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Left Behind

The U.S. May Break Its Promise to the Afghan Allies It Left Behind

Many of those who assisted the military during its 20-year war remain trapped in Afghanistan—with only a backlogged special immigration visa program as a recourse.

Marcus Yam/Getty Images
Afghans prepare to board evacuation flights out of the country as U.S. troops withdraw.

Nearly two years after the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, advocates estimate that hundreds of thousands of Afghans who applied for special immigrant visas, or SIVs, remain trapped in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has taken some steps to streamline the process, but the delays caused by bureaucratic hurdles, institutional erosion, and a significant backlog of applications have left Afghan allies with little recourse.

Although the United States was able to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans during the withdrawal, many more never made it out of the country before the Taliban took over. Shawn VanDiver, president and chair of the board of #AfghanEvac, told me that there are likely around 200,000 to 300,000 Afghan SIV applicants, their families, and refugees that remain behind. SIV applications can take months or even years to adjudicate. As Foreign Policy reported last week, currently there are more than seven times the number of SIV applicants that there were in the summer of 2021.

The stakes are incredibly high: Afghans who served as interpreters or translators for the U.S. face imprisonment or death under the Taliban. And the U.S. may be demonstrating to potential future allies that the government is unable to keep its promises, argued Matthew Zeller, the senior adviser to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a co-founder of No One Left Behind.

“People like me, who served in uniform in Afghanistan, looked our Afghan allies in the eyes and verbally and in writing made these people a promise that [since] they served alongside us in our moment of need, should they find themselves in duress because of that service, we would stand by them in their moment of need, and see them to safety. And for the better part of 300,000-plus people, we have not kept that promise,” said Zeller.

The Afghan SIV program was created by Congress in 2009 to aid the Afghan allies who were employed by or worked on behalf of the U.S. at risk to their own lives. But despite the allocation of thousands of visas, far fewer were actually granted during the first few years of the program’s implementation. The 2013 defense authorization act aimed to improve the adjudication process, granting the State Department a timeline of nine months for processing an application. But even when the program was running as intended, the number of applications outpaced the allocation of visas, contributing to the growing backlog.

The pileup of applications increased during the Trump administration when White House adviser Stephen Miller guided a policy that was more stringent toward Afghans trying to enter the U.S., even allies who had been thoroughly vetted as part of the SIV application process. As CNN reported in 2021, Miller’s dismissal of Afghan allies resulted in a stalled approval system, which delayed applications and contributed to the backlog of 17,000 applicants inherited by the Biden administration.

VanDiver blamed Miller and the Trump administration for hollowing out the State Department and delaying the process for Afghan allies to enter the U.S. “This administration had to deal with closing out a war, and also cleaning up the mess of the last administration, where they intentionally put these Afghan allies at risk on purpose,” argued VanDiver. In February 2020, President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan, a decision that former Trump officials later said laid the groundwork for the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul. Biden claimed upon entering office that Trump had locked the U.S. into the agreement, and decided to withdraw troops over the objections of military leaders.

In the past two years, the Biden administration has attempted to streamline the SIV approval process, allocating more resources and staff dedicated to the program, a State Department spokesperson said. The spokesperson also said that the administration had approved 21,000 SIVs to principal applicants and family members as of January 1, and that there are 14,000 applicants who have received Chief of Mission, or COM, approval—a key initial step in obtaining an SIV—still awaiting further processing and an interview.

VanDiver compared the administration’s efforts to the lengthy withdrawal of U.S. citizens and allies from Vietnam. “When you look at that, the administration has moved at relative light speed,” he said. “Now, it’s not all perfect, it’s not done. But they’re taking steps toward getting this done much faster.”

Biden also included the allocation of 20,000 additional SIVs as part of his budget proposal, a largely symbolic document with no chance of Congress approval. This proposal is the first time an SIV request has been included in a presidential budget, Zeller told me. “It’s one of those better-late-than-never moves,” he said. “The time for that level of a visa request was almost a decade ago, when those of us who first started identifying and addressing this problem recognize inherently that there weren’t enough visas allocated to the number of Afghans that would ultimately qualify.”

Still, advocates say that there is more that could be done to assist SIV applicants. In 2018, the International Refugee Assistance Program, or IRAP, filed suit against the State Department on behalf of Afghan and Iraqi SIV applicants who had waited at least nine months for a decision on their applications. The lawsuit resulted in a court-mandated updated plan for adjudicating applications. The Biden administration argued in May of last year that it no longer needed to be bound to that plan. A judge denied that motion, and the government was given time to produce a new plan for processing applications, which it released in February.

But IRAP found the government’s plan to be insufficient, and filed an objection last week. The administration’s plan would eliminate the 120-day benchmark to determine whether an applicant would receive COM approval, and instead aim to approve 4,500 COM applications per quarter. “The fact that there is no timeline already is a huge problem, because there’s no commitment to getting people’s cases pushed through on a certain schedule,” said Deepa Alagesan, a senior supervising attorney at IRAP. “But even taking the government’s proposal for how many cases they’re going to do in a quarter, by their measure of the backlog, that would have them taking over three and a half years to just complete the verifications of the applications that they have before them right now. Which is, I think, untenable.”

Afghans who helped the U.S. and their families are in extreme danger from the Taliban within Afghanistan, and may not have the time to spend waiting for an SIV application to be processed. “At the current pace of processing the visas and issuing them, it’ll take the government another 20 years—two decades—to get through the current backlog,” Zeller said. “These people don’t have 20 years. The Taliban have a systemic, countrywide effort to hunt them down and murder them. Most of them will be dead, if they aren’t already, within the next two years.”

Veterans organizations, refugee organizations, and human rights groups have long pushed Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would expand SIV eligibility and establish a task force dedicated to supporting Afghans eligible for SIV status outside of the U.S., as well as provide a pathway to permanent residency for the more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees who were resettled in the U.S. under humanitarian parole. The bill was introduced last year, and advocates unsuccessfully pushed to have it included in the December omnibus funding legislation. (Congress did approve an additional 4,000 SIVs in the spending bill.) The bill has not yet been reintroduced in the new Congress, and three of the original Republican co-sponsors in the House are no longer in office.

The bill’s Senate sponsors have indicated some interest in reintroducing it, but could not offer a concrete timeline for doing so. “I wouldn’t mind marking it up in the Senate, and seeing where the support is,” said GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, one of its original co-sponsors in the upper chamber. Republican Senator Roger Wicker told me that he was “advocating” for it to be reintroduced, and Democratic Senator Chris Coons said that “we are actively discussing it with several partners.” The House is now controlled by Republicans, and while committees have begun investigating the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s unclear whether there is actually any interest in passing meaningful legislation.

In a hearing on the withdrawal last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul said that the U.S. had promised to protect its Afghan allies “only to abandon them to the Taliban.” “No one left behind was a credo; we violated that promise,” McCaul, who has repeatedly pushed the Biden administration on the delays in issuing SIVs, said in his opening statement. However, McCaul is not a co-sponsor of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which VanDiver and Zeller said was critical to helping Afghan allies in Afghanistan and the U.S.

“I hope that every member of Congress that stood there and asked questions and said that they cared about Afghans is working to get on as a co-sponsor, and to reintroduce the Afghan Adjustment Act,” VanDiver said, referring to the hearing last week. “It’s frankly shameful. Congress can act, and I think they’re all full of shit if they’re not supporting this.”

As the Biden administration continues to muddle through the backlog, and Congress dithers on legislation that would help address the issue, Afghan allies in the U.S. and third-party countries remain in a precarious limbo, while the tens of thousands still in Afghanistan are in outright danger.

“This program was supposed to be a way for people who faced extreme risks because of their work for the U.S. to get to safety quickly, and the government’s administration of the program over the years has shown that it’s anything but,” said Alagesan. “We’re overdue at this point for a real plan and real commitments to make things work in a way that people can get to safety on a timeline that’s going to be meaningful for them, and not put them at more risk than they’ve already had to endure.”