First group of Afghans arrive in US through special visa programme

'Welcome Home', Biden says as flight with 200 nationals from Afghanistan arrived in Virginia on Friday morning

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment walks with the unit's Afghan interpreter before a mission near forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan December 11, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo
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The first group of Afghan nationals who worked with the US military in Afghanistan have arrived in Virginia under the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) programme.

Thousands of Afghan interpreters and other workers who assisted US forces are relocating to America and other nations to avoid Taliban reprisals as the insurgent group recaptures much of Afghanistan in a continuing offensive.

US officials said the first flight arrived early on Friday and passengers were transported to the Fort Lee army base in Virginia.

"Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfil 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," President Joe 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,'" he added.

An estimated 20,000 Afghans worked for the United States following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and are seeking evacuation under the SIV programme.

That includes not just interpreters but those providing intelligence support and other sensitive jobs to US and allied forces.

Including their families, the number that could be ferried to new homes in the United States under what has been dubbed "Operation Allies Refuge" could reach as much as 100,000, by some estimates.

Russ Travers, senior deputy homeland security adviser at the White House, told reporters the first flight was carrying “something over 200” SIV recipients who will be resettled in the US.

CBS reported that the flight left Kabul on Wednesday, transited through Doha and London and landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

The US embassy in Kabul's charge d'affaires Ross Wilson said "more work lies ahead" in getting relocated Afghans who worked with the US. Since the start of the year, the embassy has issued about 5,000 SIVs, he added.

The Biden administration stressed that all the Afghans have completed rigorous background checks, Covid-19 testing and will undergo visa and medical processing at Fort Lee.

Fort Lee is expected to host 700 Afghans before they are relocated to undisclosed towns across the US.

Mr Travers said the US is considering other special immigration programmes for US-affiliated Afghan nationals and for those under threat from the Taliban, particularly women in fields such as aviation.

The Biden administration is on track to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by the end of August, leaving thousands of those who worked with the US since 2001 at risk of Taliban retribution.

Thousands of Afghans remain in the SIV pipeline awaiting security checks and clearance to leave Afghanistan.

Some have held protests in Kabul in recent weeks to highlight their plight, amid reports that several Afghans who worked for US forces have been tracked down and killed by the Taliban.

Hampered by a smaller US diplomatic and military footprint in Kabul, and Covid pandemic restrictions, the backlog is substantial, US officials admit.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updated: July 30, 2021, 8:22 PM