The Biden administration will begin an airlift of Afghans who aided U.S. military operations during the 20-year war by the end of July, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.
Operation Allies Refuge flights out of Afghanistan will be available first for people who have already applied for special immigrant visas and their families. The flights will begin in the last week of July.
‘For operational security, we won’t have additional details on when flights will depart, but we will meet the President’s commitment to begin flights this month,’ said the official.
President Biden has been under intense pressure from both left and right to explain how he planned to protect Afghans who risked their lives as translators or in other roles.
They fear a rapid Taliban advance and U.S. withdrawal puts them and their families at even greater risk.
The White House began briefing lawmakers on the outlines of their plans last month.
Last week President Biden said he would help protect Afghans who worked for U.S. forces. On Wednesday, a senior administration official said Operation Allies Refuge would begin in the last week of July, flying translators and other former staff and their families to safety
The Taliban apparently continued their advance on Wednesday. People are seen waving Taliban flags as they drive through the Pakistani town of Chaman after the Taliban claimed to have captured the Afghan side of the frontier crossing at Spin Boldak
Former Afghan interpreters hold placards during demonstrations against the US government, in front of the US Embassy in Kabul, as they seek safety from advancing Taliban fighters
It is understood the administration is mulling whether to charter commercial aircraft or use military planes.
The move was welcomed by No One Left Behind, which campaigns for the safety for interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq.
‘No One Left Behind thanks President Biden to following through with his promise last Thursday,’ it said.
‘The announcement of flights to third countries for SIV applicants is a significant step forward.’
In a speech last Thursday, Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and offered guarantees of safety to translators and other Afghans who worked for American forces ‘if they wish to leave by taking them to third countries.’
Meanwhile, the Taliban has been making rapid advances.
On Wednesday, they claimed to have taken a strategic border crossing with Pakistan.
A Taliban spokesman tweeted a video apparently showing Taliban fighters flying their flag in the south-eastern town of Spin Boldak, along the border.
In the meantime, lawmakers from both sides spelled out dire predictions for what might happen if the translators were left behind.
‘If they’re not given refugee status, we’re going to see pictures of them lined up against the wall and machine-gunned,’ Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told MSNBC on Tuesday, saying he feared violence at the hands of the Taliban. ‘That’s not an exaggeration.’
Former US president George W. Bush on Wednesday said the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan was a ‘mistake’ and warned civilians were being left to be ‘slaughtered’ by the ‘brutal’ Taliban in an interview with Deutsche Welle
President George W. Bush announcing that the US and Britain had started bombing Afghanistan, in the Treaty Room of the White House on October 7, 2001
Afghanistan is facing a crisis as the Taliban snap up territory across the countryside, stretching government forces and leading to a fresh wave of internally displaced families
Former President George W. Bush, who sent troops to Afghanistan in fall 2001 after the September 11 attacks, said he feared the withdrawal was a mistake.
‘I think about all the interpreters and the people that helped not only US troops, but NATO troops and it seems like they’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart,’ he told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Biden has insisted soldiers will completely pull out of Afghanistan by September 11, despite facing intense criticism over the decision.
Bush said: ‘It’s unbelievable how that society changed from the brutality of the Taliban and how all of a sudden, sadly, I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm.’
Pressed on whether the withdrawal was a mistake, he said ‘I think it is, yeh, because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad.
Speaking in the interview primarily about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is set to retire from politics later this year after 16 years in power, Bush said he thought she ‘feels the same way’.
US and NATO forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan in early May and are due to completely pull out by September 11, some 20 years after they arrived in the war-torn country.
Most of the 2,500 US and 7,500 NATO troops who were in Afghanistan when US President Joe Biden detailed the final withdrawal in April have now departed, leaving Afghan troops to fight an emboldened Taliban seemingly bent on a military victory.
The country is facing a crisis as the insurgents snap up territory across the countryside, stretching government forces and leading to a fresh wave of internally displaced families, complicated by a renewed outbreak of Covid-19.
The Taliban appear to be winning the propaganda war with videos to prove they will welcome surrendering soldiers (pictured, Taliban fighters and villagers on March 2, 2020)
Former President George W. Bush has warned ‘Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm’ following the withdrawal of US troops
The United Nations said on Sunday the rising conflict is causing ‘more suffering’ across the violence-wracked country as it called for continuous financial aid.
Biden has insisted, however, that it is time for US involvement in the war to end and for Afghans to chart their own future.
‘I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,’ he said on Thursday, defending his decision despite the growing threat of civil war.
It comes after American troops slipped away from Bagram in the dead of night on July 2, effectively ending the combat mission without telling the local Afghan commander.
Since the quiet withdrawal Afghan troops around the country have been filmed laying down their arms to the Taliban and reports suggest they have deserted in vast numbers, with more than 20,000 fleeing across the border into Tajikistan.
The result is a growing sense of doom among Afghans and US allies.
US troops are seen loading a helicopter onto a C-17 Globesmaster at Bagram on June 16 as they prepare to leave the airbase
An Afghan soldier stands guard on a security tower at Bagram airfield after US troops left
An Afghan flag is raised during a handover ceremony from the US Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan in May 2021
The White House has been under intense pressure to explain its rationale for rushing out of Afghanistan.
Washington agreed to leave as part of a deal with the Taliban made by the Trump administration last year.
Military leaders wanted to leave a larger presence in the country but Biden announced in April that he wanted all US troops out by September 11.
In 30 minutes of comments on Thursday, Biden repeated his justification for the withdrawal – saying the US had met its aims of delivering justice to Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks and making sure Afghanistan did not pose a threat.
‘We achieved those objectives, that’s why we went,’ he said.
‘We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.’
He also offered more details on plans to move Afghan translators to third countries as they await applications to travel to the US and snapped back at a reporter who asked whether or not he trusted the Taliban.
‘It’s a silly question,’ he said.
‘Do I trust the Taliban? No, but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who are better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.’
The White House has been under intense pressure to explain its rationale for rushing out of Afghanistan and President Biden has been peppered with questions about what comes next in the country every time he makes a public appearance
The President has been peppered with questions about what comes next in the country every time he makes a public appearance.
On Thursday, he offered an impassioned defense of his approach, playing down security fears and quietly abandoning the 9/11 target – a date which many analysts suggested could be used for propaganda purposes by the Taliban and other extremists.
A question about whether a Taliban takeover was inevitable received a sharp response.
‘No it is not because you have the Afghan troops at 300,000, well equipped – as well as any army in the world – and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban,’ he said.
‘It is not inevitable.’
The US President said there will be a phased drawdown on troops until his apparently uni-lateral September 11 deadline
US soldiers arrives at the site of a car bomb attack that targeted a NATO coalition convoy in Kabul on September 24, 2017 – US war in Afghanistan killed more than 2,200 U.S. troops, wounded 20,000
In this file photo a US soldier investigates the scene of a suicide attack at the Afghan-Pakistan border crossing in Torkham, Nangarhar province on June 19, 2014
Republicans have also slammed Biden’s plan as essentially surrendering the region to al Qaeda amid the on-going war on terrorism.
And the White House has faced criticism from within its own ranks.
CIA Director William Burns said in April that Washington’s ability to collect intelligence and act on threats will diminish when US troops leave Afghanistan.
‘When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,’ he told the Senate Intelligence Committee, adding that the United States would however retain ‘a suite of capabilities.’
In April, Biden defended the withdrawal, saying: ‘I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.
‘It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.’
What does the future hold for Afghanistan after the US-led coalition quit?
With the United States military presence in Afghanistan effectively over, the country faces an uncertain future with Taliban attacks rampant and the threat of civil war looming.
Fears are growing that the loss of vital American air cover – massively curtailed by the closure of Bagram air base – will knock the Afghan government’s ability to hold power, as multiple players circle to take advantage of the power vacuum.
Here are some of the scenarios at play:
– Will the US pullout end the war? –
While Washington’s withdrawal ends America’s longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan continues, with no obvious signs of a ceasefire.
The insurgents appear focused instead on a total military victory and the overthrow of President Ashraf Ghani.
They have recently made huge advances across the country, claiming control of dozens of new districts, but Afghan security forces remain in firm control of major cities.
‘For now, the fighting will intensify and Afghan forces will have a hard time sustaining militarily on their own,’ Afghan security analyst Bari Arez said.
A leaked internal US intelligence assessment reportedly said the Taliban could take Kabul within six months of the US departure.
Government forces and the Taliban regularly claim to have inflicted enormous casualties on each other, but independent verification is impossible.
However, the number of targeted assassinations of educated Afghans, and sticky bomb attacks against civilians, has dropped in recent weeks.
– Can Afghan forces provide security? –
That remains to be seen, with an all-out civil war looming.
US air power had been a key factor in the ongoing fight, offering vital support to Afghan security forces when they risked being overwhelmed.
In a sign of possible growing desperation, the Afghan government has made calls for civilians to form militias to fight the Taliban – a move some analysts say could only add fuel to the fire.
‘This strategy has to be well-led, well-orchestrated and well-controlled or else it might backfire,’ said a foreign security analyst who did not want to be named.
With warlords re-emerging, there is a risk of Afghanistan falling back into a state of civil war as security deteriorates, with armed factions entering the fray in a free-for-all power grab.
– Could there be a political settlement? –
President Ghani wants a ceasefire with the Taliban ahead of a presidential election where voters will choose a ‘government of peace’. He has refused calls for an unelected interim government that includes the Taliban.
The United States favours such a caretaker government, pushing for a consensus between the warring sides at landmark talks in Doha, which have stalled.
While loose on specifics, the Taliban insist Afghanistan should return to being an emirate, run along strict Islamic lines and led by a council of religious elders.
Afghanistan has seen four presidential elections since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, and millions of Afghans have embraced a plural, democratic system – though voting was fraught with corruption.
Now that the stage is set for the insurgents to return, analysts fear the democratic gains of the past two decades could be lost.
‘The Taliban for now seem to be convinced they can take power forcefully,’ political analyst Ramish Salehi said.
‘This is a fight that will determine… whether democracy will prevail against ideological forces.’
– What about Afghanistan’s women? –
There is palpable fear that hard-fought women’s rights will be lost.
Before being deposed in 2001, the Taliban banned girls from studying and stoned to death women accused of crimes such as adultery.
With the Taliban out of power, Afghan women have become prominent politicians, activists, journalists and judges.
The Taliban insist they will respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law, but activists note the multiple interpretations of that across the Muslim world.
‘There is a general feeling of insecurity among women who think that the extremists would again imprison them in their homes,’ said activist Hosay Andar.
‘But they would not give up this time… there would be resistance this time.’
With the security situation deteriorating, development work will become increasingly hard to carry out across the impoverished country.
– What are the economic prospects? –
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, deeply indebted and utterly reliant on foreign aid.
While the nation boasts lucrative mineral reserves that neighbours including China and India are keen to exploit, the security situation has never been stable enough for revenues to boost state coffers.
In November, global donors pledged to offer aid to Afghanistan up to 2024, but there are concerns that with the imminent exit of foreign forces, the donors might not follow up on their commitments.
‘The economy is already in a steep decline… and the already terrible unemployment rate will again hit the skies,’ said analyst Salehi.