Aug 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Inside the White House scramble to protect Afghan allies

People wait to be evacuated from Afghanistan at the airport in Kabul

People wait to be evacuated from Afghanistan at the airport in Kabul Photo by AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration was scrambling to clear a backlog of thousands of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications to the U.S. that had piled up in Afghanistan for a year after in-person interviews with applicants were suspended.

The big picture: They felt they were starting to make some progress — until Kabul suddenly fell — two senior officials familiar with the situation tell Axios.

Driving the news: These officials' accounts of the bureaucratic, national security and health-related obstacles involved in protecting some of the most vulnerable and deserving Afghans may serve as a preview of testimony to come, as lawmakers and the American people demand answers about the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Why it matters: A years-long operation to protect people who'd worked with U.S. troops over two decades instantly morphed into a frantic and massive airlift operation, with thousands of Afghans still in limbo.

  • It's leaving many vulnerable to torture or death by the Taliban and has called into question the reliability of American commitments.

Behind the scenes: The two officials, who spoke with Axios on condition of anonymity, said that in-person interviews — a crucial step in the visa application process — were suspended at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in March of 2020 under the Trump administration due to COVID-19 protocols.

  • They said they were resumed in Biden's second week in office.

"Alarmed" was the emotion one of the officials used to describe the feeling when they found that "there was no plan from the Trump administration on how to move Afghan civilians out of the country, even though they had committed to leaving the country by May 1. So we began building one from scratch."

  • The National Security Council held dozens of inter-agency meetings throughout the spring to figure out how to improve the SIV program. The administration worked with Congress to simplify a 14-step application process. And officials doubled the number of officials in Kabul handling the visa applications.
  • By May, they had cut the average time for SIV approval — from more than two years to less than one year — but with Biden calling for withdrawal by Aug. 31 the math still didn't work.

A fresh coronavirus outbreak in the Kabul Embassy halted in-person interviews again for three weeks at the end of June.

  • The State Department eventually managed to carry out virtual interviews.

What's next: The next steps for Afghan SIV applicants who are able to reach the airport in Kabul will depend on where they fall in the application process. Those who have not yet been interviewed will likely be sent to third countries like Qatar or Albania, one of the officials said.

  • There are around 20,000 Afghans in the SIV pipeline. Around 2,000 people, including applicants and their families, have already been brought to the U.S., and an additional 800 will arrive in the coming days, State Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman said in a Wednesday briefing.

The bottom line: The SIV process was not designed for a mass evacuation of thousands of people at a time.

  • Even though the U.S. has secured the airport in Kabul and resumed evacuation flights, it is still a dangerous journey for those who are not yet at the airport or in the city.
  • In order for Afghans who don't qualify for the SIV program to attain prioritized refugee status and be resettled in the U.S. they have to manage to leave Afghanistan — a difficult feat with the Taliban controlling land borders.

What to watch: 831 applications were approved in the first week in August, up from 100 per week in March, one official said.

  • But the embassy was forced to close, injecting even more chaos into the process as the U.S. determines who is and is not eligible to board a flight out from Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Go deeper: How Kabul fell so fast

Go deeper