The Debate | Society | South Asia

Security, System Issues, and a Flood of Refugees Make Getting Afghan Allies to Safety a Challenge

The process, always slow and cumbersome, is now overwhelmed. Even as cases move through the system, safety remains a grave concern for Afghans forced to wait.

Security, System Issues, and a Flood of Refugees Make Getting Afghan Allies to Safety a Challenge

A man walks with a child through Fort Bliss’ Dona Ana Village where Afghan refugees are being housed, in New Mexico, Sept. 10, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/David Goldman, File

It’s been over a year since the United States left Afghanistan, and despite the best efforts of many good people on the ground and elsewhere, a lot of other good people were left behind, both U.S. citizens and Afghans who assisted the U.S.-led coalition during its 20-year mission. 

The actual numbers are tough to pinpoint. A day after the evacuation, U.S. President Joe Biden asserted that only 100-200 Americans remained in Afghanistan; however, the State Department later said it had evacuated 800 Americans since then, with thousands still left behind. Estimates of Afghan allies still in the country exceed a quarter million

Here’s the problem for those of us working to get them out of Afghanistan: Evacuations in the final days before the Taliban takeover were military operations that wrestled with logistics to get people to safety. What we have now is a diplomatic process overseen by the State Department to grant former coalition employees a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) for legal entry into the United States. 

That makes sense for processing people in compliance with U.S. immigration law, but not for getting people to safety. 

Even on a good day the process is slow and cumbersome, and with the U.S. handling immigration requests for seemingly countless deserving Afghans, Ukrainians, and others, those good days are in our rearview mirror. State Department messages routinely caution that they cannot estimate when they will review our submissions, but that it will take considerably longer than expected. It’s a system badly in need of reform and has been for years, but there is no appetite for that in Washington. Even humanitarian parole, which is intended for emergency evacuation to safety, is taking months or even longer to approve and will not be available after September 30, 2022.

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Even after being granted a coveted SIV, individuals and their families are responsible for getting to the U.S. themselves. That means navigating a lot of Taliban-held or other hostile territory to get somewhere with a U.S. diplomatic post. The fact that only a handful of countries will grant visas to Afghan passport holders, and only Pakistan and Iran among countries bordering Afghanistan, complicates things further. It significantly limits the routes Afghans can take and makes their movements more predictable for anyone tracking them. 

The journey is even more perilous for members of Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, Pashtuns, who face persecution and deadly violence from Pakistan’s military and ISI intelligence service. Pashtuns (along with Baloch, Sindhi, and other peoples) were forcibly incorporated into Pakistan in 1947 and have been subject to continual human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, economic despoliation, and cultural genocide ever since. The government in Islamabad, as well as the military and ISI, see Pashtuns as a threat to their national integrity. If the Pakistanis find anything from the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) when they seize a refugee’s phone (which they seem to do in all or almost all cases); they likely will go into custody (or worse) immediately. Some of our allies had this happen to them, and it took extraordinary efforts to get them to a safe place. Even though the PTM is a non-violent human rights movement that operates openly and legally, Pakistan’s powers-that-be effectively treat it as an insurgency group.

With Pakistan out as a safe place, the path to freedom is further restricted, even as the number of terrorists gunning for them increases. There is no country bordering Afghanistan with ties to the United States where they can flee for safety while the SIV process runs its course.

For those of us working to get our Afghan allies to safety, this forces us to operate in a bifurcated manner. On the one hand, the diplomatic process requires us to follow a specific set of rules to the letter. We can use our resources to track progress and catch anything that might fall through the bureaucratic cracks, but we cannot take shortcuts to get the SIV; no one gets special treatment. When one U.S. Congress member asked if a case could be given “expedited service,” the State Department replied curtly that “all cases are given expedited service.” 

We must be constantly mindful that our friends are in constant danger and could be taken, tortured, and killed at any time. We know this because we’ve seen it happen to others we know. Their personal safety must be our highest priority, no matter how slowly the diplomatic process grinds on. We musts remain constantly at the ready to apply effective actions, “creative” and otherwise. The expectation is that former coalition employees are in danger, and the State Department is dealing with a previously unheard of flood of cases, as well as an immigration crisis on the U.S. southern border. 

Despite all of this, cases are moving through the system, and it seems like we receive news at least weekly and at times more frequently. 

For those trying to get people out of Afghanistan, a few notes.

First, we must recognize that the State Department and its employees are not the enemy. They are getting as much done as possible with the large volume of cases, security concerns, and potential danger to the former U.S. employees. Work with them, not against them. We have found that the process does move, just not as quickly as we’d like.

Second, keep in mind that the goal is legal entry into the United States, which means following the SIV process meticulously. Keep accurate records of all official communications, requests, and acknowledgements. Congressional offices can help a lot in checking on progress, keeping us appraised of anything amiss, and helping us help our clients respond effectively to questions and requests from the National Visa Center (NVC). Because of them, I have been able to stay on top of things that the NVC lost or missed and other issues.

Third, having applicants complete a Waiver of Confidentiality form is a huge help, allowing the State Department to give you and Congressional offices helping you specific information on the case and communicate back and forth about it. The form must be signed to be valid (no digital signature), but State will accept a scanned copy.

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And finally, while the system is working, our adversaries are working, too, so we must always be prepared to get our people out of danger. For security reasons, I cannot be specific about how we have done it, but we have been successful. Keep close contact with your friends in Afghanistan. Know where the danger is and who might be an informant. The ISI and Taliban know how to flip people to inform for them by threatening them, or more frequently, their families. Know the possible escape routes, and which routes might put your clients in jeopardy. Know in advance where they might flee to safety outside Afghanistan if necessary, and how can you get it done.

It is unfortunate that we have to think this way and not simply wait for the process to play out, but anyone who has spent time in that part of the world knows that there is no other option.

All of this, however, makes this a story without an ending. Our friends and allies are still living under Taliban rule, and many have Taliban arrest warrants out for them. Perhaps one day, we’ll be able to write a follow up article with the good news of everyone being safe; but not this day.