WASHINGTON – On July 8, President Joe Biden stood in the East Room of the White House and delivered a clear message to the Afghans who served the U.S. government as interpreters and in other roles critical to the United States’ 20-year military presence in their country.
“There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose,” Biden said, “and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.”
But after the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan ended with the fall of Kabul on Sunday, the U.S. government’s promises to the Afghans who supported its two-decade experiment in nation building appear increasingly hard to keep and reflect a government that hasn’t reckoned with the full impact of its hasty withdrawal.
After Biden announced in April he intended to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, concern for the former interpreters and other Afghans who qualify for the Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, grew among Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who voted almost unanimously on July 30 to expand eligibility for the program.
On Aug. 2, amid growing alarm about the fate of other Afghans as the Taliban seized territory across the country, the Biden administration issued a “Priority 2” designation to give refugee status to those who worked with Americans – including at U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations and media outlets – but don’t fit the relatively narrow requirements of the SIV program.
After the Taliban took control of Kabul, bringing fears of a return of the repressive policies toward women and ethnic minorities that defined the group’s rule between 1996 and 2001, the Pentagon said it would evacuate an even broader category of “at-risk individuals.”
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that category “refers to women, it refers to girls; to human rights defenders, journalists, other civil society actors who might not otherwise qualify” for the SIV program or other refugee designations.
In a news conference Tuesday, Taliban leaders said they would not retaliate against Afghans who worked with the United States and promised freedom for women and girls “within the limits of Islam,” without specifying how the militant group’s radical interpretation of Islamic law would be applied. Meanwhile, reports have emerged from across the country of Taliban fighters going door to door in search of those who aided the U.S. government.
Yet as the U.S. government pledges to evacuate a growing number of Afghans, the administration appears unlikely to evacuate even the narrower group of SIV applicants Biden promised a home in the United States. The SIV process, which takes an average of about three years to complete, currently has a backlog of about 20,000 applicants and a total of 100,000 people when including qualifying family members, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, a legal aid and advocacy group.
On Wednesday, IRAP filed emergency petitions with the State Department on behalf of all SIV applicants, an unprecedented legal move seeking to force the U.S. government to evacuate all of those Afghans. But in a call with reporters Wednesday, IRAP executive director Becca Heller said the Biden administration has argued more than half of the 20,000 applicants are still at the first stage of a three-stage, 14-step process.
“They’re trying to get away on a technicality here,” Heller said, “so they can justify taking out fewer people.”
“They’re blaming our own allies for their failure to have a functioning application process and then using that as an excuse to argue that they shouldn’t have to evacuate them. It’s morally reprehensible.”
The SIV program has drawn bipartisan support from Congress, even as most Democrats have refrained from the harsh criticism of Biden’s withdrawal decision that Republicans have offered.
In a statement on Wednesday, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the Biden administration “must do all that it can to get our Afghan partners who helped our military and our diplomatic and development personnel out of the county. It must also speed up the evacuation of women, civil society activists, and other vulnerable groups from Afghanistan.”
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, slammed Biden’s execution of the withdrawal that former President Donald Trump’s administration negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020.
“We must do more, and do better, at helping our Afghan friends who desperately need our help, after having served alongside us all of these years,” Risch said in a statement Monday. “The people of Afghanistan, and especially the women and children, do not deserve the return to brutal oppression that will come with Taliban rule.”
“We cannot leave our allies who have stood by us for more than 20 years – from the interpreters who supported our troops to the women who bravely stepped forward into civic society – behind,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement on Tuesday.
Ryan Crocker, a Spokane Valley native who led the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, said he has been getting a deluge of pleas for help from Afghans.
“I am deeply worried, almost sickened, about what we’re doing to those who had the courage to stand with us,” Crocker said. “And I’m deeply, deeply saddened by the failure of the American promise.”
“The women and girls that we encouraged to go to school, to step forward, to move into government, parliament, business, to be part of their own society – well, we’re not going to be able to evacuate all of them. They stepped forward because we said, ‘We’ll protect your backs.’ And now we haven’t.”