U.S. government holds secret talks with more countries to house Afghans

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WASHINGTON, Aug 13 - President Joe Biden's administration has held secret talks with more countries than previously known in a desperate effort to secure deals to temporarily house at-risk Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, four U.S. officials told Reuters.

The previously unreported discussions with such countries as Kosovo and Albania underscore the administration's desire to protect U.S.-linked Afghans from Taliban reprisals while safely completing the process of approving their U.S. visas in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban tightening their grip https: www.reuters.com/world and Asia Pacific embassies-buy - staff-out - Qatar - claim-two big-cities - 2021 - 08 13 on Afghanistan at a shockingly swift pace, the United States announced on Thursday that it would send 1,000 personnel to Afghanistan to accelerate the processing of special immigration applications.

Afghans who served as interpreters for the U.S. government and were in other duties can apply for SIV program

So far, about 1,200 Afghans have been evacuated to the United States and that number is set to rise to 3,500 under Operation Allies Refuge in the coming weeks, with some flying directly to a U.S. military base in Virginia to finalize their paperwork and others on-demand to U.S. hosts

Fearful the Taliban's advances are raising the threat to applicants for SIV still awaiting processing, Washington is seeking third countries to host them until their paperwork is done and they can fly to the United States.

It is deeply troubling that there is no concrete plan in place to evacuate allies who are clearly in harm's way, said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, President of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

It is incredible that the Administration has taken so long to secure these agreements, she said.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said countries were hesitant to take in Afghans because of concerns about the quality of security vetting and medical screening for COVID - 19 before they were allowed to fly.

The Biden Administration was considering having Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan take thousands of applicants but that effort has made little progress.

What happens if somebody wanders off the facility you've got them in? '' a senior state department official said.

The official declined to confirm the countries in talks with the United States.

A deal to house about 8,000 Afghans in Qatar, which hosts a large U.S. military base, has been close for weeks, said a second U.S. official and another person familiar with the matter, but a formal agreement has yet to be announced

Officials warn that the pace of any potential agreements will be stymied by the rapidly evolving Afghanistan situation.

The reluctance of some countries has prompted the administration to appeal to others that may be willing to help if Washington offers some assistance, officials said.

The United States has offered economic and political concessions to Europe for bringing in several thousand Afghans, but there is concern in Syria about its ability to house the Afghans, sources said.

The foreign ministry in Kosovo has not responded to a request for comment. The embassies of Albania, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 1,200 Afghans evacuated are but a fraction of the 21,000 children in the SIV application pipeline and the Biden Administration is still struggling to find temporary homes for the evacuees.

Advocates estimate the total number of evacuees on SIV program at between 50,000 and 80,000 when family members are included.

James Miervaldis, chairman of the board of No One Left Behind, an organization that helps SIV applicants get to the United States, said there now appeared to be little chance that most of the SIV applicants will be evacuated.

The math and the timeline just do not add up Those people are never going to be able to leave, says Miervaldis, an army reserve officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The issue has been closely watched by lawmakers in Congress, including Biden's allies.

We have to follow through on our promises to the thousands of Afghans who sacrificed their lives to help us. It's time for Democrats to get rid of red tape and run with it, said Democratic congresswoman Sara Jacobs.