By Peter Van BUREN
The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.
In the hubris of conquest 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan. Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our war was failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.
Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historical scale our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead it was just tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow. Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program — trusted us — will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human interest stories help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do.
The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us at risk as collaborators, clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.
During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imaging early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown people serving us, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department employed the SIV program abroad for many years. Local employees, say a Japanese passport clerk working in Embassy Tokyo, after 15 years of service could be rewarded an SIV to the Homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and course they wanted to be like us anyway.
Congress had the same vision for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, the locals would mostly want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.
What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their locals apply by the hundreds. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year in Iraq only for two years. But to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the necessary Letter of Recommendation. That still had to be addressed to the Ambassador (Chief of Mission) and signed by a General, Admiral or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.
Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 upped the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there.) The changes reduced the necessary service time to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”
Importantly, the critical Letter of Recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be co-signed by brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The Letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service” to the U.S. Government, nothing more. As conditions on the ground deteriorated, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas out of the 5,000 allotted not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassies.
Though officially absolutely not a refugee program, SIVs were made eligible for the same resettlement assistance programs as regular refugees. SIV. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the U.S. “Feel good” companies like Amazon and Uber offered special hiring consideration. You can read the full details of how to apply online. It all sounded good. But by the time one war ended, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being generally eligible for SIVs, the State Department only issued around 2,000 principal visas.
Like the Wars themselves, what seemed a good idea on paper was lost in the desert. In reality simple steps devolved into dead-ends, like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service and was living stateside. The ever-prissy State Department also warns “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”
But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy as “Suzy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese, Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO was a whole-of-government file check and took time; average processing was over three years. (Aside: I had a State Department colleague whose job it was to work these. Because the CIA would not release its most secret files, once a week he had to drive over to Langley and take handwritten notes inside a vault. If his boss had a concern, he had to go back a week later to resolve it. He did not close many cases.)
Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunsetted in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State include tag-along spouses and children for each principal applicant.) The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline. Congress even created a whole new application category, Priority 2, simply for those who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30, 2021 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans, so supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans their efforts to speed up things have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven Secretaries of Defense, and five Secretaries of State.
None of this is new. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program was supposed to be overseen by a senior official but the position was left unfilled for three years. State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ USG employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, but in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs.
There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the SIVs in Afghanistan. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster?
That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version, all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. So people suffer and people die in chaos in some far away place. Again.