KANSAS CITY, Kansas — On August 31, 2021, the U.S.’s two-decade mission in Afghanistan will end. Currently, U.S. forces are turning over the security responsibility of Afghanistan to the Afghan National Security Forces. However, former U.S. government-employed Afghans are increasingly at risk of Taliban reprisals. Consequently, congressional pressure on the United States to protect U.S. government-employed Afghans has intensified. Congress is currently deliberating bills in both chambers to expedite and expand visa processing for Afghans who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces in order to protect them from potential danger in Afghanistan.
State of the Conflict
As of July 6, 2021, the U.S. troop total in Afghanistan stood at 3,000. Following President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, 90% of U.S. forces have left the country. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan peaked in 2012 with more than 100,000 troops. According to the Long War Journal, the Taliban group doubled the number of provinces under its control between May and July.
Before May 1, “the Taliban controlled 73 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts.” As of June 29, 2021, the Taliban dominates 157 total districts. Additionally, the recent Taliban offensive is closing in on several provincial capitals and has displaced tens of thousands of fleeing Afghan civilians. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) projects that the conflict will displace 500,000 more people over the course of 2021. Currently, 18.4 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance. But, as the conflict in Afghanistan intensifies, the country’s humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate.
Danger to US Government-Employed Afghans
As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, U.S. government-employed Afghans fear acts of vengeance from the Taliban. Amid the Taliban’s surge across Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan issued a statement that former U.S. or NATO employed Afghans “should show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country.” The Islamic Emirate stated further that these individuals should not fear any danger.
However, this provides little consolation because, since 2014, the Taliban has killed at least 300 former U.S. government-employed “interpreters and their family members” in acts of vengeance. Additionally, since the U.S. started the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program to protect U.S. government-employed Afghans, thousands of applicants have received death threats from the Taliban.
Moreover, in 2020, deaths due to targeted Taliban killings rose 22%. The Taliban has targeted journalists, Afghans allied to the United States, civil society advocates and Afghan Government civil servants. As the Taliban move toward key Afghan population centers, the threat to former U.S. government-employed Afghans increases.
The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program
In 2009, Congress established the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to allow U.S. government-employed Afghans and their families to immigrate to the United States. However, near-constant backlogs due to the lack of a central database along with staffing and resource shortages have limited the program’s effectiveness. The SIV program’s current backlog of more than 18,000 applications will likely only increase as the Taliban increases its territorial control.
Since the program’s inception, the U.S. Department of State has only granted 16,000 out of a possible 26,500 Afghan SIVs. The average processing time for Afghans who submit their SIV applications in early 2021 is around three years, far exceeding the State Department’s target of providing applicants with decisions within nine months. As the U.S. final withdrawal date approaches and SIV applicants are at increased risk of danger, the pressure on the United States to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans intensifies.
On June 29, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Hope for Afghan SIVs Act (H.R. 3385). The bill aims to speed up the immigration process for Afghans who assisted the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan by decreasing the hurdles involved in the Special Immigrant Visa process. Specifically, the program will waive the medical exam requirement for applicants. Currently, Afghan SIV applicants have to get a medical exam at a single clinic in Kabul, which leads to application delays and forces applicants from distant provinces to endure a costly journey and potentially dangerous conditions.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen [D-NH] introduced the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2021 (S. 2032), which aims to expand the quantity and hasten the processing of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. The bill would increase the number of Afghan SIVs from 26,500 to 46,500. The bill would also allow the spouses and children of certain deceased U.S. employed Afghans to immigrate to the United States under a Special Immigrant Visa. Lastly, the program would allow Afghans who the U.S. employed for a year to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa. Currently, applicants must have worked for the United States for two years. On July 29, 2021, “the Senate passed key provisions” of S. 2032.
Biden Administration Response
The Biden administration has mobilized to protect Afghans who aided the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Under Operation Allies Refuge, the U.S. military is evacuating Afghans who have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa to a third country while the Department of State processes SIV applications. While the Department of Defense has not stated exactly to where the U.S. will evacuate applicants, in April 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken virtually met with the ministers of foreign affairs of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and called on the countries to support stability in Afghanistan while upholding human rights.
Along with the Biden administration’s recent action, the Hope for Afghan SIVs Act and the Afghan Allies Protection Act have the potential to increase the number of Afghans the U.S. can protect.
– Zachary Fesen