Afghan evacuees landed in the United States for the first time since the Taliban took over their home country, U.S. officials said Saturday.
Three flights touched down at Dulles International Airport in Washington, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon.
“There are now Afghans, in just one week after beginning this operation, that have left Afghanistan and will be transitioned to Fort Bliss today,” he said.
Many of the Afghans have been granted Special Immigrant Visas under section 602(b) of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, largely because of the assistance they or family members rendered to U.S. troops following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Some 34,500 such visas have been allocated since December 2014, and some interpreters who received them landed at Fort Lee in Virginia last month.
Other Afghan evacuees are getting P-2 visas.
The new groups of evacuees were slated to be taken to Fort Bliss in Texas. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved that fort and two others, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Lee, to temporarily house the special visa applicants, their families, and other Afghans at risk.
The evacuees, who did not need to test negative for COVID-19, were vetted by intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals, according to Taylor.
The government experts “are surging resources to evaluate all of these evacuees to ensure protection of the homeland,” he said.
Space for up to 22,000 evacuees was cleared, military officials have said. That number could ultimately end up higher. President Joe Biden this week said it could be as high as 65,000.
The United States is flying Afghans, Americans, and others from the Hamid Karzai International Airport to Germany and elsewhere before the flights continue on to America, following the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Some 22,000 have been evacuated since the end of July, including 17,000 since Aug. 14. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he didn’t know how many of those evacuated are Americans.
Despite expressing hope that the number of people flown per day could soon reach 9,000, the pace of evacuations has slowed as U.S. officials try to process the streams of people who want out and Americans trying to go home while keeping the airport secure.