America has launched emergency airlifts for Afghans who worked with its armed forces and diplomats, evacuating hundreds who are still waiting for their visas to the United States on military flights.
Only people in the final stages of a long, slow and bureaucratic visa process are eligible for the airlift, but bringing applicants to the continental US in large numbers is still unprecedented in recent years, officials working on the programme say.
It reflects growing political pressure in the US over the fate of Afghans who supported the Nato mission in Afghanistan and now face retaliation as the security situation deteriorates.
Tens of thousands of Afghans with a US connection are waiting for a response to their visa applications, including more than 18,000 who worked for the military or embassy, and in excess of 50,000 family members eligible to travel with them. Some have been in limbo for years.
There is increasing concern about the fate of Afghan allies in the UK too. Dozens of former military commanders last week called on the government to allow more people who worked for British forces to settle in the country.
Last week CNN reported that a former interpreter for American troops had been beheaded by Taliban fighters at a militant checkpoint. Others still in the country say they face regular death threats and fear they will be hunted down as the insurgents seize more territory.
The Taliban’s sweeping gains, in a campaign launched in May, have so far been confined to rural areas, but government troops and militias that back them have been struggling to hold back Taliban fighters inside three provincial capitals.
In the south, airstrikes were called in to protect Lashkar Gah in Helmand and Kandahar City, while in western Herat, fighting closed the airport for several days and the UN said its compound came under attack by militants who killed a guard.
The first evacuation flight to America landed on Thursday, with about 200 passengers from Kabul, said JC Hendrickson, senior director for policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which is supporting the new arrivals. In a sign of how hastily the programme has been set up, Hendrickson said they were only asked to take part last week and rushed staff to Virginia to prepare.