As the 11 September deadline for all US troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan draws nearer, and media reports claim the emboldened Taliban* fighters have been availing themselves of the situation to gain ground, thousands of Afghans who were employed by the American military throughout the years are seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) to escape retaliation.
Having worked with the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marines in capacities ranging from translators and interpreters on the frontlines of the battle with insurgents to cooks, drivers and cultural advisors, the almost 18,000 Afghans now fear for their lives, as their entry into the US is bogged down in an application backlog.
With many receiving death threats and being forced out of their homes as Taliban seize territory in a spate of provinces, these people have now directly reached out to US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to give them safe haven in the United States, according to a database by non-profit charity No One Left Behind, cited by the Daily Mail.
In their applications the Afghans have been detailing the threats they face and pleading that the process be sped up. While many acknowledge they still support the US, they also deplore having been betrayed by what they see as bureaucratic logjam.
In a process that typically takes around nine months, SIVs are available to those whose employment with the US forces in Afghanistan has left them facing imminent danger, as the Taliban have vowed retribution against Afghans who they consider "traitors" for working with American officials.
Since 2006, the US has made available a set number of special immigrant visas, or SIVs, for Afghan and Iraqi translators or for contractors who face an "ongoing serious threat as a consequence of such employment.” The US has annually been handing out 50 special visas to Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and translators. Furthermore, some 26,500 visas have been allocated to Afghans employed by the government since December 2014.
However, currently a number of issues have delayed the process. The pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works, as on 20 June the Kabul embassy suspended all visa operations due to the third wave of COVID-19 sweeping the country.
Furthermore, setbacks include staff shortages and the requirement of special paperwork for the Afghans, who need evidence that shows they worked for the US government for two years.
Many need to provide supporting documents from their supervisors in the military, but lack the means of contacting them. For those who haven't had their applications accepted, the process is so slow that they are racing against the clock to flee the country before the last US soldier leaves.
According to No One Left Behind, some Afghans have been waiting years to have their application approved, with the longest dating back to 1981. Data cited by the organisation says 300 Afghan interpreters have died in targeted attacks while waiting to receive their visas since 2014.
Earlier, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken acknowledged in an Atlantic Council podcast on 21 June that there were about 18,000 people who had expressed an interest in using the programme to come to the United States.
"About 9,000 of those are just in the beginning of the process. They’ve expressed interest, they’re looking at it, they haven’t filled out the forms. Another 9,000, though, have filled out the forms. They’re working through the process, and we’ve got a number of them that are awaiting approval by our embassy in Afghanistan and others who are actually in the immigration process itself," he said.
Blinken is also said to be considering bringing the Afghans into the US as refugees.
'Time to Step up Their Game'
Amid the reports, there has been a bipartisan push to accelerate the visa processing. Rep. Michael Waltz was cited by the outlet as saying:
“Afghan translators have been vital American partners on the ground and their lives are in danger if we can't get them out soon. I can't emphasise how detrimental it would be to our national security interests if we signalled to the rest of the world that we are willing to leave those who help us against the enemy behind to die.”
Senator Angus Stanley King, an Independent from Maine, was cited by Defence One as warning that under the current circumstances it couldn’t be “business as usual”.
“I want the White House’s hair on fire. I want them to do everything within their power to solve this problem….I’m not being critical of the administration, but I think it’s time to step up their game,” said King.
He also proposed temporarily moving Afghans to NATO nations while their visas are processed and deploying troops to the State Department to speed up approvals.
On 1 May, the United States, along with NATO partners, began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with President Joe Biden vowing to complete the pullout by the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States that sparked the US intervention in Afghanistan.
Operations had been launched in October 2001 after the Taliban* refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for his involvement in organising the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people.
However, after almost two decades of fighting, the US found itself bogged down in a counterinsurgency fight against the Taliban and other groups in the country.
The Trump administration initiated peace talks with the Taliban* in 2019, promising a military withdrawal in exchange for assurances that al-Qaeda* terrorists would not be harboured by the group again.
While Washington was supposed to withdraw by 1 May 2021, President Joe Biden moved the deadline to 11 September 2021.
*Taliban and al-Qaeda are terrorist organisations banned in Russia and other countries.