The United States this month is to begin airlifting from Afghanistan thousands of those who helped support American forces there during the past 20 years and now fear for their lives amid a Taliban offensive.
The White House announced Wednesday it is launching "Operation Allies Refuge" for many of those awaiting a Special Immigrant Visa.
"In terms of the specific numbers, I'm not going to be able to provide those to you for operational and security reasons," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "But I can confirm that flights out of Afghanistan, for SIV applicants who are already in the pipeline, will begin in the last week of July and will continue, and our objective is to get individuals who are eligible, relocated out of the country in advance of the removal of the withdrawal of (U.S.) troops at the end of August."
Officials are also keeping quiet on the destinations for the evacuation flights, for which civilian charter aircraft are expected to be used. It has been reported that negotiations have been underway with such Central Asian nations as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In response to a question from VOA on whether the U.S. mid-Pacific territory of Guam is still under consideration as a waystation for the evacuees, Psaki replied, "I'm just not going to rule in or rule out any places," as "the security and safety of the individuals who were relocating is of utmost focus and concern."
Officials on the island of Guam, which has previously been used as a refugee processing center, have welcomed plans to use the territory to temporarily host the Afghans.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that potential locations have been identified, "some of them not U.S. installations," but final selections have not been made.
The initial priority, according to administration sources, is airlifting several thousand of those whose visa applications are already being processed.
Eventually, the operation could expand to accommodate tens of thousands more people, including family members of the interpreters, translators and other personnel who supported the U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban.
"We applaud the administration's decision and look forward to coordinating with them," said James Miervaldis, a Defense Department consultant and board chairman of No One Left Behind, which says it has raised $1 million to fund direct airfare for the special visa applicants.
"We are committed to making sure SIVs have every opportunity to come to the United States safely," Miervaldis said.
"To meet our promises to our Afghan allies, any evacuation must include all 18,000 Afghans who worked with U.S. forces and their families," said Jennifer Quigley, senior director of government affairs at Human Rights First, adding that to limit the evacuation based on visa application status "would do a terrible wrong to them and to America's reputation around the world."
In recent weeks, fighting has surged between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban, with the insurgents capturing significant territory in the northern part of the country as well as some border crossings.
That means the situation is growing increasingly dangerously for those Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, according to Lisa Curtis, senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
"It is encouraging to see the administration prioritizing this issue. However, the U.S. will have to move quickly to relocate the SIV applicants as the Taliban is making rapid gains throughout the country and has already shown its willingness to target individuals, such as Afghan pilots, journalists and human rights activists," Curtis told VOA. Curtis was the National Security Council's senior director for South and Central Asia during the Donald Trump administration.
Curtis cautioned that the Taliban's recent execution of 22 surrendering Afghan commandos "demonstrates their ruthlessness and the urgency of getting SIV applicants out of the country immediately. It is the least the U.S. can do for the thousands of Afghans who have supported us over the last two decades."
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.