As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, time is running out to save thousands of Afghans who aided American forces during the two-decade war and now face retaliation from the rapidly advancing Taliban.
The Biden administration hatched an eleventh-hour plan, known as Operation Allied Shelter, to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters, as well as other employees of the United States government or allied forces, and their families. An initial group of around 2,500 started to arrive at Fort Lee in Northern Virginia on July 30.
They come to the US on a special immigrant visa (SIV), more than 73,000 of which have already been issued to Afghans in the last 13 years. The House recently voted on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis to make 8,000 more of those available visas and to facilitate the application of the program.
The Biden administration is also seeking agreements with other countries to allow eligible Afghans to relocate to safety while the United States finishes processing their applications. And the administration has opened a new road for Afghans (and their families) who have worked for a program funded by the US government, US-based media, or non-governmental organizations, but who do not meet the strict requirements of the SIV program, to come to the U.S. as refugees.
“Those who helped us will not be left behind,” Biden said. told reporters at the White House last month.
But in practice, those efforts may not be enough to protect all the Afghans who helped the US government. There is more than 18,000 applicants for the SIV program awaiting processing, and thousands more who may have worked with the US government but are not eligible for the program. If they live in the outer provinces of Afghanistan, they may not be able to get to Kabul, where the United States is conducting SIV evacuations, let alone another country where they can apply for refugee status.
For defenders who have been sounding the alarm for months, it seems like a crisis that could have been avoided.
“It’s very frustrating to put in a lot of work and provide policy recommendations that say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem coming,’ and then it comes along and people rush to try to fix it after the fact,” said James Miervaldis, president of No One Left. Behind, a group that advocates for America’s allies in Afghanistan. “This is just a total failure of the top-down process.”
The Biden administration was apparently caught unprepared to evacuate Afghan allies.
Advocates are baffled as to why the Biden administration took so long to act on evacuations, leading to a last-minute brawl that has already resulted in dozens of revenge killings by the Taliban other record levels of civilian casualties in the first half of 2021.
Chris Purdy, project director for the Veterans for American Ideals program at the advocacy group Human Rights First, told me that the Biden administration seemed to assume that the Afghan government would be able to keep the Taliban at bay for a few years, or at least as long. enough for the United States to prosecute the 18,000 people in the SIV pipeline and tens of thousands of their families.
But Purdy and other advocates thought it was a charitable reading of the situation on the ground, so his organization approached the administration in April with a plan to remove Afghan allies.
Human Rights First estimated that the evacuation of the Afghan allies would cost between $ 700 million and $ 800 million, or about $ 10,000 per person, well below the recently allocated budget by Congress, and the evacuation would take about a year to complete.
They suggested sending Afghans to Guam, an American territory that is home to several military bases and has has been used for past evacuations, where they would undergo initial processing for a few days before being shipped to military bases throughout the continental US for further processing. Those who needed additional security investigation could remain in Guam while they awaited processing, and people who were further advanced in their processing could receive their Covid-19 vaccine in Guam before being transferred to other bases. In case they are not eligible for SIV status, they could also apply for asylum, which is available to migrants arriving on US soil.
The Biden administration rejected his plan.
“They told us in a low voice: ‘Thank you, but no, thank you. We’ve got this covered, ‘”Purdy said. And I don’t think it was until the Taliban made significant progress in May that they realized that perhaps their assessment of the [Afghan] the government was wrong. “
But experts and advocates say the Biden administration should have been able to foresee that withdrawing from Afghanistan would create a power vacuum that would change the battlefield. Something similar happened when the Obama administration withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011, only for ISIS militants to take control of large swaths of the country thereafter. Obama sent troops in 2014 as a result.
The United States also has extensive experience conducting similar evacuations of allies in the past, including the one in 1975. evacuation of vietnam, 1996 Kurdish evacuation Northern Iraq, and 1999 evacuation of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Those evacuations took place in a matter of weeks or months, and Congress had not allocated as much money to carry them out.
“This was all very predictable,” Purdy said. The Biden administration “should have been better prepared. And that’s something they’re going to have to have. ”
The SIV program has long-standing problems
The SIV program has been plagued with eligibility issues and delays that predate Biden’s announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, but have made people’s safety even more difficult in recent months.
Applicants must submit a significant amount of documentation, including a letter of recommendation from their senior US citizen supervisor; a letter from your employer confirming that you were employed for at least one year; and a statement describing the threats they have received as a result of working for the United States government. They must also obtain the approval of the chief of mission, the chief officer of the US embassy in Kabul, before they can apply for an SIV.
But many Afghans who would otherwise be eligible for the program find it difficult to obtain that letter of recommendation from a US citizen supervisor, especially in cases where they were working as contractors.
“It is really difficult for the applicant to find the highest person in the US government to answer for them, because they may have been further down the chain of command or their direct supervisor was another Afghan or just someone who is not a US citizen. ” Julia Gelatt, Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Even if an applicant can gather the required documents, they will face long wait times before a visa is finally approved. By law, SIVs must be processed within nine monthsBut in practice, the average processing time has always been longer than that. Last year, a federal judge organized have the government come up with a plan to process these applications in a timely manner after thousands of SIV applicants filed a lawsuit. However, it still takes about two years to process applications, Gelatt said.
It is unclear to what extent those wait times can be reduced for the 18,000 applicants in process and the thousands more who are applying for SIV status now. The government did increase resources to help clear a backlog of pandemic-related SIV interviews at the Kabul embassy, and has dedicated more staff in the United States to processing SIVs remotely. But you have to weigh the competing interests of getting people to safety as quickly as possible while taking the time to thoroughly investigate potential security threats.
“With all the resources in the world, it doesn’t seem like they will be able to clear the backlog by the end of this month when the United States completes its withdrawal,” Gelatt said. “It will take more than the next four weeks to finish processing all pending applications, not to mention all the people who might be applying now, especially since the eligibility criteria have changed.”
Opening places for Afghan refugees might not be enough
It may not be feasible for Afghans who cannot obtain an SIV to apply for refugee status through the Biden administration. newly created priority program. As Secretary of State, Antony Blinken admitted at a recent press conference, it is a “major diplomatic, logistical and bureaucratic challenge.”
“This is incredibly difficult,” he added. “It is difficult on many levels.”
With their own money, Afghans will have to travel to a third country where they can apply for refugee status. Tajikistan prepares to receive up 100,000 Afghansand between 500 and 2000 Afghans are already arriving in Turkey on a daily basis. Other potential options include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar.
But the United States has yet to announce any formal agreement with these countries to host Afghan refugees. And not all threatened Afghans could make that dangerous and potentially expensive trip, especially those living in the nation’s outer provinces.
“How are they even going to get to Kabul to catch a flight from the capital when the Taliban control the roads? Where is that money going to come from? Purdy said.
Additionally, the refugee priority program has limited eligibility requirements for people who worked directly for the US government.They cannot even apply for themselves – US employers have to recommend a qualified person for the program. That means that, for example, a local construction team that built a school run by a US-funded aid group might not receive refugee protection.
“The Taliban don’t care if you were an employee of the United States government, or if you were a subcontractor of the United States government, or a subcontractor,” Purdy said. “I’m not saying you should evacuate the entire country from Afghanistan, but this restrictive program they put in place has a lot of problems. I hope they open it up to be more expansive. ”
Even Afghans who can reach a third country and are eligible for refugee status could find themselves stranded abroad for months, if not years. Biden has vowed to dramatically increase the annual refugee admission ceiling, from 62,500 to 125,000 as of October, paving the way for more Afghans to come to the United States.
But U.S. refugee resettlement agencies are trying to rebuild after the Trump administration diverted resources from refugee processing, and international refugee resettlement operations have slowed dramatically due to the pandemic, particularly in countries. with relatively low levels of Covid-19 vaccines. . Those challenges could contribute to possible delays.
For the Afghans who remain in imminent danger, they may not have a choice.
“My email and Facebook and Twitter inboxes are filled every day with horrible and dire messages from these families,” Purdy said. “We’re running out of time.”