By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - The first flight evacuating Afghan nationals who aided the US military and diplomats during the 20-year war arrived on American soil on Friday with over 200 people on board.
"Welcome home," US President Joe Biden said in a statement marking the arrivals. "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."
The flight brought interpreters and others who helped the US, as well as their family members, to Fort Lee, in the US state of Virginia, where the individuals will complete the final steps in their Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) processes, and finish required health checks before being resettled.
There are some 70,000 Afghans who have been resettled in the US since 2008, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday's arrival "demonstrates the U.S. government’s commitment to Afghans who put themselves and their families at great risk by working side-by-side with our service members and diplomats to build a better future for Afghanistan."
Friday's flight carried 221 Afghans, including 57 children and 15 babies, according to The Associated Press. There are some 2,500 Afghans who will be relocated to Fort Lee while others will be sent to third-party countries and other US facilities abroad to complete their visa processes as part of what the Biden administration calls Operation Allies Refuge.
There are some 20,000 Afghan direct applicants for the SIV program, and the total number of people who are seeking resettlement is much higher when their family members are included. Some estimates place that figure closer to 100,000.
Roughly 300 US service members are being used at Fort Lee to support the State Department-led resettlement effort, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
"We have spoken many times about the moral obligation we have to help those who have helped us, and we are fully committed to working closely with our interagency partners to meet that obligation," said Austin.
The effort to resettle those who have aided the US comes ahead of Biden's deadline to withdrawal all American troops from Afghanistan in a process that is expected to be completed by the end of August.