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The United States Still Coming Up Short on Visa Promises to Afghans
Demand for visas was long a barometer of security fears in Afghanistan
As we approach the two-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, people continue to debate what happened, point fingers, and throw out “if only” assessments. However, there are serious matters of consequence now that are far more important to address.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the two major problems in Afghanistan today: growing humanitarian needs and growing terrorist activity. Policy makers need to focus on those concerns and determine what kind of engagement with the increasingly oppressive Taliban is needed to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people and minimize the threat of terrorists using Afghanistan to plot and prepare attacks against the United States, its allies, and its interests.
Today I want to explore another current and ongoing problem resulting from the war in Afghanistan: the plight of Afghans who worked with the United States and the international community to attempt to build a democratic and secure Afghanistan. Over the years, spikes in demand for Special Immigrant Visas were a warning that efforts to secure Afghanistan were failing, and the United States is still failing to meet the demand for visas.
Since the fall of Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States evacuated some 90,000 Afghans, according to a January 2023 letter from the Department of Homeland Security. Of those Afghans, 40 percent are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, DHS said in a fact sheet about Operation Allies Welcome.
In 2006, the U.S. government developed the Special Immigrant Visa program in response to the growing number of Iraqis who were being murdered for working with the U.S. military. In January 2008, the SIV program expanded to cover Iraqis who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government, not just the military. The cap was set at 5,000 slots a year.
In 2009, the program expanded to cover Afghans with 1,500 slots per year through fiscal year 2013. In theory, the war was going to conclude at the end of 2014 and the SIV program would terminate once all the Afghans who had met the employment requirement by December 31, 2014, had been processed. Congress upped the cap to 4,000 slots for 2014.
However, while the “combat” phase of the war ended in December 2014, the train, advise, and assist phase began and continued through 2021. Congress repeatedly extended the SIV program and kept raising the cap to 7,000, then 8,500, 14,500, eventually up to 26,500 visa slots for Afghans who fulfilled the work requirement after December 2014.
It is telling that as the United States was winding down its operations and withdrawing most of its troops in 2014 the number of visa slots for Afghans who had worked with the U.S. government and faced threats increased. And from 2015 onward, the number of visa slots kept shooting up, as did demand.
As the “progress” in Afghanistan gradually regressed with the drawdown of U.S. forces and investment in the country, the number of Afghans seeking a ticket out increased. In fact, during 2014 when the United States and Afghanistan had yet to sign the agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain after 2014, Afghans were looking to flee in droves through the SIV program or other means. While the anxiety level dropped in fall 2014 when the countries signed a new security pact, the writing was on the wall.
The SIV program was intended as a life-saving measure for Afghans who faced threats because they helped the United States, but it also became an opportunity for some Afghans looking for a way out of the country. There is no reliable data I have seen, but there are plenty of anecdotal accounts from Afghans who chose to work for the U.S. military or other government agencies in Afghanistan not because they wanted to help the effort or their country, but because they saw the SIV program as a fast-track out of Afghanistan.
Regardless, the growing demand for Special Immigrant Visas was a blaring siren telling the world that the international effort to build a stable, democratic Afghanistan was not working and Afghans, particularly those with language or other skills, were in danger and wanted out. Congress kept having to increase the number of SIV slots because the United States couldn’t deliver on its promises to the Afghan people.
And that extended to the failure to deliver on the promises of visas. Aside from the fact that the continued expansion of the SIV program signaled failure in Afghanistan, the U.S. government never adequately resourced and administered the SIV program—in Iraq or Afghanistan.
According to April 19 testimony from the deputy inspector general for the State Department:
We found that from 2009 through 2021, the Department received nearly 60,000 complete Afghan SIV applications, from which it subsequently approved and issued SIVs to about 37 percent of applicants and denied SIVs to about 48 percent of applicants. During this same period, 15 percent of applications remained pending.
As of May 31, 2022, more than 15,000 Afghan SIV applications were still in process.
Since that time the number has significantly increased — in an upcoming report we note that as of last month the Department reported that more than 152,000 SIV applicants remain in Afghanistan.
While a substantial number of applicants over the years didn’t meet the terms of the program—or were determined to pose security risks—SIV processing has been woefully slow and non-transparent.
Here’s more from the deputy inspector general’s testimony:
… the Department lacks a centralized database to effectively document the identity of locally employed staff and contractors and instead has relied on multiple IT systems that were not interoperable.
Specifically, we found that the method for collecting, verifying, and reporting on applicant wait times was inconsistent and potentially flawed because the entities responsible for reporting processing times at each of the four stages of the Afghan SIV process were using differing methodologies to perform their calculations.
Our review found Department actions to address our prior recommendations provided minor improvements to quarterly reporting but did not improve methods for collecting or verifying Afghan SIV application processing times. In addition, although the Bureau of Consular Affairs included, in its quarterly reports, explanations for failures to process applications within 9 months, the Department lacked internal controls for verifying Afghan SIV data, resulting in inaccurate information. We concluded that, despite taking some recommended actions, the Department continued to face a significant Afghan SIV application backlog.
This came after years of reporting by oversight agencies and the media about the flaws and lack of investment and political will to improve the processing of SIV applications.
In April 2021 I wrote a piece calling on the U.S. government to step up and honor its promise of visas to Afghans.
The failures and mistakes the United States made in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide fodder for opinion pages, think tank discussions, and academic papers for years to come. Most of it is water under the bridge, but there is one chronic failure that the United States can still do something about: honoring the promise it made to Afghans who risked their lives helping the U.S. government.
This has been one of the most disgraceful narratives of the last decade for those who have followed the conflicts closely. As noted in a recent study, tens of thousands of Afghans (and Iraqis) are facing increased danger as they wait for visas promised by the United States. Despite continued advocacy from service members and veterans, the number of qualified applicants far exceeds the number of slots allocated by Congress, and processing times are perilously long.
Every reporter who has covered Iraq or Afghanistan has produced at least one story about the plight of interpreters who were promised Special Immigrant Visas for working with U.S. forces. I first reported on this for NPR in December 2011 as U.S. forces were exiting Iraq.
People risked their lives to help U.S. forces—many chose to do so specifically because of the promise of a visa. They did their time, filed applications, and sat in limbo as they and their families faced threats. Some were killed as they waited years for a visa. Others got tired of waiting and paid smugglers enormous sums to sneak them into Europe.
Some received rejections because of unspecified “security risks,” but the lack of transparency in the process prevented them from learning about what the red flag was and appealing the adverse ruling.
In my time reporting on these cases, I found that red flags could be a result of a name matching that of a known militant—similar to no-fly list errors. In one case, I was told that an interpreter was denied a visa because he had the phone numbers of militants saved in his phone. However, there was a simple explanation—the unit he was on patrol with stopped and questioned some suspicious men and asked the interpreter to capture their numbers. Yet, he could not appeal the decision.
The SIV program is inherently risk averse. No one working for the State Department or any of the agencies vetting visa candidates wants to be responsible for letting someone into the United States who goes on to carry out a crime or terrorist attack. So, it’s simply easier to deny a candidate if there is even the slightest concern about their background. The lack of a transparent appeals process has been a failure of the system. Other failures have included the usual suspects: insufficient funding, staffing, and political will.
Right now, the United States is in the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. The Unites States has a moral, and under the terms of the SIV program legal, responsibility to provide visas to the Afghans who risked their lives to support U.S. troops, diplomats, and civilians.
To be fair, there will be Afghans looking to game the system. As I reported in the fall of 2014 when it was unclear if U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan after the end of that year, many Afghans who did not qualify tried to get into the SIV program. Some will try that now, which is all the more reason Congress and the State Department need to dedicate appropriate resources to properly vet applications and issue visas to deserving candidates as quickly as possible.
Failure to do so will have far reaching consequences. U.S. troops are deployed across the globe in operations to combat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremists. U.S. troops will certainly face new deployments in the coming years. That requires translators and other local employees. What happens if they decide they can’t trust the United States to honor its commitments?
The United States made a plethora of promises to Afghanistan and its people over the last two decades. Unfortunately, many of those promises were unrealistic from the moment they were made and impossible to deliver. Granting visas to Afghans who risked their lives to work for the U.S. government is one promise the United States can and must honor.
Again, that was more than two years ago. The number of Afghans seeking visas has only grown since, according to the State Department Office of Inspector General.
Of course, this discussion only pertains to the Afghans who qualify for the SIV program for working with the U.S. government. An even larger pool who worked with non-governmental agencies, media organizations, or the Afghan government and military are still in Afghanistan or in humanitarian parole limbo in the United States.
Nothing will change what has happened in Afghanistan or with visa programs to this point. But Congress and the Biden administration can shape the fate of hundreds of thousands of Afghans going forward.
Lastly, if you are in the D.C. area, please attend my book kickoff event at the National Press Club August 17 at 6:30 pm. Get your tickets here. Also, please encourage friends, colleagues, and strangers you meet at the gym or grocery store to buy my book and attend the event. Thanks!