US faces challenges expediting risky Afghan evacuations

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Evacuated Afghan children participate in social and emotional art initiatives led by Mural Arts after arriving at Philadelphia International Airport, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

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WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) – Lack of flights and the search for a new U.S. reception center are among the hurdles facing the White House as it rushes to expedite the evacuation of Afghans at risk of their homeland, according to a senior U.S. official and others familiar with the new plan.

Other hurdles include difficulties obtaining passports and a shortage of affordable housing in the United States, they said.

The goal of the plan “is simply to make this operation more sustainable and less urgent,” the senior US official said in describing the overhaul, requesting anonymity to discuss internal operations.

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The Biden administration came under pressure to expedite Operation Allies Welcome from lawmakers, veterans groups and others angry at the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the US government and d Others at risk of retaliation from the Taliban were left behind when the last US troops left in August after 20 years of war.

Human rights organizations and the United Nations say the Taliban have increased detentions, kidnappings and killings. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sayed Khosti dismissed the charge of retaliation, saying no evidence had been presented. Read more

“Those left behind are increasingly desperate and we are going to start seeing more of the consequences, whether it is massive movements of refugees or bleak fates in Afghanistan,” said a second senior US official.

Advocacy groups say Washington should ensure the new plan does not suffer the kinds of setbacks that have hampered Afghan arrivals.

“We want to see enough resources applied to these issues that even if a domain goes down or wobbles for a while, there are options to make sure the pipeline isn’t cut,” said Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and president of #AfghanEvac, a coalition of advocacy groups.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered that up to $1.2 billion be made available for the effort, the largest such operation since the Vietnam era. Around 80,000 Afghans have been resettled since August.

The new plan calls for moving the processing of Afghan evacuees for admission to the United States from reception centers at US military bases that are closed to a base in the Qatari capital of Doha.

FLIGHTS ARE THE “MAIN CHALLENGE”

But two weekly flights chartered by Qatar Airways between Kabul and the Al Udeid military base in Qatar are needed, in a bid to add more flights, the US official said.

Thefts are the “main challenge”, the official said.

Disputes between Qatar and the Taliban triggered a suspension of scheduled charters ahead of Christmas.

“We hope we can move to regular ordering,” the US official said.

The Qatari Embassy and Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Qatar has let Washington know it intends to close the visitor center in September ahead of the World Cup, the US official has confirmed. The official said the United States was looking for alternatives, including reopening the airbase center after the World Cup.

Once Afghan evacuees are admitted, they will be airlifted to the United States and placed with relatives or friends, housed by resettlement agencies, or sent to a designated reception center to help them resettle.

The Biden administration housed tens of thousands of those evacuees on bases in the United States while their admission and resettlement arrangements were finalized.

The Pentagon closed those reception centers, with the last two set to close this month, a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said, after the roughly 6,500 people were treated there.

One of those two centers will remain open until the administration finds a civilian site, but no location has yet been chosen, the senior U.S. official and a congressional source said.

The State Department plans to process Afghans for refugee status within 30 days from March, two US officials said. This is much faster than typical refugee processing, which can take years.

Admittedly, this creates additional challenges that the second senior US official said would be difficult to overcome.

Speeding up the operation, the second senior official said, will require an agreement with the Taliban to prioritize passports for evacuees or an agreement with Qatar to allow travel without them, more US officials in Doha to process evacuees and a “greater tolerance to risk”. to speed up control.

Afghans entering the United States through the refugee resettlement program will be able to travel directly to their destination on UN-funded flights.

The department will also complete the processing in Doha of tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked for the US government and applied for special immigration visas (SIVs), according to the official and two congressional aides.

The goal is to process and transport to the United States 1,000 refugees and 1,000 SIV recipients per month, the official said.

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Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Gerry Doyle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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