Pentagon: Fort Lee will continue hosting Afghan nationals following fall of their homeland
Fort Bliss in Texas and Camp McCoy in Wisconsin will join the Prince George County Army post in processing what could be as many as 22,000 immigrants
FORT LEE — The Pentagon said Monday that Fort Lee will continue to host Afghan nationals and will be joined by two other military posts as the US escalates the shepherding of Afghan nationals and their families to American soil following the weekend collapse of the government in Afghanistan.
Garry Reid, a member of the Defense Department’s Afghanistan crisis action team, said at a press briefing late Monday that Fort Bliss in Texas and Camp McCoy in Wisconsin will join the Prince George County Army post in processing Afghans and their families who worked for the United States during its 20-year presence in Afghanistan.
At this point, we're looking to establish 20,000-22,000 spaces," Reid said. "We can expand if we need to." That includes bringing in additional military posts if needed.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III approved the State Department's request for additional processing space, the Pentagon said. State is spearheading the emigration efforts.
"Our aim at these three facilities would be over time, three to four weeks from now, be able to provide support for up to 22,000 at-risk individuals," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. "We will not have that capacity immediately. It will take some time to build it out."
On Sunday, Taliban forces seized control of Afghanistan and its government after the country's president fled the capital. US troops had planned to exit the country by the end of August, but weekend events are hastening the departure.
The United States has put a hold on airlifting the Afghan nationals because of conditions at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city. US forces have reportedly clashed with Taliban soldiers in and around the airport where the nationals were huddling under American protection. Kirby said the flights would resume once safety and security has been established.
The Afghan citizens, most of whom worked for the United States as interpreters during its 20-year military presence in Afghanistan, began leaving the country July 30. They flew on military and private charter airplanes from Kabul to Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, then were taken by bus on the 150-mile trip to Fort Lee. Once here, they were given medical examinations and completed their visa applications, and some were housed in a hotel on post.
Had they not been brought to the United States, the nationals risked death at the hands of the Taliban for working with the troops.
When the mission dubbed Operation Allies Refuge was created, the Defense Department picked Fort Lee as the first post to continue the processing. At that time, the goal was to have 2,500 Afghans come to Fort Lee.
The Pentagon has not said how many more of the incoming wave would pass through the Prince George County military installation.
Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Virginia, whose district includes Fort Lee, said in a statement released by his office he would continue "coordinating with the Biden administration, the State Department, and the Department of Defense to ensure these processes continue smoothly and our facilities remain ready for any additional needs."
Veteran journalist Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is the regional daily news coach for the USA TODAY Network Southeast Region's Unified Central group, which includes Virginia, West Virginia and portions of North Carolina. He is based at The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. Contact Bill at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.