The U.S. Is Out of Afghanistan, but Our Allies Remain Trapped

On Aug. 10, 2021, days before the collapse of Afghanistan’s government, Fawad Khan Safi arrived in the United States to begin his new life.

Mr. Safi, who previously worked as a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, had waited an agonizing 12 months to receive his Special Immigrant Visa, or S.I.V., and make it to Texas. His ordeal lasted several months longer than the maximum nine-month visa processing period mandated by law — and yet, Mr. Safi is one of the lucky ones.

Around 60,000 Afghans who have worked with American forces and applied for visas remain in Afghanistan — many probably starving and on the run from the Taliban. Few, if any visas have ever been approved within that nine-month timeline. The system is clearly broken.

Despite the disturbing images of last summer’s evacuation, the obstacles facing S.I.V. applicants have continued to persist. To remedy this, Congress should overhaul the current S.I.V. process and pass an improved, permanent immigration program that swiftly and efficiently resettles those who apply for it.

If the S.I.V. process isn’t fixed, U.S. enemies like the Taliban will continue to persecute those who put their lives at risk to protect American troops. In the long run, partners around the world whom the United States often relies on will most likely rethink the value of a close relationship with the American government if they see that they can’t depend on its support.

Congress enacted the first S.I.V. program — for which both Iraqi and Afghan interpreters were eligible — in 2006, several years after both conflicts began. From inception, the program was unable to process applications in a timely manner, resulting in a backlog that was never resolved. As their applications languished, interpreters working for the U.S. government were targeted for retribution. After the United States withdrew most of its troops from Iraq in 2011, Iraqi interpreters faced brutal consequences, in large part because of severe delays in the processing of S.I.V. applications.

Without immediate changes to the S.I.V. program, a similar fate awaits our Afghan allies.

Currently, Afghans may apply for S.I.V.s via two tracks: A permanent program for interpreters who worked directly with the U.S. military, limited to only 50 people annually, and a much larger but temporary program for others working for or on behalf of the U.S. government. Each program has different application requirements, deadlines and visa quotas.

Unfortunately, Congress’s well-intentioned attempts to improve the S.I.V. programs have only increased their complexity, while insufficiently addressing their greatest weaknesses. Sporadic, temporary extensions have made it difficult for the executive branch to properly budget, staff and provide resources for the programs over time. For example, the State Department Office of the Inspector General found that from 2016 to 2020, the programs’ staffing numbers remained constant as a backlog grew and as Congress approved 15,500 additional visas.

Moreover, the responsibilities of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense in the immigration process are poorly delineated. Basic background and security checks span multiple agencies, and the coordination between these agencies has been inadequate.

But immediate steps can be taken to rectify the programs. First, Ambassador Elizabeth Jones — the current coordinator for Afghan relocation efforts at the State Department — needs more authority to speed up the bureaucratic machinery. The White House should designate her as presidential coordinator with the authority to direct and oversee the workings of other agency personnel.

The Biden administration has increased resources and decreased the processing time for the S.I.V. program in the last few months, but those moves fall far short of the major legislative overhaul the Afghan and Iraqi S.I.V. programs need. Congress should consolidate the multiple tracks of the S.I.V. programs into a permanent, unified framework that simplifies processing and eligibility rules. This program should allow for a more holistic security vetting process that considers context while screening effectively.

Currently, neither S.I.V. track allows applicants’ former U.S. supervisors to offer helpful context when red flags come up during initial background checks. Hypothetically, consider the case of an interpreter who, at the behest of his U.S. military supervisors, contacted insurgent sympathizers to collect information or obtain cooperation during the height of the conflict. Under the existing system, such applicants are typically disapproved as security risks without being provided sufficient recourse to appeal.

By limiting S.I.V. eligibility to Iraqis and Afghans, the U.S. government also ignores a slew of other allies who have risked their lives on behalf of American troops and missions. Syrian and Yemeni interpreters, for example, accompanied U.S. forces in battle against ISIS and Al Qaeda. They have no chance at resettlement in the United States through an S.I.V. program.

Expanding a permanent S.I.V. program to apply to other conflict zones would also prevent the need to create new legislation for those countries. In the past, some country-specific programs have fallen through the legislative cracks altogether. Most recently, Congress failed to enact a Syrian S.I.V. program despite more than one attempt to introduce such a bill. Our allies deserve better, especially in light of looming future crises such as the current standoff between Russia and Ukraine.

In Texas, Mr. Safi now works at a resettlement agency, paying his fortune forward by helping other new arrivals find work and a sense of community in their new country. Tragically, though, most refugees who have applied to the S.I.V. programs will not make it to the United States. Thousands are still waiting — terrified of Taliban retribution, hiding in basements.

It’s time to bring them to America.

Ryan C. Crocker served as ambassador to Iraq under President George W. Bush and ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama. He is an adviser to the nonprofit No One Left Behind, which provides resettlement assistance to Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa recipients. Philip M. Caruso is the chairman of No One Left Behind and a veteran fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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