Amid terror concerns, the Defense Department has asked congressional staff to stop sending evacuation requests on behalf of some Afghans whose work for the U.S. during the war may now put them at risk of Taliban reprisals, according to two people familiar with the order.
The directive, issued Wednesday night by the Defense Department’s Afghanistan Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation, applies to applicants for Special Immigrant Visas, a congressional official and a U.S. military contractor told The Intercept. Among the Afghans applying for such visas are military interpreters and others who helped the U.S. government. The Intercept recently reported that the Taliban has seized biometrics devices that contain identifying information about Afghans who may have assisted coalition forces.
The Defense Department, which controls the Kabul airport, issued the guidance to congressional officials working under the House Armed Services Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees certain immigration matters.
A Judiciary Committee spokesperson said they are unaware of members receiving the notice. The Defense Department and House Armed Services Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Biden administration has vowed to promptly evacuate Afghan allies, but the State Department reportedly faces a significant backlog of such applications. While only about 16,000 Afghan have received the special visas since 2014, the administration has identified some 50,000 applicants and their families in need of evacuation, and a congressional aide told the New York Times that far more are eligible.
The Defense Department guidance was issued amid intelligence reports warning of an imminent terror attack at the Kabul airport and just hours before a suicide bombing on Thursday morning killed dozens of Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members there. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Before Wednesday’s guidance, Afghans were already struggling with a chaotic U.S. evacuation process and a Kafkaesque immigration system. The new restrictions effectively formalize the cessation of departure opportunities for Afghans eligible to receive the special visas. It is unclear whether the guidelines are temporary or permanent.
“A decision like that doesn’t functionally change the reality for my families,” said an Army veteran helping evacuate contacts in Afghanistan. “They all have [special immigrant visa] applications in process, their names on a flight manifest, and passes that are supposed to allow them through the gates. They’re all being turned back by U.S. military security.”
“They’ve been getting turned away for days,” he added. “I don’t think the blast will change much for them, other than [to] seal the deal that they probably aren’t getting out.”
The congressional source echoed the veteran’s grim assessment. “Congressional offices and a bunch of other entities have been referring hundreds, if not thousands, of vulnerable Afghans to the State Department for refugee designation and emergency evacuation assistance, but nobody can tell us what happens after they’ve been referred or why we’re doing it. State never bothered to even acknowledge the evacuation requests.”
The military contractor shared a copy of a State Department document responding to a Special Immigration Visa application to illustrate the dysfunction. The application, acknowledged on August 16, would only result in an embassy interview over a month later — on September 28. But by that point, there may be no Americans left in Kabul to conduct one.
Congress first authorized a special immigrant status for Afghans and Iraqis who assisted U.S. armed forces as translators during the George W. Bush administration. While the program for Afghan allies was expanded in the years that followed, it was plagued by delays and challenges that have long gone unaddressed. The Intercept reported in April 2018 that one of the visa pipelines had a backlog of 58,000 applications.
The Trump White House’s notorious anti-Muslim immigration policy appears to have impeded efforts to bring attention to the issue as the administration sought to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Olivia Troye, a former homeland security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, tweeted on August 20 that Trump adviser Stephen Miller “would peddle his racist hysteria about Iraq and Afghanistan. He & his enablers across gov’t would undermine anyone who worked on solving the [special immigrant visa] issue by devastating the system at [the Department of Homeland Security] & State.”