US plans possible evacuation of Afghan interpreters, senior US general says


WASHINGTON – The Defense Department and the State Department are making plans for the eventual evacuation of Afghans whose lives are in danger due to their work for the U.S. government, the senior U.S. military officer said.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was clear that a “significant” number of Afghans who were working as interpreters or in other roles for the military or the United States Embassy risked retaliation from the Taliban.

“Their safety could be threatened. And we recognize that this is a very important task, is to make sure that we remain loyal to them and that we do what is necessary to ensure their protection and, if necessary, to get them out of the country if that is the case. what they want to do, ”Milley told reporters aboard his plane after giving an opening speech Wednesday at the Colorado Air Force Academy.

The State Department is overseeing the matter, Milley said in remarks released Thursday by his office.

“There are plans being made very, very quickly here, not just interpreters, but a lot of other people who have worked with the United States,” he said.

It was the first time that a senior administration official publicly confirmed that a possible evacuation was under consideration or that a contingency plan for an evacuation was underway.

Milley’s comments were first reported by Defense One.

The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said: “I refer you to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to characterize General Milley’s comments. I can tell you that we have no evacuation plans. at this time. The State Department is processing SIV requests in Kabul. They are working to ensure that the system works quickly and consistently with US security and other enforcement requirements. “

SIVs are special immigrant visas.

US officials recognized the danger faced by many former Afghan interpreters, but said the administration wanted to avoid triggering panic or sending a signal that Washington had lost confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to survive.

“We do not want to signal the panic and the departure of all Afghans educated by the worst case and undermine the morale of the Afghan security forces,” said the US special envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, during the a hearing on May 18.

“So it is a delicate and complicated balance that we must maintain,” said Khalilzad, who negotiated a US troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.

Representative Mike Waltz, R-Fla., A member of the Armed Services Committee who is a strong supporter of the evacuation of Afghan partners, said he was encouraged by Milley’s remarks but called for faster action as American troops would soon be out of the country. .

“While I welcome these comments, we need to see action sooner rather than later,” Waltz said in an email. “We need to show the world that we are rewarding those who help us against the enemy rather than leaving them behind.”

U.S. officials who testified before Congress or answered questions from reporters highlighted efforts to expand and accelerate efforts to provide visas to the estimated 17,000 to 18,000 Afghans who applied under a program aimed at former employees of the United States Army or the United States Embassy in Kabul. The program got bogged down in delays, applicants have been waiting for years.

A federal court ruled in 2019 that the government failed to comply with a law requiring it to process applications within nine months, and a State Department inspector general’s report last year described a chronic shortage of staff which had hampered the program.

Citing assassinations of Afghans associated with the United States or other Western governments, a growing number of lawmakers on both sides, as well as veterans and refugee rights groups, are urging the Biden administration to organize a evacuation to U.S. territory or military base outside of Afghanistan, where visa applicants’ documents would be reviewed and reviewed.

Supporters cite the US military evacuation of around 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to US territory from Guam in 1996 and 1997 after Saddam Hussein’s regime launched attacks in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The Kurds were housed at Andersen Air Force Base for three to four months, and most were eventually relocated to the United States.

Asked Thursday about a possible airlift of Afghan partners in danger, Milley said: “This is one way to do it.”

He added: “I’m not going to discuss how we’re going to do it, because it will be in the future. I don’t usually talk about things that will happen in the future. But we have the capabilities to execute it. for those who want to do it. “

Regarding the United States’ future relationship with Afghanistan following the departure of troops by September 11, Milley said the United States will maintain an embassy, ​​maintain financial support for the Afghan military, and follow through. terrorist threats from afar.

“We want money to keep flowing to Afghan government security forces,” he said. “We will provide them with longer-term assistance outside the country. And we want to maintain appropriate levels of surveillance, reconnaissance, early warning indicators of any reconstituting terrorist threat, so that we can take appropriate action if necessary. “

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