AK-47, kept him captive and told him that they planned to kill him because he had worked for the Americans, he told CNN. The man was able to escape only because the Afghan national army raided the place where he was being held.
An evacuation is just one option being examined and the administration is also looking at speeding up the issuing of visas. The State Department has said that about 18,000 people who have applied for special immigrant visas to the US are still awaiting approval.
But there are concerns that it will not be possible to process all of them before the troops have left. Granting the visas is an arduous and lengthy process; in recent years the processing for each approved applicant has taken more than 500 days, according to State Department data reviewed by CNN in April.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, confirmed CNN’s reporting on Wednesday, telling reporters traveling with him that “there are plans being developed very, very rapidly” to evacuate Afghans whose worked for the US that could make them Taliban targets, according to Defense One, which, was traveling with Milley.
“We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection, and if necessary, get them out of the country, if that’s what they want to do,” Milley said.
‘We could certainly do it’
Last month Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, said that the Pentagon could assist in getting Afghans out of harm’s way if they were directed to do.
“The special immigrant visa program is probably the best route to make that happen. And it’s really a better question for the Department of State than me. I would just tell you that from a Central Command perspective and the perspective of the US military, if directed to do something like that, we could certainly do it,” Mckenzie said at a Pentagon briefing.
The officials with knowledge of the initial planning process said US Central command which oversees operations in Afghanistan and commanders in the country needed to start planning now to be ready when a decision is made by the Biden administration. They stress that an evacuation would be a highly complex operation and they’d hope to carry it out gradually. They need to work out how many people would need to be transported, how many aircraft would be needed and whether the Afghans would be taken to an interim location outside the US while their visa applications are reviewed. Covid-19 considerations are also a complicating factor, according to the officials.
One official noted that many would need to be transported from different locations across the country to be flown out. As US troops continue to withdraw that process will become increasingly complicated and it is a major priority to keep Kabul’s international civilian airport and other major airfields free of Taliban control.
When asked about a potential evacuation, a State Department spokesperson said the department is “focused on ensuring that the system functions quickly but is also consistent with US security and other application requirements.” The spokesperson added that the US is processing SIVs in Kabul “efficiently” and noted that applicants can also pursue the processing in neighboring countries.
The Secretary of Defense is “actively participating in what is an interagency discussion” about how to “best address” the issue, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
“The secretary shares concerns about so many Afghans who have helped us over the last two decades, he knows many of them himself, so he’s certainly vested in making sure we do right by them,” Kirby said.
Kirby did not have specific “planning options” to discuss, but said, “certainly to the degree that DoD can be helpful, we will.”
There is significant bipartisan political pressure for the US to secure the safety of the Afghans who have assisted American troops.
“We cannot allow Afghanistan to be another Saigon,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a hearing on Afghanistan last week. “This isn’t just about the people waiting for these visas in Afghanistan. If our allies and partners don’t trust us to keep our word or think they will be abandoned, it could cause irreparable damage to our national security.”
McCaul — along with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Gregory Meeks — wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that urged the State Department to expedite visas for some 3,000 Afghans whose applications remain pending.
“We must do our part to aid those Afghans who have aided us. There are already troubling examples of Taliban plan to target those who have helped the United States. We must ensure that we have the capacity to bring them to safety,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Outside groups and individuals have met the Biden administration and urged them to put more resources towards visa processing and then put together a backup plan for a possible airlift, according to sources familiar with the discussions. But the groups have not received any updates in recent weeks on the status of the administration’s efforts regarding a possible evacuation.
Recently the State Department has increased consular staffing at the embassy in Kabul in an effort to process more applications. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the administration will “continue to look for ways to speed up this process.”
The Pentagon is aware that time is of the essence.
“We have a moral obligation to help those that have helped us over the past 20 years of our presence and work in Afghanistan. We are working very closely with our State Department interagency colleagues to look at programs like the Special Immigrant Visa program,” David Helvey, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
Helvey noted that administration wants to work with Congress to increase the number of visas available and use other mechanisms to bring Afghans who may not qualify for the special immigrant visa program to safety. The Pentagon is also working with the State Department to provide data to help identify Afghans who worked for the US.