Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

As U.S. tightens visa rules, thousands of our Afghan allies are at risk with no hope of departing | Trudy Rubin

National security adviser Jake Sullivan denies that the guidelines have changed. The situation on the ground suggests otherwise, writes Trudy Rubin.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan at a White House briefing earlier this month. At a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations Friday, Sullivan denied that the State Department had narrowed the categories of Afghan visa applicants whom it will help to exit the country.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan at a White House briefing earlier this month. At a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations Friday, Sullivan denied that the State Department had narrowed the categories of Afghan visa applicants whom it will help to exit the country.Read moreSusan Walsh / AP

In an Afghan city I won’t name, a distinguished judge who helped U.S. officials is hiding from the Taliban.

The judge’s work has been praised by a top U.S. general who worked with him on combating Afghan corruption. Yet this close U.S. ally is unlikely to receive one of the special immigrant visas (SIVs) that Congress promised to Afghans who worked for U.S. civilian or military officials.

I’ve been following the fate of this jurist since U.S. troops left Afghanistan. As winter arrives, he is trapped in a frigid, two-room hideout, along with his son and lawyer daughter-in-law (both SIV applicants) and his four young grandchildren. Family members are fearful to venture out for food because the Taliban is searching for him.

With the plight of the Afghan judge and his family in mind, I asked national security adviser Jake Sullivan at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting on Friday why the State Department had narrowed the categories of SIV applicants whom it will help to exit the country.

Sullivan’s reply was misleading — at best.

“I dispute [your] characterization,” the national security adviser told me. “In fact, since Aug. 31 we have evacuated Afghans at risk in a range of categories, including those who are SIV eligible but don’t actually have SIV visas, those who helped the U.S. government in other ways, or those who are at unique risk. We’ve had planes come out by private charter, we have worked closely with the Qataris and others who have planes that helped U.S. and Afghan citizens get out … and will continue to do so. The premise of your question was a policy that is not actually what our policy is.”

» READ MORE: Secretary Blinken: don’t betray Afghan allies and the vets who helped them | Trudy Rubin

This reply would have been understandable in the weeks immediately after the final U.S. exit. But it flies in the face of current facts on the ground.

Let’s take a reality check.

At the time of the chaotic U.S. exit from Kabul, 18,000 Afghans were queued up for SIVs. Most were left behind.

U.S. veterans of the Afghan war and other volunteers organized private charter flights to rescue their Afghan allies. They hoped to move them to third countries, en route to the United States.

Those charters have mostly been halted.

Charter organizers tell me a key reason is that the State Department keeps narrowing the categories of SIV applicants it will approve for departure. In recent months, eligibility was limited to those who had a “physical visa” in their passports, according to the State Department team overseeing evacuations.

There are only several hundred such visa holders, according to a government official familiar with relocation efforts. That number may soon expand to include e-visa holders, whose numbers aren’t clear.

What is clear is that the State Department started vetoing private charter manifests months ago, leading to the cancellation of several evacuations. Now the department wants to channel all U.S.-bound evacuees solely through Al Udeid Air Base in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar — which can’t manage more than a small number.

“They are trying to narrow the criteria to allow as few Afghans in as possible,” says Alexa Greenwald, who has led Afghan evacuations for Sayara International, a global development firm. “The administration has been successful in tuning us out and waiting for us to lose hope.”

» READ MORE: After Kabul bombing: A tale of two Afghan women, one who escaped and one who cannot | Trudy Rubin

Indeed, without private charters, the number of Afghans in the SIV queue will vastly outstrip the State Department’s capacity to evacuate them, even if many are rejected. A State Department official told the Wall Street Journal that there are 29,000 primary Afghan applicants in the early stages of their applications and around 33,000, including family members, who are a little more than halfway through.

Yet the current State Department plan — through Sept. 1 — is to evacuate only 1,000 Afghans a month who already have SIVs or are close. Do the math, and you see that most SIV applicants won’t make the cut.

In the meantime, Afghans at special risk like journalists and female activists benefit little from the vague new Priority 2 status, which requires them to apply for a visa in a third country and wait 18 months to learn if they will be granted U.S. refugee status. So far, P2 applications seem to disappear into the ether.

“Tens of thousands of Afghan allies are at risk with no chance of departing,” I was told by Connecticut’s Democratic senator, Richard Blumenthal, who has cosponsored a bill with GOP colleagues Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa to speed up the visa process.

“There is a sense that the effort has stalled, if not stopped,” Blumenthal says.

To be fair, the Biden administration has added many more people who are working hard to speed up the SIV process. President Joe Biden’s team issued 8,200 SIVs since January, most of them before August.

But unless the visa process becomes more expansive with increased staffing in Washington; unless the Biden team works more closely with private charter organizers; and unless the State Dept. increases the number of Afghan way stations beyond Qatar, we will betray our Afghan allies. That includes the judge in hiding.

Critics claim Biden is narrowing the SIV process because the optics of more Afghan refugees are bad for elections. If there’s a better explanation, I’d like to hear it.

Mr. Sullivan, over to you.