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Inside Washington’s Fight to Save Afghans Who Saved Americans

Afghan interpreters were promised U.S. visas. Now, red tape may cost them their lives.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack DetschForeign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.

In 1975, as the United States was hastily extricating itself from the Vietnam War, a junior U.S. senator gave a speech arguing against offering lifelines to Vietnamese allies as South Vietnam teetered on the precipice.

“The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese,” then-Sen. Joe Biden said.

Now, as U.S. troops hastily withdraw from Afghanistan after two decades of war, President Joe Biden faces another major moral inflection point in U.S. foreign policy: Will Washington save the lives of Afghans who worked with the American military?

It’s a race against the clock and a battle against bureaucratic red tape, with life-or-death implications for thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped U.S. and coalition troops in exchange for visas to the United States. It is fueled by the specter of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdraw and by a grim and growing death toll of Afghan interpreters who have been targeted by militants while awaiting their long-promised visas.

The question over special visas for these Afghans has sparked a major political dust-up in Washington, with a growing chorus of lawmakers and U.S. veterans ratcheting up pressure on the Biden administration to take action. How the Biden administration makes—or breaks—promises to Afghan interpreters will have a major impact on the Afghanistan chapter of U.S. history, these lawmakers and advocacy groups argue.

Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there is an estimated backlog of some 17,000 Afghans awaiting word on special immigrant visas (SIVs), and he is “very concerned” the United States might not be able to process them all in time for the U.S. withdrawal without a clear plan from Biden to expedite the process. Bera said that in his conversations with administration officials, “there’s a commitment to work through the backlog.”

“That said, those are folks who already applied. I have to imagine there’s going to be an upsurge in applications now. So it’s not just the backlog,” he added.

So far, however, the Biden administration has yet to present a full plan to Congress on how it will process all the visas, angering congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. All the while, the painful legacy of Vietnam still hangs over the debate.

“We cannot allow Afghanistan to be another Saigon,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a hearing on Afghanistan on Tuesday. “This isn’t just about the people waiting for these visas in Afghanistan. If our allies and partners don’t trust us to keep our word or think they will be abandoned, it could cause irreparable damage to our national security.” McCaul and Rep. Gregory Meeks, the Democratic chairman of the panel, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week calling on the State Department to expedite visas for some 3,000 Afghans whose applications remain pending.

A senior Afghan diplomat who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing policy conversations said there’s a larger concern in Kabul that the Taliban could retaliate against former interpreters if the United States is not able to get them out, but the diplomat said there’s a hope the SIV applications will be expedited. And some analysts see a desire on the part of the Taliban to punish interpreters who are left behind, feeling that they went too easy on those who cooperated with the Soviet regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s, to prevent future collaboration with a foreign power.

“In short, they are at an extremely high risk of retaliation,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security analyst at Stanford University. “The Taliban are clear that they want to punish the ‘collaborator class.’ Within that category, the Taliban perceive translators and other embeds with the U.S. military as a top threat.”

With Biden’s order for a full withdrawal of all troops by Sept. 11, many lawmakers and U.S. veterans fear there isn’t enough time to process all the applications—at least without a plan to slash through the red tape and expedite visas. If the administration can’t overcome the paperwork backlogs, lawmakers argue it should still organize the evacuation of interpreters and their families to Kabul, or even third countries or other American military bases while they await their visas. On Thursday, 20 Senate lawmakers led by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Joni Ernst called on Biden to authorize 20,000 more visas for the fiscal year starting in October.

A State Department spokesperson said the department approved a “temporary increase in consular staffing” at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to help address the matter.

“While U.S. troops will leave by September, the United States will maintain a robust diplomatic presence through the U.S. Embassy, and our teams in the Consular Section in Kabul and in Washington will continue processing SIV applications as expeditiously as possible, as the security situation in Kabul allows,” the spokesperson added.

Some 30,000 families have relocated to the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan via the SIV process. Some Afghan interpreters and others who supported U.S. and coalition troops have already been killed by the Taliban or other militant groups while awaiting their visas, a point U.S. veterans’ advocacy groups characterize as a major moral failing on the part of the United States. James Miervaldis, chairman of the board for No One Left Behind, a nonprofit working to support SIV applicants, told Foreign Policy his group documented cases of at least 300 interpreters or their family members being killed.

Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Department of Defense spokesman, said the Pentagon remains “supportive” of the SIV program, run through the State Department, “to help those who have provided a valuable service to our forces, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.”

The issue has become more urgent with the U.S. drawdown picking up pace. Other international coalition troops could reportedly complete their withdrawal as early as July 4. On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command reported that it had completed between 13 and 20 percent of the withdrawal process, less than a month after U.S. troops began leaving the country. The United States has handed over five facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense and flown out 115 planeloads of material, the combatant command also reported.

While some see Biden’s September withdrawal timeline as making the visa problem more challenging, it “does not absolve the United States from our responsibilities to those that fought alongside us and will likely bear the wrath of the Taliban once we depart,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and an ABC News analyst who served in Afghanistan. “We need to develop a plan to assist those who risked their lives to fight the very forces that attacked the U.S. They have the exact qualities we should all want in an individual seeking to come to the U.S. and earn their citizenship.”

But the path to getting a visa is still littered with bureaucratic obstacles: Obtaining a SIV is a complex 14-step process, from wading through a sea of application paperwork to interviews with U.S. consular officers, followed by more interviews, more paperwork, and more processing. State Department data released in January shows just how the timeline can stack up: One step on reviewing paperwork can take an average of 10 days, while another step on administration processing can take over three months. Another step in the process—a chief of mission’s committee review of an application to determine whether to approve or deny the application—took an average of 833 days, well over two years, to process.

Miervaldis, an Army veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, helped his interpreter in Afghanistan secure an SIV to the United States. The process took three years. Miervaldis said many veterans share his story. “All these service members have independently just tried to do the right thing and spent years fighting the bureaucracy to help their partners get out,” he said.

A total of 1,321 Afghan SIVs were issued between October and the beginning of 2021, according to the State Department data, and there are 10,993 remaining SIVs open for Afghan applicants. The State Department is expected to issue quarterly reports on SIVs but has not yet published a report for April. Though the United States granted 20,993 SIVs to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government by the end of fiscal year 2019, that program also encountered criticism for slow processing times and language barriers, and many Iraqis still face danger while awaiting approval to enter.

What accounts for the long wait? In addition to the standard red tape, there’s a backlog of old cases piling up, rigorous background checks that take time to complete, and fewer staff to process the paperwork thanks to embassy evacuations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some Afghan interpreters are also struggling to file the proper paperwork, including employment forms and references from long-departed supervisors or contracting companies that have since folded. And Congress and outside advocates have also been pushing the Biden administration for clarity on approving possible sites within the United States to resettle Afghan immigrants.

Bera said it was a top priority for both sides of the aisle, with U.S. principles at stake. “What morals do we have in the future, if we ask others to serve with us and help us?” he said. “If we want to have moral character as a country this is the right thing for us to do.”

Update, May 19, 2021: This article was updated to include comment from a State Department spokesperson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch