Thousands of interpreters who helped US and NATO forces in Afghanistan will be evacuated beginning in late July, Washington said on Wednesday as Taliban insurgents captured a strategic crossing at Pakistan’s border with government forces.
In what the White House called Operation Allies Refuge, interpreters and their families will likely be taken first to U.S. overseas military bases or possibly third countries before resettling in the United States or elsewhere.
Many fear retaliation from the Taliban, who are trying to regain control of the government in Kabul after the departure of US troops before the end of August.
It is estimated that 18,000 people – interpreters, translators and others who worked with US forces – would qualify for evacuation. With its families, it could potentially take the total number of evacuees to 80,000 or more.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the goal is to get those already covered under the State Department’s special immigration program, only a portion of 18,000, out by August 31 for US withdrawal.
“These are brave individuals. We want to make sure we recognize the value of the role they played,” she said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said they were working intensively on where the translators would be sent, but he would not identify any possibilities.
“We’re looking at all the options,” he said.
Fighting on motorcycles
The news came as the US military advanced with the final talks to withdraw from the country, and as the Islamist insurgency captured Spin Boldak, the border crossing on the main road between Kandahar and Quetta, Pakistan, and continued on to Karachi.
Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry denied that the rebels had taken the area.
“The terrorist Taliban had some movements near the border area … The security forces have rejected the attack,” Tareq Arian, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told AFP.
But social media was flooded with images of Taliban fighters relaxing in the border town, and residents told AFP it was in Taliban hands.
“I went to my store this morning and saw that the Taliban are everywhere. They are in the bazaar, in the police headquarters and in adapted areas. I can also hear the sound of fighting nearby,” said Raz Mohammad, a business owner working near the border.
The border crossing provides direct access to Pakistan’s Balochistan province – where the top rebel leadership has been based for decades – along with an unknown number of reserve fighters who regularly enter Afghanistan to strengthen their ranks.
A few hours after the crossing, an AFP reporter on the Pakistani side saw about 150 Taliban fighters riding motorcycles, waving rebellious flags and demanding that they be allowed to enter Afghanistan.
Bush blows up US withdrawal
Spin Boldak was the latest in a series of border crossings and dry ports that the rebels have seized in recent weeks as they appear to stifle the revenues that Kabul desperately needs while filling its own coffers.
In another sign, Western governments quickly reassessed the situation, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Britain was ready to work with the Taliban if it enters a power-sharing government.
“No matter what government it is today, provided it follows certain international standards, the British government will engage in it,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
“All peace processes require you to agree with the enemy. Sometimes that’s what it is.”
On Tuesday, the Pentagon pressured leaders in Kabul to intensify their fight against the Taliban.
“They know what they need to do,” Kirby told reporters. “No matter what the results are, good or bad, it will come down to how leadership was radiated, how leadership was demonstrated,” he said.
“It will really be tested here in the coming weeks and months.”
When the government’s grip on the country seemed to loosen further, former US President George W. Bush – who launched the US invasion 20 years ago after the 9/11 attacks – struck Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops.
“I am afraid that Afghan women and girls will suffer vague harm … They will be left to be slaughtered by these very brutal people and it will break my heart,” he told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Asked if he thought the withdrawal was a mistake, Bush replied: “Yes, I think so.”
Meanwhile, nearly 350 Afghans fled to Tajikistan on Wednesday from northern Afghan refugee attacks by the Taliban, the Tajik news agency Khova reported.
It said the refugees, a majority of them girls, had “fled from the Taliban to save their lives” and added that two children died during the border crossing.