WASHINGTON (AP) — The first flight evacuating Afghans who worked alongside Americans in Afghanistan brought more than 200 people, including scores of children and babies in arms, to resettlement in the United States on Friday, and President Joe Biden welcomed them home.
The evacuation flights, bringing out former interpreters and others who fear retaliation from Afghanistan’s Taliban for having worked with American servicemembers and civilians, highlight American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after the last U.S. combat forces leave that country in the coming weeks.
Family members are accompanying the interpreters, translators and others on the flights out.
The commercial airliner carrying the 221 Afghans in the special visa program, including 57 children and 15 babies, according to an internal U.S. government document obtained by The Associated Press, touched down in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., according to the commercial FlightAware tracking service.
Biden called the flight “an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan.” He said he wanted to honor the military veterans, diplomats and others in the U.S. who have advocated for the Afghans.
“Most of all,” Biden said in a statement, “I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home.’”
In a statement issued early Friday morning, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he is “honored to join President Biden and Secretary Blinken in welcoming the first group of Afghans and their families under Operation Allies Refuge to the United States, and to Fort Lee specifically. “These brave men and women, at great risk to themselves and their families, served alongside U.S. and coalition forces and diplomats to support our operations and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism that threatens our homeland.
“We have spoken many times about the moral obligation we have to help those who have helped us, and we are fully committed to working closely with our interagency partners to meet that obligation,” Austin said.
In support of the State Department led effort, approximately 300 U.S. service members from several installations, and under the direction of U.S. Northern Command stand ready to provide logistics, temporary lodging, and medical support at Fort Lee.
“The Department remains committed to our partnership with Afghanistan, including protecting our diplomatic mission, providing support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and advising Afghan security ministries,” said Austin.
Russ Travers, senior deputy homeland security adviser at the National Security Council, told reporters on Thursday as the Afghan families were en route that the flight “represents the fulfillment of the U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans’ brave service in helping support our mission in Afghanistan” and “in turn, helping to keep our country safe.”
The Biden administration calls the effort Operation Allies Refuge. The operation has broad backing from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from veterans groups. Supporters cite repeated instances of Taliban forces targeting Afghans who worked with Americans or with the Afghan government.
Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow an additional 8,000 visas and $500 million in funding for the Afghan visa program.
Biden announced earlier this year the U.S. would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, honoring a withdrawal agreement struck by former President Donald Trump. He later said the U.S. military operation would end on Aug. 31, calling it “overdue.” Some administration officials have expressed surprise at the extent and speed of Taliban gains of territory in the countryside since then.
Biden said that although U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan, the U.S. we will keep supporting Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces and humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people.
The newly arrived Afghan people will join 70,000 others who have resettled in the United States since 2008 under the special visa program.
Subsequent flights are due to bring more of the roughly 700 applicants who are farthest along in the process of getting visas, having already won approval and cleared security screening.
The first arrivals were screened for the coronavirus and received vaccines if they wanted them, said Tracey Jacobson, the U.S. diplomat running the effort. They were expected to stay at Fort Lee, Virginia, for about seven days, completing medical exams and other final steps, Jacobson said. Resettlement organizations will help them as they travel to communities around the United States, with some bound for family members already here, she said.