Plans for an escape route to America for interpreters and other Afghans who helped U.S. troops during the 20-year Afghanistan War are mired in inaction by the Biden administration, say congressional members and other advocates for the wartime allies.
As the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerates toward President Biden‘s Sept. 11 pullout deadline, the State Department is sitting on a backlog of nearly 18,000 applications for special immigrant visas for Afghan collaborators who fear deadly retaliation from the Taliban.
“There is a human cost to these bureaucratic delays,” said James Miervaldis of No One Left Behind, a group that advocates for interpreters who worked for the U.S. during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The situation is dire, he said. He noted that his group cataloged incidents from 2014 to 2020 in which 300 interpreters and their family members were killed. Those grim figures are expected to increase after the Sept. 11 pullout.
“There’s real panic. There’s real terror with our allies,” Mr. Miervaldis said.
Jamil Haidari, a former Afghan interpreter who waited five years for his special visa and now lives in Rochester, New York, said he has been receiving phone calls from panicked fellow interpreters who are stuck in Afghanistan.
“In a few weeks, there will be no American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan,” he said. “Every day, they are asking me what’s going to happen to us? What’s going to be our destiny?”
The advocates say the special immigrant visa program, known as SIV in Washington-speak, has long been an afterthought for the U.S. government.
The State Department says the approval process is necessarily methodic to thoroughly vet applicants for fraud, including potential risks to national security. The slow pace for applicants also stems from the lack of a centralized database in Afghanistan, said a June 2020 report by the State Department inspector general.
Clearing the backlog before the Sept. 11 pullout would require the State Department to process applications at a record pace. The department would need to process the same number of applications per month that it processed during its most productive year.
An alternative under consideration is a mass evacuation campaign being developed from scratch, reports say.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding faster action from Mr. Biden.
“President Biden has a moral obligation to protect these people,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The military retrograde is coming along quickly, so the time to act is right now. Every day that is wasted makes this situation even harder.”
He joined the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York, last month to call on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make the issue a priority.
A State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times that the department is reviewing the Afghan SIV program and has dedicated additional resources to processing applications. According to the most recent figures available, the average total U.S. government processing time for SIV applications was 996 calendar days.
At the same time, the force drawdown is accelerating. In a press briefing last week, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said U.S. Central Command had completed 30% to 44% of the process. Some fear the withdrawal may be complete before the State Department can process all SIVs.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has directed U.S. Central Command to develop options for an evacuation of those who would remain under threat after the withdrawal, according to a report in the national security news outlet Defense One.
The White House has not directed the Pentagon to execute an evacuation plan, the report said.
In a letter to Mr. Blinkin last month, Mr. Meeks and Mr. McCaul warned of the rapidly closing window to rescue Afghan allies.
“We made a promise to those Afghans who supported our efforts and it is imperative that we keep our word to them,” they wrote. “No one who qualifies for an SIV should be left behind — and potentially at risk — after U.S. forces exit.”
Mr. McCaul opposed Mr. Biden‘s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. He called the timing premature and said the decision could put Afghans at risk. With the withdrawal in motion, he is now calling on the administration to take action on behalf of those who served alongside U.S. troops.
“There is strong bipartisan, bicameral support for helping these people. We just need the administration to act,” he told The Times. “And I think it speaks volumes that many of the people leading the charge to save them are current and former members of the military. Their code dictates they don’t leave people behind, and they want to honor that promise.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to press Mr. Blinken on the issue during a Monday hearing.
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