Afghan nationals who have worked with foreign troops represent one of the Taliban's main targets

More than 200 Afghans arrive in US on first evacuation flight

AFP/WAKIL KOHSAR - Afghan translators for NATO and US forces fear that regular threats and deadly violence against them and their families will only increase as the alliance's withdrawal deadline looms

Early Friday morning a plane carrying 221 Afghans, including 57 children and 15 babies, landed at Washington Dulles International Airport in the US capital. The flight is the first in a US plan to evacuate Afghan nationals who have been working with the NATO military. These workers and their families have been targeted by the Taliban because of their ties to foreign troops. 

"This flight represents the fulfilment of America's commitment and honours the courageous service of these Afghans in helping to support our mission in Afghanistan and, in turn, helping to keep our country safe," said Russ Travers, deputy national security adviser. 

This mission to evacuate vulnerable Afghan nationals is called Operation Allies Refuge and is widely supported by both Democratic and Republican politicians. Last Thursday, the US Congress approved an additional 8,000 visas and $500 million in funding for the Afghan visa programme.

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A $2.1 billion emergency fund was also approved. "The funding includes humanitarian aid for the inevitable flood of Afghans fleeing to neighbouring countries. The United Nations has estimated that this could increase to 500,000 refugees in the coming months," said Patrick Leahy, chairman of the US Senate Appropriations Committee.  

The 221 new arrivals from Afghanistan will join the 70,000 others who have moved to the United States since 2008 under the special visa programme. Moreover, subsequent flights are expected to bring more of the 700 applicants currently in the visa process. "The reason we're taking these steps is because these are brave people," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. "We want to make sure that we recognise and appreciate the role that they have played over the last several years.

Those already on US soil will stay for a few days at a military base in Forte Lee, Virginia, to undergo medical examinations. Upon arrival, they were tested for the coronavirus and those who wished were given vaccinations, said Tracey Jacobson, the diplomat who led the operation. 

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Meanwhile, the US embassy in Kabul has declined to provide much information about the asylum seekers. Al Jazeera reporter Charlotte Bellis said the embassy in the Afghan capital has been "very secretive" about the evacuation flights. Bellis explains that the US diplomatic delegation "are incredibly concerned about the safety and privacy of the interpreters". "They are concerned that if any information gets out about who these people are and how they are getting out, it could endanger the evacuees," she added.

Workers who have had dealings with foreign units have long been warning of their situation. "If you work one day for a coalition force, or support coalition forces one day, they will kill you," an Afghan translator warns ABC News. Women face an even greater risk in jobs that the Taliban consider unsuitable for women.


The British government has also made plans to evacuate these nationals. The first group landed in Birmingham last June, while London expects to take in more than 3,000 workers. This measure, promoted by the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallance, and the Minister of the Interior, Priti Patel, "recognises the risks these people faced in the fight against terrorism as well as rewarding their efforts", as Patel explains. She also stresses that her government has a "moral obligation" to provide asylum to these people. Since 2014, more than 350 translators have been killed by the Taliban, while many organisations have repeatedly denounced the violence suffered by interpreters.

Canada has also pledged to evacuate workers who helped Canadian troops. "People who have worked for Canada, and who therefore absolutely have the right to come to Canada, should get on those planes as quickly as possible," said Chrystia Freeland, Canada's deputy prime minister. "Our desire is to move very quickly with this process," Freeland added.

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Meanwhile, Taliban influence is growing and spreading throughout the country. The announcement of the withdrawal of foreign troops has intensified attacks and offensives by the fundamentalist group. Moreover, Taliban spokesmen claim to control 90% of Afghanistan's borders.

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