US faces snags in bid to speed up at-risk Afghan evacuations

Afghans sitting inside a US military aircraft leaving Afghanistan, on Aug 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A lack of flights and the search for a new United States reception centre are among the hurdles facing the White House as it races to speed up the evacuation of at-risk Afghans from their homeland, according to a senior US official and others familiar with the new plan.

Other obstacles include difficulties in obtaining passports and an affordable housing shortage in the US, they said.

The plan's goal "is just to make this more enduring and less of an emergency operation", the senior US official said in describing the revamp, requesting anonymity to discuss internal operations.

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

Human rights organisations and the United Nations say the Taliban has stepped up detentions, abductions and killings.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sayed Khosti has rejected the accusation of reprisal killings, saying no evidence had been presented.

"People left behind are getting more and more desperate and we're going to start seeing more of the consequences of that, whether mass movement of refugees or meeting grim fates in Afghanistan," said a second senior US official.

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

"We want to see enough resources applied to these issues so that even if one area fails or falters for a moment, there are options to make sure the pipeline isn't cut off," said Mr Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and president of #AfghanEvac, a coalition of advocacy groups.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered that up to US$1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion) be made available for the effort, the largest operation of its kind since the Vietnam era. About 80,000 Afghans have been resettled since August.

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

Flights are 'main challenge'

But two US-chartered Qatar Airways flights a week from Kabul to Qatar's al Udeid military base are needed, with the goal of adding more flights, the US official said.

The flights are the "main challenge", said the official.

Differences between Qatar and the Taliban triggered a suspension of regular charters before Christmas.

"We're hoping we can get to regular order," the US official said.

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

Qatar has told Washington it intends to close the reception centre in September ahead of the World Cup, the US official confirmed. The official said the US was looking for alternatives, including reopening the air base centre after the World Cup.

Once Afghan evacuees are processed for admission, they will be flown to the US and placed with relatives or friends, provided housing by resettlement agencies or sent to a the planned reception centre to help them resettle.

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

The Pentagon has been closing those reception centres, with the last two expected to shutter this month, a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said, after the roughly 6,500 people there have been processed.

One of those two centres will remain open until the administration finds a civilian site, but a location has not been selected yet, the senior US official and a congressional source said.

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

To be sure, that creates additional challenges that the second senior US official said would be difficult to surmount.

Speeding up the operation, the second senior official said, will require an agreement with the Taliban to prioritise passports for evacuees or a deal with Qatar to allow travel without them, more US officials in Doha to process evacuees, and a "higher tolerance of risk to speed up vetting".

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

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

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

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