Washington on Monday expanded the scope of its Afghan refugee programme, opening a path to America for those trying to flee Afghanistan amid Taliban gains and mounting fears the insurgents will go after anyone who worked with US agencies over the past 20 years.
Under the new “Priority 2" programme, Afghan nationals who worked for US non-governmental agencies or media outlets can now seek refugee status, the State Department said. Those who worked for the US for only short periods can also apply.
Previously, President Joe Biden's administration had offered refugee status to Afghans who had worked directly for the US government — mostly for the military and for a certain length of time — under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme.
“The US objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” the State Department said.
“However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”
Thousands of Afghans have applied for SIVs and hundreds have already arrived in America before the final US troop withdrawal at the end of this month.
The US and British embassies in Kabul said on Monday the Taliban may have committed war crimes in southern Afghanistan by carrying out revenge murders of civilians, a charge denied by the insurgents.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban negotiating team member based in Doha, told Reuters that tweets containing the accusations were "baseless reports".
The US mission tweeted a statement accusing the Taliban of killing dozens of civilians in the area of Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar province, the scene of heavy fighting. The statement also was tweeted by the British embassy.
“Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan, the United States and our partners remain deeply engaged," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday.
"We will continue our support for Afghan institutions and for the gains that the Afghan people have made over the past 20 years."
A senior US official estimated “thousands” of Afghans are likely to qualify under the new programme. They cannot apply directly and must be referred by their employers.
“Once that happens and they’re in our system, we will contact the individual,” the official told reporters.
The new programme starts immediately and cases will be processed in third countries that will host candidates and immediate family members.
Turkey is one such destination, the US official said, and the visa-application process could take from 12 to 14 months.
The official highlighted the increasing threat from the Taliban, who now control about half of Afghanistan's terrain, though not the major population centres.
Afghans working with US organisations have been frequent targets of the insurgent group.
About 2,500 SIV holders are currently being relocated to the Fort Lee army base in Virginia and thousands more will be flown to other countries while their applications are processed.
An estimated 20,000 Afghans who worked for the US military since the US-led 2001 invasion are seeking SIV status.
The Pentagon has said about 95 per cent of its US troops have left Afghanistan.
The Long War Journal reported that the Taliban now control 223 districts in the country, with a majority of the gains being made after the US began its withdrawal in May.
Mr Blinken called reports of the Taliban committing atrocities "deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable."
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Taliban are responsible for most of the "outrageous and atrocious acts of violence" in Afghanistan.
"The world will not accept a government in Afghanistan that doesn't respect basic human rights," he said, referring to the prospects of the Taliban reimposing its rule by force or joining an interim power-sharing arrangement as part of a peace deal.
Reuters contributed to this report