First flight of Afghans who risked lives to help American troops arrive in US

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The first group of approved Afghan applicants for a Special Immigrant Visa touched down and traveled to Fort Lee, Virginia, on Friday, according to the Biden administration. The flight carried about 200 people, including applicants and their families, part of a priority group of 700 Afghan SIV applicants who have completed the majority of the background process required to get a visa. Along with their families, they number about 2,500.

“Today is 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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Russ Travers, the deputy homeland security advisor on the National Security Council, said the flight is “the fulfillment of the US commitment and honors these Afghans brave service in helping support our mission Afghanistan, in turn, helping to keep our country safe.”

The Afghans on that flight are the lucky ones. They represent a sliver of the estimated 20,000 SIV applicants in line, some of whom told CNN they are deeply afraid as they watch the Taliban’s bloody executions and reprisals against those who helped US troops.

“We need to get out of the country, they are looking after us,” Naveed Mustafa, an interpreter who worked with US and UK forces, told CNN. He has been scrambling to assemble the documents he needs to get himself, his wife, and five children out of the country as they watch the Taliban take control of Afghanistan’s borders and seek out Afghan special forces, army soldiers and police, “knocking the doors and taking them out and killing them.”

Naveed has colleagues from Special Forces “like, five or six [who] have been killed.” Asked if he is living in fear, he says, “completely.”

The fear of Taliban reprisal is being felt deeply across Afghanistan as the nearly two-decade US military campaign in the country draws to a close, leaving thousands like Naveed in a bind. The process of applying for the SIV program to be able to come to the United States can take years. And despite the Biden administration’s announcement in July that it was launching Operation Allies Refuge, questions remain about whether the US government will be able to relocate SIV applicants quickly enough.

Of the 20,000 people in the SIV pipeline, about 10,000 have only just begun the process, the State Department said in recent weeks.

US officials have said they are looking to relocate some applicants to US military bases, like Fort Lee, and even to third countries so they can complete the application and clearance process in relative safety. However, applicants who are selected to take advantage of the US evacuation flights will have to get themselves to Kabul, despite the dangers such a journey could present as the Taliban has set up checkpoints across the country.

Afghan interpreter for US Army was beheaded by Taliban. Others fear they will be hunted down too
That danger is increasing. After US troops left Bagram Air Base in early July, and with the closure of other bases, Afghans who were employed by the US government on those bases “left their jobs and they left their protection,” said Janis Shinwari, a former interpreter and founder of the group “No One Left Behind,” which assists SIV recipients like himself with resettling in the US.

The Taliban recently came looking for Ramish, another interpreter who spoke to CNN. His family hid him. After the Taliban’s searched fruitlessly, they burned down Ramish’s house. The interpreter escaped his hometown and traveled in the middle of the night to Kabul, where he is trying to get through the SIV process. If he can’t get out, he said, “our future will be dark.”

Referring to reports that the Taliban is beheading Afghans who worked with US troops, Ramish adds, “they’re going to cut our heads too.”

Lawmakers have united with nonprofit groups to urge the Biden administration to do more, and do it more quickly, for the Afghans who served alongside US soldiers and diplomats. Congress has come together in rare bipartisan fashion on legislation to streamline the visa process for SIV applicants and increase the number of visas available — an initiative administration officials welcome.

“We’ve had exponentially more Afghanis who worked with US Forces than the State Department even has visas for, and the State Department is so backed up right now they can’t even speed it up,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a combat veteran on the Armed Services Committee, told MSNBC on Thursday. “They’re looking at a two- to four-year backlog.”

‘A bull’s-eye’

Referring to the interpreters and translators, Duckworth added that, “they have bull’s-eyes on their back, as well as their family members, and we need to get them out of harm’s way.”

As lawmakers and government officials work to get SIV applicants to safety in the US or a third country, nonprofit groups and individuals have also taken it upon themselves to help.

Army Capt. Sayre Paine worked with Ramish, whose house was torched, and encouraged him to flee to Kabul.

“To me,…



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