“We are after you and your family.”
“For the last time, beheading of your whole family is allowed.”
“Our Mujahideen and self-sacrificing brothers will do their best to severely punish you.”
As President Joe Biden’s September deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan draws nearer, these are the graphic threats, drafted and sealed on official Taliban letterhead, that Afghans who assisted in American operations receive for their perceived betrayal. Some 19,000 former U.S. employees in Afghanistan are currently waiting in line to hear whether they’ve won the lottery: a lifesaving U.S. visa in exchange for the service that painted a target on their backs. And while the government is slowly working its way through the massive backlog of pleas for safety, hundreds have died in waiting.
In hopes of igniting a sense of urgency as these Afghans face real and imminent danger, several U.S. senators penned a letter to Biden on May 19 urging him to increase the bandwidth and efficiency of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghans. It is at least the fourth such letter from Congress urging the White House to take greater action to ensure the safety of Afghans who have helped the U.S. in its decadeslong war in Afghanistan.
The program, which has been burdened by practical shortcomings since its launch in 2009, is meant to offer Afghans who have worked for the U.S. in certain capacities an expedited path to leave Afghanistan. The most recent letter, an effort led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), represents renewed bipartisan interest in urging the administration to consider the potential for increased violence in Afghanistan following U.S. withdrawal. “When the Biden administration announced the troop drawdown, the risk to the Afghans who have worked with the U.S. increased dramatically,” Ernst said. “We’ve seen what the Taliban can do, and they’ve already started again in the past few weeks.”
However, those familiar with the risks faced by Afghan nationals who worked with U.S. forces say that the heavily backlogged visa program needs a complete overhaul, rather than the patchwork improvements recommended in the senators’ letter.
“The issue continues to be that everything I’ve seen in this letter, and from the Biden administration, suggests trying to do things to improve how the system is currently working,” said Noah Coburn, an associate dean and faculty member at Bennington College who recently published a study on the efficacy of the program. “The system right now is not currently working, and it is not serving Afghans who face real threats. So even if you could speed up the process by 90% or, or make it happen in 10% of the time, you are still going to see hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of Afghans die while waiting for these visas.”
The May letter includes a laundry list of briefly delineated items that the Senate cohort believes must be addressed in regards to the SIV program ahead of U.S. withdrawal. It calls for the administration to address seven items, including the program’s severe backlog and an evaluation of the application process itself. The letter also refers to an executive order issued by the White House in February in which the administration called for a review of both the Iraqi and Afghan SIV programs by the agencies that oversee them and named the secretaries of defense, state, and homeland security. The order gives the agencies 180 days from its issuance — a prospective deadline of Aug. 3 — to produce a report. No such report has been published yet.
Critics like Coburn, who have conducted detailed investigations of the SIV program on the ground and from the perspective of applicants, stress that the program never worked to begin with. The U.S. set up one expedited visa program under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2006, specifically targeted at helping interpreters and translators in both Iraq and Afghanistan who aided the American military. A subsequent program for Afghan nationals was then set up through the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which authorized special visas to a broader swath of Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. government, not exclusively interpreters. Since the programs began, around 18,000 Afghans have been granted visas, but the backlog of pending applications was close to 19,000 in 2020. With a waiting period of between two and eight years from application submission to approval — excluding the time it takes to compile the rigorous application materials — advocacy organizations and academics conducting independent audits of the current system estimate that at least hundreds of Afghans have been killed by the Taliban while awaiting a response from the U.S. government. However, it’s impossible to know how many eligible Afghans have died while waiting in the pipeline.
Much of the inefficiency boils down to the lack of record keeping on the side of involved U.S. agencies. Comprehensive, real-time data is not kept on locally contracted personnel by the government, nor on the actual applications. In fact, applicants submit materials via email, rather than via a dedicated portal or other specialized system. And reports suggest that inbox is likely never clear of new requests.
“Anytime that there’s a request for information, the State Department has to count by hand the emails that are coming in it,” said James Miervaldis, chair of the board for No One Left Behind, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps Afghan and Iraqi combat translators navigate the process. “In this day and age, the State Department has to count emails by hand. That should alarm a lot of people.”
It’s a “perfect storm” of dysfunction on all levels, Miervaldis said. Evidence from Coburn’s research suggests the problem with the process starts from the very beginning. The application itself is lengthy and complex, requiring not only multiple stages of approval from different U.S. entities locally and stateside but also a long list of often hard-to-get components. For instance, because the U.S. keeps no central database of contractors employed in locations like Afghanistan, the burden of proof of employment falls on the individual. Applicants are required to secure a signed letter of recommendation from their direct supervisor, which has proven difficult for those who are years out from their employment with the U.S. government. Writ large, lower-level or hourly contractors have found it difficult to even locate their former bosses to request the letter, Coburn said. Then, an applicant’s fate depends on whether the former supervisor even remembers them.
“A lot of these guys worked for the U.S. government 10 years ago,” he said. “Imagine trying to get a signed document from your immediate supervisor who you haven’t worked for in 10 years.”
Other necessary but prohibitive components of the application include polygraph tests and medical examinations, the latter of which Coburn notes are run by a private medical clinic in Kabul and frequently cost a family hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to complete: The facility charges $415 for adults and $338 for children. Proof of this medical exam is also required in order to obtain the visa to enter the U.S. — but the documentation is only valid for six months. So, applicants inevitably face the high cost multiple times as the process drags on for several years. The result is an infrastructure that favors people who have not only money to spend but also the connections to find the right people.
For those staring death in the eye, Coburn said, the so-called expedited visa program isn’t even a viable option anymore.
Even those who do everything right will likely not hear about their visa status for years. A review of the program by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of State in 2020 found applicant emails, containing both initial applications and follow-ups on pending ones, sat unopened by the National Visa Center for 30 days. And while staffing on the team that handles Afghan SIV requests has remained stagnant at between eight and 10 personnel, the number of applications and subsequent backlog continue to grow by the thousands. Between 2016 and 2020, the pileup grew from 12,300 to nearly 19,000. For those staring death in the eye, Coburn said, the so-called expedited visa program isn’t even a viable option anymore.
“If you are actually in the serious level of threat, you don’t have time to wait, and you don’t have a sense of, ‘Oh, this will be processed in a timely manner,’” Coburn said sharply. “A lot of those that are in the most danger are using human traffickers to flee the country.” Miervaldis said he’s never come across an applicant who isn’t simultaneously pursuing other methods of escape.
As many for whom the SIV program was created abandon it altogether, Congress has made multiple attempts to relieve pressure on the failing infrastructure. Legislation increasing the number of visas allottable each year or setting rarely met deadlines on how long the process should take has done little to fix the problem. Still, even in the program’s early years, when application rates were much lower, the State Department was unable to keep up. Between the program’s inception in 2009 and 2013, the department didn’t even come close to meeting the limit on issuable visas. Congress passed legislation in 2014 and 2017 to increase the allotment, but the State Department would repeatedly halt the interview process as the backlog built. Most recently, Congress authorized an additional 4,000 visas in December 2020, but the addition isn’t nearly enough to cover the backlog.
Meanwhile, fears on the ground in Afghanistan swell as the U.S. and others rush to pull out of the country. In the interim, former contractors face looming promises of retaliation from the Taliban, barring them from attending public events including family funerals, or even leaving home without concealing their identity. “For many years, I could not leave my house unless it was with a scarf wrapped around my face to hide my identity,” one applicant told Coburn.
Another challenge stressed by those close to the issue is the lack of resources for SIV recipients who make it to the U.S. “Living in hiding, surviving the Taliban, and making it through three years of this horrific, 14-step, serpentine process is the easy part,” Miervaldis said. Part of his motivation for volunteering to assist SIV applicants was to help bring over his own interpreter following service in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army Reserve.
While senators like Ernst and Shaheen, and even high-profile former military officials like Gen. David Petraeus, continue to urge the administration toward further action, it is unclear what it will take to actually address the growing backlog amid increasing unrest in Afghanistan. Miervaldis insists that improved tracking and record-keeping infrastructure would make a tangible difference. Some, like Coburn, believe the current process must be scrapped entirely. Shaheen, however, still believes it can be salvaged. “The SIV program is currently the only path to ensuring the safety of Afghan allies who aided U.S. service members and diplomats,” she said. “For years, I successfully worked across the aisle with Senator McCain in support of the Afghan SIV program, which continues to garner robust bipartisan backing in the Senate.”
“There’s lots to tackle, but we believe bipartisan support and strong leadership from the White House can make the difference,” Miervaldis said. “They’re racing the clock, but they are, at this point, the only shot these people have.”