How a sluggish visa process stranded many Afghans who helped us

WASHINGTON – A slow response from the Foreign Ministry to the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, has stranded thousands of Afghans who have helped the United States and are now crying out for evacuation while waiting for their immigration visas to be approved, two said. U.S. officials. .

As many as 6,000 people – including former interpreters and cultural and political advisers – were on standby to be flown out of Kabul airport late Thursday night or early Friday alone, after a one-day break in processing visas for Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military or the U.S. embassy during the 20-year war, the State Department said.

Thousands more are expected to be examined and evacuated on a daily basis, after a small influx of consular officials and other diplomats – including former Afghan ambassador John R. Bass – arrived in Kabul on Thursday to speed up visa processing. Diplomats are also deployed to Qatar and Kuwait, where U.S. military bases will serve as staging posts for people arriving from Afghanistan while searching for a final destination.

“This is an operation that will continue with as fast a clip as we can possibly handle,” Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, told reporters Thursday. He said U.S. officials were constantly warning Afghans who had been approved to fly, including more than 800 Wednesday night.

“Our hope is that tomorrow we will be able to process even more,” said Mr. Price. “But in the end, the goal we care about most is how many people we are able to repatriate here to the United States or bring to third countries. That is our goal.”

The U.S. military is only evacuating Afghans who have completed what Mr. Price called “a specific step in the safeguard procedure.” He would not give details of the process, but another official said security checks continued even though Afghans were flown to safety.

But two other U.S. officials described growing impatience throughout the Biden administration with the State Department’s inability to process visas more quickly as thousands of Afghans who had already risked their lives to ally with the United States waited fearfully outside the gate to the international airport. in Kabul. .

One of the officials described how challenging it was to ensure that those who helped the United States could reach the airport safely with other Afghans also trying to evacuate, and the Taliban serve checkpoints across the capital.

Officials also echoed refugee advocates who accused the State Department of being caught red-handed in processing the special immigrant visas for Afghans – although President Biden announced in April that the U.S. military would leave before the 9/11 anniversary. 2001, attacks leading to the US invasion of Afghanistan.

“There are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans literally at the gate,” said Sunil Varghese, the political director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This could have been completely avoided if evacuation were part of the military withdrawal. This could have been avoided and we are at 11 o’clock now.”

“But having said that, I think we can ensure that this is an evacuation and nothing more tragic,” Mr Varghese said.

As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. military had evacuated 7,000 Americans, Afghans and others since Saturday, officials said. It is still far from the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day that the military will be able to fly out when the evacuation process is in full swing, Defense Ministry officials said.

Armed fighter jets passed Kabul and Hamid Karzai International Airport as part of efforts Thursday to secure the huge evacuation in what Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said was a “surveillance” mission.

There have been reports of non-US evacuation flights leaving with many empty seats, a sign of the difficulties thousands of people have faced as they try to get to the airport. The Pentagon has warned the Taliban not to interfere in the evacuation.

Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, said that even Afghans who had been examined and asked to come to the airport were unable to get past U.S. troops at the airport gate. He called it “unforgivable” that the State Department and the Pentagon did not coordinate better to ensure, “that whoever the U.S. government invites will be recognized and allowed by people at the gate who know what they are doing.”

Mr. Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under the Obama administration, said disruption dominated the current administration’s attention for most of Thursday.

The problem “is within our power to solve,” said Mr. Malinowski, adding: “It has not gotten any better.”

Major General William Taylor told reporters on Thursday that several gates at the airport were now open.

The process of examining Afghans who qualify for the special immigrant visa was dormant for nearly a year after the State Department closed much of its classified consular operations when the first wave of coronavirus forced employees to work from home.

The visa system had a backlog of 17,000 cases when Mr Biden took office in January, according to the State Department. The US embassy in Kabul resumed the interview of Afghans about visas in February and treated at least 100 people every week before the pandemic stopped the operation again in June.

In mid-July, the Pentagon began an accelerated airlift of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. During this operation, called Operation Allies Refuge, more than 2,000 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul before the Taliban closed in on the capital last week, forcing the Biden administration to temporarily suspend its visa processing and focus on ensuring the Americans could escape.

Mr. Price said the State Department had also worked to find countries that would accommodate the evacuated Afghans who had not had time to apply for resettlement elsewhere in their hurry to leave the country. The governments of Albania, Uganda, Canada, Mexico and Chile had offered to receive some people in different periods, he said.

The US government does not charge Afghan refugees for the evacuations. A number of private operations also organize flights out of Afghanistan, including to countries with less stringent documentation requirements, although some ask evacuees to pay for seats.

Seats on some private flights in the days after the U.S. withdrawal cost $ 100,000 each or more, according to a person familiar with ticket prices.

People involved in the private flights said they had worked with the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House to obtain proper permits to fly in and out of Kabul airport, but that their efforts had been complicated by disorganization by the US government. , as well as difficulties in transporting evacuees to the airport and securing insurance for aircraft.

An operation that has arranged flights from Kabul to a nearby country was organized by former representative Scott Taylor and Washington fixer Robert Stryk, whose lobbying firm was paid $ 160,000 to represent the Afghan government for a few months in 2017.

For an initial flight, dozens of Afghan passengers paid as much as $ 12,500 per seat. But since then, the operation has been able to lower prices to roughly what commercial airlines charged before the U.S. military withdrawal, said Mr Taylor, who served as a member of the Navy SEALs before representing Virginia as Republicans in Congress.

The operation has come to include members of his former campaign staff, as well as political donors who have offered to pay some upfront costs and a Virginia-based logistics company called Regulus Global, which works for the U.S. government in global hot spots.

“We have a command center right now that is 24/7,” said Mr. Taylor. “We’re just trying to help as many people as possible.”

After Mr. Taylor posted a message on LinkedIn indicating that he was arranging air travel, his team began sending thousands of requests from U.S. citizens, Afghans, businesses, and academic institutions, he said.

“People are scared for their lives. When you read some of these messages, it’s really sad, ”said Mr Taylor, who suggested some of the chaos could have been mitigated by better planning by the US government. “This was really wrong, man. I’m a military man, and this is crazy for me.

At least one plane of people evacuated from Afghanistan arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Thursday, where passengers received further treatment and coronavirus testing on landing.

Timothy Young, a spokesman for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said fewer people were expected to arrive “with visas in hand” on flights from Kabul – a sign that the State Department is easing its control restrictions to speed up evacuations.

Eileen Sullivan contributed with reporting.

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