Dec 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

As Afghanistan envoy departs, tens of thousands remain in limbo

Afghans listen to a lesson in an Afghan refugee camp on Nov. 4 in Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

As President Biden's point person for Afghan refugee resettlement steps aside, advocacy groups are pressing the Biden administration to accelerate its efforts to help the tens of thousands of people still stuck in limbo.

Why it matters: Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) is leaving the envoy role after being confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The transition comes amid criticism that there hasn't been enough high-level, sustained engagement to ease the backlog of applications nearly four months after the U.S. military and diplomatic withdrawal from Kabul.

  • Markell's role always was intended to be short-term.

What's next: Markell deputy Curtis Ried, a career foreign service officer and National Security Council official, over the weekend was appointed special adviser on Afghan resettlement.

  • His portfolio will include continued evacuation efforts and he will have the authority to direct agencies on the issue, a White House official told Axios.
  • The official also said to expect additional Afghan resettlement roles to be announced in the coming weeks.
  • A State Department spokesperson told Axios that "our unprecedented efforts have been ongoing since September" and referred questions about Markell's transition to the NSC.

What we're hearing: As conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, lawmakers from both parties, former ambassadors and private organizations are raising new alarms.

  • They're concerned the U.S. hasn't yet found a way to evacuate more than 62,000 Afghans who worked with the U.S. but were left behind.
  • The administration has evacuated and brought to the U.S. 75,000 Afghans, with roughly 2 in 5 eligible for Special Immigrant Visas.
  • Axios reported earlier this month that the Department of Homeland Security had started issuing denials to Afghans seeking to immigrate to the United States, citing a new requirement for third-party documentation.
  • The U.S. intends to continue to welcome additional Afghans to this country over the coming weeks, months and years, a White House official told Axios.

What they're saying: Shawn VanDiver, president of AfghanEvac, a coalition of 120 organizations helping with evacuation efforts, told Axios that improvements to the interagency process are needed as well as an expansion of evacuation and resettlement capacity and more progress with "government taking over inherently government roles like case management."

  • Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service in Seattle, told Axios that "you have a system which is designed to process at a certain rate, and all of a sudden you flood that system. ... There isn't the infrastructure to manage that."
  • Brett Bruen, a former director of global engagement in the Obama White House, told Axios, "This is a job that the administration knew was not going to take a few weeks or a few months."
  • One U.S. career diplomat told Axios, "This is not being handled at a high enough level, with the right degree of urgency, because people feel like they don't want to draw more political attention to what could be characterized as an enormous epic strategic failure."
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