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A major effort to evacuate more than 200 Afghan interpreters, who face persecution by the Taliban in Afghanistan for working alongside Americans, has commenced.
On Friday, a first plane carrying the individuals and their families arrived on U.S. soil in Fort Lee, Virginia, according to The Washington Post.
The inaugural flight carried the Afghan individuals under the special visa program, the Associated Press reported. Among those who traveled, 57 were children and 15 were babies, according to an internal U.S. government document obtained by the outlet.
Over the next few days, those travelers will finish the last rounds of processing before they are relocated across the nation, Ross Wilson, head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, said, per the Post.
With assistance from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the Afghan people "will be sent on to places where friends, relatives or other connections already live," The Wall Street Journal said.
Back in April, President Joe Biden announced that all U.S. military troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, exactly 20 years after the terror attacks that led to the country's longest war. "It is time for American troops to come home," Biden, 78, said during a speech from the White House.
America's military presence in the Middle East has been a key part of foreign policy under every president since George W. Bush, who first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 in the wake of 9/11. Bush went on to invade Iraq in early 2003, a conflict that ended in 2011, but operations in Afghanistan continued under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
After Bush left office, his predecessors both pledged to remove troops from Afghanistan — and both ultimately did not, in part because of the uncertainty of what would happen when the U.S. withdrew, leaving the democratic government to contend with regional forces and the Taliban. Biden came into office in the wake of the Trump administration's decision that U.S. forces would withdraw by May, while the Afghanistan government and Taliban entered fitful peace talks.
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"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," Biden said in a statement. "... These arrivals are just the first of many as we work quickly to relocate SIV-eligible Afghans out of harm's way—to the United States, to U.S. facilities abroad, or to third countries—so that they can wait in safety while they finish their visa applications."
Noting that the Afghans are able to come to the country because they have "already completed extensive background checks and security screening by the Intelligence Community and the Departments of State and Homeland Security," Biden continued, "I want to honor all those in the United States who have spoken out on behalf of these brave Afghans, including the proud community of veterans, who have consistently advocated for the Afghans who were by their side in the field in Afghanistan, often serving as translators and interpreters."
Continuing to thank those involved around the world who helped make the opportunity a reality, Biden added, "Although U.S. troops are leaving, we will continue to support Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces, as well as humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people to help them sustain their achievements of the past 20 years. He also noted that he wanted to "thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: 'Welcome home.'"
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The plane that carried the Afghan interpreters and their families on Friday will be the first of many other flights, Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson, who is leading the State Department task force on the evacuations, said, per The Wall Street Journal.
Jacobson told the publication that further details surrounding future flights could not be shared due to "security reasons."
"We will learn from the experience of this first flight and apply it to future flights," Jacobson told reporters, the outlet said. "These folks have, in recent days, left their entire lives behind and immigrated to the United States with just their luggage."
In the coming weeks, more flights are scheduled to bring more applicants to the country, who have already been cleared and gained approval, according to the AP.
The Wall Street Journal reports that there are still "as many as 20,000 visa applications" that are left to process, citing the latest State Department quarterly report. Of those, more than half are still in the beginning stages, which the outlet says "can take years to complete."