How a slow visa process blocks many Afghans who have helped us
WASHINGTON – The State Department’s slow response to the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul, the Afghan capital, has stranded thousands of Afghans who have helped the United States and are now calling for their evacuation while waiting for their immigration visas be approved, two US officials said.
As many as 6,000 people – including former interpreters and cultural and political advisers – were ready to leave Kabul airport late Thursday evening or early Friday, after a days-long hiatus in visa processing for Afghans who had work. for the US military or embassy during the 20 Years War, the State Department said.
Thousands more are expected to be checked and evacuated daily after a small influx of consular officers and other diplomats – including former Ambassador to Afghanistan John R. Bass – arrived in Kabul on Thursday to speed up the processing of cases. visas. Diplomats are also deploying to Qatar and Kuwait, where US military bases will serve as crossing points for those arriving from Afghanistan in search of a final destination.
“This is an operation that will continue as quickly as possible,” Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters on Thursday. He said US authorities were constantly alerting Afghans who had been cleared to fly, including more than 800 on Wednesday evening.
“Our hope is that tomorrow we can process even more,” Mr. Price said. “But at the end of the day, the metric we care most about is how many people we can repatriate here to the United States or bring to third countries. This is our goal.
The US military is only evacuating Afghans who have completed what Mr. Price called “a certain stage of the security screening process.” He did not provide details of the process, but another official said security checks continued even as the Afghans were taken to safety.
But two other US officials described the Biden administration’s growing impatience with the State Department’s inability to process visas faster, as thousands of Afghans who had already risked their lives to ally with the United States waited fearfully outside the gate of Kabul International Airport. .
One of the officials described how difficult it was to ensure those who assisted the United States could reach the airport safely with other Afghans also trying to evacuate and the Taliban operating checkpoints. in the capital.
Officials also echoed refugee advocates, who accused the State Department of being caught off guard in processing special immigrant visas for Afghans – even though President Biden announced in April that the The US military would depart before the anniversary of September 11. 2001, terrorist attacks which led to the American invasion of Afghanistan.
“There are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans literally at the doorstep,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “It could have been avoided altogether if the evacuation was part of the military withdrawal. It was preventable, and we are now at the 11th hour.
“But that being said, I think we can make sure that this is an evacuation and not something more tragic,” Mr Varghese said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the US military had evacuated 7,000 Americans, Afghans and others since Saturday, officials said. This is still well below the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers per day that the military will be able to carry once the evacuation process is in full swing, Defense Ministry officials said.
Armed fighter jets flew over Kabul and Hamid Karzai International Airport as part of efforts Thursday to secure the massive evacuation in what Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby called a mission ” surveillance “.
Non-US evacuation flights have been reported with many empty seats, a sign of the difficulties thousands faced in getting to the airport. The Pentagon warned the Taliban not to interfere with the evacuation.
Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, said even Afghans who had been screened and told to go to the airport were unable to get US troops through the airport gate. He called it “inexcusable” that the State Department and the Pentagon do not coordinate better to ensure “that anyone who invites the United States government is recognized and allowed to enter by people at the gates who know what they are doing.” .
Mr. Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under the Obama administration, said the disconnect dominated the attention of the current administration for much of Thursday.
The problem “is in our power to solve,” Malinowski said, adding: “It has not improved.”
Major General William Taylor told reporters on Thursday that several doors at the airport were now open.
The process of verifying Afghans eligible for the special immigrant visa has been suspended for nearly a year, after the State Department shut down much of its classified consular operations when the first wave of the coronavirus forced employees to work from home.
The visa system had a backlog of 17,000 cases when Mr Biden took office in January, according to the State Department. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul resumed visa talks with the Afghans in February and was processing at least 100 people every week before the pandemic brought the operation to a halt again in June.
In mid-July, the Pentagon began an expedited airlift of Afghans who had worked for the US government. As part of the effort, called Operation Allies Refuge, more than 2,000 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul before the Taliban closed in on the capital last week, forcing the Biden administration to temporarily abandon its visa processing and focus on the possibility of escaping the Americans.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Price said the State Department had also been working to find countries that would host evacuees from Afghanistan who had not had time to apply to relocate elsewhere in their rush to leave the country. The governments of Albania, Uganda, Canada, Mexico and Chile have offered to host some people for varying periods of time, he said.
The US government does not charge Afghan refugees for evacuations. A number of private operations also organize flights from Afghanistan, including to countries with less stringent documentation requirements, although some require evacuees to pay for seats.
Seats on some private flights in the days after the US withdrawal cost $ 100,000 each or more, according to a person familiar with the fares.
Those involved in the private flights said they worked with the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House to secure the proper clearances to enter and exit Kabul airport, but their efforts were complicated by the disorganization of the US government. , as well as difficulties in transporting evacuees to the airport and obtaining insurance for the planes.
An effort that organized flights from Kabul to a neighboring country was organized by former Rep. Scott Taylor and Washington fixer Robert Stryk, whose lobbying firm was paid $ 160,000 to represent the Afghan government for a few months. in 2017.
For a first flight, dozens of Afghan passengers paid up to $ 12,500 per seat. But since then the operation has been able to lower prices to roughly what commercial airlines were charging before the U.S. military withdrawal, said Mr. Taylor, who was a member of the Navy SEALs before representing Virginia as the U.S. Republican in Congress.
The operation has come to include members of its former campaign staff, as well as political donors who have offered to pay some upfront fees and a Virginia-based logistics company called Regulus Global that works for the US government in points. global hot.
“We currently have a command center that operates 24/7,” Taylor said. “We’re just trying to help as many people as possible.”
After Mr. Taylor posted a post on LinkedIn saying he was organizing flights, his team began responding to thousands of inquiries from US citizens, Afghans, businesses and academic institutions, he said. -he declares.
“People are afraid for their lives. When you read some of these posts, it’s really sad, ”said Taylor, who suggested that some of the chaos could have been alleviated with better planning by the US government. “It was really sloppy, man. I’m a military man, and that’s crazy to me.
At least one flight of evacuees from Afghanistan arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Thursday, with its passengers receiving additional treatment and coronavirus testing upon landing.
Timothy Young, spokesman for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said fewer people were to arrive “with visas in hand” on flights from Kabul – a sign that the State Department was easing its screening restrictions for speed up evacuations.
Eileen Sullivan contributed reports.