The Biden administration has curtailed the number of government-sponsored evacuation flights to the United States for Afghans who worked alongside the US for the time being as it prioritizes the evacuation of American personnel from the country, three sources familiar with the situation told CNN Sunday.
It is unclear how long the pause in flights will last and the situation remains fluid. As of last week, refugee resettlement agencies were preparing for a large influx of Afghan arrivals, two of the sources said, and Biden administration officials were discussing an uptick in SIV flights. On Sunday, a joint statement from the Departments of Defense and State reiterated that the administration would “accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas.”
However, the last planned flight for the time being of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their families bound for Fort Lee, Virginia, has left Afghanistan, four sources said.
A State Department spokesperson pushed back on Sunday, saying in a statement, “As we’ve said, tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of Afghanistan thousands of American citizens who have been resident there, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
“Additionally, we are committed to relocating as many SIV applicants as possible out of Afghanistan, increasing the tempo from recent weeks where we have already relocated nearly 2,000 SIV applicants,” they said.
The developments come as the Afghan government has fallen and the Taliban have taken control of Kabul, leaving the Afghans who worked alongside the US in its two-decade military campaign fearful for their lives.
One source said that the limitation on the number of flights that are able to transit in and out of the Kabul airport – which was a scene of mass panic and chaos on Sunday – has impeded efforts to evacuate Afghan SIV applicants and their families.
The US can move a maximum of 5,000 people per day out of Hamid Karzai International Airport, but the military has not yet reached that peak capacity. A defense official said the US would be able to move that many people within days, a precarious timeline given the speed with which the Taliban took over Kabul.
The Departments of State and Defense said Sunday they will expand troop presence at the Kabul airport to nearly 6,000 troops over the next 48 hours to take over air traffic control and as part of “a series of steps to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport to enable the safe departure of U.S. and allied personnel from Afghanistan via civilian and military flights.”
“Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals,” the joint statement from the two agencies said.
“And we will accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas, nearly 2,000 of whom have already arrived in the United States over the past two weeks,” the statement said. “For all categories, Afghans who have cleared security screening will continue to be transferred directly to the United States. And we will find additional locations for those yet to be screened.”
As of last Thursday, 1,200 Afghans and their families had been evacuated to America as part of the administration’s “Operation Allies Refuge,” according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price. Those Afghans had been processed at Fort Lee in Virginia, but there are current efforts underway to prepare more US military bases to take in SIV applicants, including Fort Bliss in Texas, two sources familiar with the discussions said.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have for months urged the administration to accelerate efforts to get the Afghan SIV applicants out of the country ahead of the planned full military withdrawal, and those calls had grown more urgent as the security situation deteriorated and the US announced it would evacuate all but a few diplomatic personnel. On Sunday, the US evacuated its diplomatic compound in Kabul and relocated its personnel to the Kabul airport.
“If this is the best our nation can do to move allies to safety, we have abjectly failed to live up to our values and obligations. There is simply no reason we can’t evacuate at-risk Afghans at the same time as American citizens. We fought side by side for twenty years – surely, we can leave side by side,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said on Sunday.
“We can’t let those who befriended America be beheaded by the Taliban. No matter your feelings on the war, the undeniable truth is that we had both the means and the time to save those in danger, and yet, we neglected to act in any meaningful way,” she said.
Administration officials as recently as Sunday morning said they were ramping up efforts to get Afghan translators, interpreters and others who worked for the US out of the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday, “We are doubling down on efforts to get them out if they want to leave, and also other Afghans at risk who may not qualify for these so-called special immigrant visas that the folks who worked directly for us quality for, to do everything we possibly can for as long as we can to get them out, if that’s what they want.”
According to sources familiar with the matter, Biden national security officials told senators during a briefing on Afghanistan Sunday that there are as many as 60,000 Afghans who could potentially qualify as SIV holders or applicants, P1/P2 refugees, or others like human rights defenders and could need evacuation.
The administration said last week it was deploying additional troops to Qatar to assist with SIV applicant processing, and CNN reported last week that the administration was working to finalize an agreement with Qatar to temporarily house thousands of Afghans. That agreement has yet to be formally announced.
CNN’s Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.