The Biden administration announced plans to evacuate Afghan nationals this month who helped the US during the 19-year war, as criticism of the US decision to withdraw from the country continued.
Flights for Afghans who had already applied for special interest visas will begin in the last week of July, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.
"At President [Joe] Biden's direction, the United States is launching Operation Allies Refuge to support relocation flights for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the SIV application pipeline," the official said.
The news comes as former president George W Bush, who ordered the initial invasion of the country in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, described Mr Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as a "mistake".
“I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad and sad,” Mr Bush said in an interview with the German publication Deutsche Welle. In particular, he said that Afghan women and girls may “suffer unspeakable harm” at the hands of the Taliban, while he also highlighted the threat facing translators. “It seems like they’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart.”
On Monday General Scott Miller, the top US general in Afghanistan, left the country, marking one of the final phases of the US withdrawal.
Mr Biden announced his decision to pull out all remaining troops in Afghanistan by September – the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks – in April. Since then military personnel and equipment have been exiting the country, and the drawdown is almost complete.
Defending his decision last week to withdraw the troops – which followed on from an agreement signed by his predecessor Donald Trump in February 2020 – Mr Biden said it was up to the Afghan people to decide their future.
"I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome," he said in an address from the White House. "No nation has ever unified Afghanistan."
The White House plan to begin flying translators and other US allies out of the country by the end of the month follows a pressure campaign by several members of Congress who had urged the Biden administration to look after former contractors who could be in danger following the US departure.
The logistical operation is being overseen by ambassador Tracey Jacobson, a former chief of mission in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kosovo, but further details will not be announced due to security concerns.
The Taliban have been steadily making gains in the country for months, sparking fears of political turmoil and violence in the region.
Amnesty International urged European countries this week not to send back any Afghan citizens to their home country, but to regularise their immigration status in Europe. "For years European countries have been trying to ignore what is plain to see – Afghanistan is not safe to return people to," the human rights agency said.
The pullout from Afghanistan is likely to feature in discussions between Mr Biden and German chancellor Angela Merkel in the White House on Thursday in what is expected to be her final visit to Washington as leader of the EU's largest member state.
Germany had the second largest deployment of troops in the country after the US, but followed America's lead and announced its withdrawal earlier this year.
Many Republicans have criticised Mr Biden’s decision on Afghanistan – his most significant foreign policy move to date. Senator Lindsey Graham described it as a “disaster in the making”.