US lawmakers are urging the State Department, Department of Defence (DoD) and the White House to accelerate US visa processing for Afghan interpreters who supported US troops in Afghanistan. The call for faster action comes ahead of the planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghans provides a pathway to come to the United States for those who assisted American troops amid the ‘war on terror’ following the September 11 atrocities in 2001.
In a letter sent to the White House by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, signed by 19 other senators, lawmakers called for an increased numbers of SIVs to be allocated, warning of an increased Taliban threat toward America’s Afghan allies.
The letter said: “There are already reports of Taliban threats targeting those who helped the US once troops are withdrawn. These threats cannot be ignored. As Afghans face renewed security concerns due to their work with the US, we must ensure that the SIV program has the capacity to bring them to safety.”
According to recent official figures, approximately 18,000 SIV applications are awaiting processing, not including those of spouses and children. With the US troop withdrawal deadline looming, there are genuine fears over the safety of those ‘left behind’, with the Taliban actively targeting those who have helped the US.
Earlier this month General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs said: “The US, with the State Department in the lead, has a moral imperative to take care of those who have worked closely with us if their lives are in danger.”
However, General Milley did caution against speculating over what would happen when US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.
He said: “There are some obviously bad outcomes that have been discussed, but none of that is preordained, none of that is absolutely inevitable. I think it’s a bit early to really sound the alarm on getting everybody out just yet.”
Lengthy processing times
The Special Immigrant Visa, which has a 14-step process, currently takes an average of 996 days to push through the system, according to a joint State and DHS 2021 quarterly report. One part of the process requires applicants to receive an HR letter from the Chief of Mission, a step that will become more dangerous once US troops have withdrawn.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing recently, veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Brian Mast, said: “To put it very bluntly none of us want to see one of those individuals that have worked with us have their head cut off on the internet. That’s a real threat. That’s not hyperbolic.”
Meanwhile, the White House has said that is ‘currently in the midst of an intensive policy process to improve and surge resources’. It’s understood that this includes adding capacity to process SIV applications at the US embassy in Kabul, while continuing to protect the integrity of the program and national security.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that the State Department is ‘expediting processing’ for SIVs. However, with the average processing time taking three years, and US troops leaving in less than four months, Afghans are concerned.
Dipali Mukhopadhyay, senior expert on the Afghanistan peace process for the US Institute of Peace, told CBS News: “The system is incredibly opaque, the decision making process is unclear and feels haphazard at best. This idea of America abandoning Afghanistan, there is nothing inevitable about that. But it will be perceived that way if we mismanage this.”
“It will be perceived that we have abandoned our friends, and people who took great risks for us. And frankly people who didn’t ask us to intervene, but upon whom we intervened. That matters. That matters for America’s reputation in the world and it matters for ongoing national security interests and equities in the region,” Mukhopadhyay added.
According to the nonprofit No One Left Behind, over 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because of their association with the United States.
Processing as fast as possible
Meanwhile, the State Department has said that it is ‘processing applications as fast as it possibly can’. A State Department spokesperson said: “We have identified process improvements and directed additional resources to the program, including by augmenting staff in Washington to process applications.”
“The Department has also approved a temporary increase in consular staffing at the US Embassy in Kabul to conduct interviews and process US visa applications,” the spokesperson added.
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