Sayed, an Afghan who served as an interpreter for the U.S. military, always pauses before opening email from the State Department about his efforts to evacuate himself and his family from Kabul.
First, he prays. Since the U.S. military began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, hostile Taliban forces have been moving steadily closer to the capital city.
“I’m waiting for my number,” Sayed (not his real name) told The Washington Times in a Facebook interview. “When I will get shot, when I will get killed? I don’t know. But I am waiting for that.”
An interpreter for eight years who also worked as a contractor for the Afghan military, Sayed was approved by the U.S. for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2019. Among the documentation Sayed used to prove his service to the U.S. military was a certificate of appreciation signed by then-Col. Mark A. Milley, now a general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“[Sayed] is in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States of America’s Department of Defense, the Afghan Ministry of Defense, and the Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan,” states a certificate signed in 2003 by Col. Milley, who was in charge of a camp where Sayed worked early in the war.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul withdrew its approval in May because of what it said was Sayed’s “lack of faithful and valuable service.” The news was devastating.
Sayed said he hadn’t been told of any specific allegations against him. The Washington Times is concealing his identity to shield him from possible Taliban retribution.
Gen. Milley did not comment on Sayed’s case specifically, although people involved in the Special Immigrant Visa process described the certificate he signed for Sayed as routine.
Gen. Milley has spoken out about the need to ensure the safety of Afghan enablers. He said it is a “moral imperative” for the U.S. to “take care of those that have worked closely with us.”
Sayed is one of 726 applicants whose visa requests were denied or revoked in the second quarter of this fiscal year. The Biden administration is moving amid heavy criticism to address a backlog of about 18,000 applicants and announced that 700 Afghans who have been cleared to emigrate to the U.S. will be relocated to Fort Lee, Virginia, ultimately with 1,800 of their relatives.
Kim Staffieri, the founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, is advocating for Sayed and other Afghans whose lives are in danger and need visas. She said time is running out for them and appeals of their visa rejections could take years through the usual bureaucratic process.
“It’s often like starting the process all over again,” she said.
Ms. Staffieri speaks with Sayed daily and receives calls from others in his situation day and night. The calls, she said, are increasing as the U.S. military drawdown accelerates.
“It’s intense,” she said. “And relentless. I’m always waiting for their voice to go silent. That’s rough.”
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, said making revisions to the Special Immigrant Visa approval process is essential but too slow to help those trapped in Afghanistan.
“It isn’t going to help now,” Mr. Crocker said at a recent panel discussion. “We have got to resort to emergency measures. We need to drop requirements for all 14 or 13 boxes to have been checked. We need to get these people to safety and then sort it out.”
Lawmakers welcomed the administration’s announcement about relocating some applicants to Fort Lee. Still, some of them fear the notoriously cumbersome visa process will continue to hinder efforts to get the remaining applicants to safety.
“While this announcement is a positive step towards getting some SIV applicants to safety, the lack of a plan for the remaining SIV applicants still waiting to complete the vetting process is deeply concerning,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “This has been an extremely haphazard withdrawal from the beginning, and the Biden administration’s inability to provide a detailed strategy on how they will support and protect our remaining Afghan partners is unacceptable.”
The House and Senate have proposed legislation to streamline the process and increase the number of Special Immigrant Visas. But with an approval process that takes an average of 703 days and a situation on the ground that becomes less stable by the day, the U.S. is working against the clock.
“This is a real crisis situation,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said during a panel discussion last week hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And so we’ve got to be creative about how we address it and recognize that the bureaucracy may have originally been set up because of certain circumstances, but this is a situation now where we’ve got to look for ways to make the bureaucracy work to help those people who are in danger.”
The White House recently announced Operation Allies Refuge to relocate approximately 2,500 Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas. The majority are slated to be relocated to third countries to await approval to come to the U.S.
Ms. Staffieri said the Special Immigrant Visa process is the State Department‘s most restrictive, but she estimates that 60% to 75% of those denied eventually will receive approval. That points to a tendency to deny applicants for illegitimate reasons, she said.
Sayed relocated his family to Kabul after it became too dangerous to stay in his rural hometown. He said it was widely known that he had worked as an interpreter.
The city would provide him anonymity, he said, but it is no longer safe to take his two children to a playground. He no longer works. He doesn’t feel comfortable stepping out for just a few minutes to have a smoke.
He said the situation has deteriorated quickly since the military withdrawal was announced. The Taliban have set up checkpoints on the highway in his home province and are becoming more active in Kabul.
“They are active all over Kabul,” he said. “They have lists of everybody. They know who is working where and who is living where.”
He said the Taliban do not operate as openly in Kabul as they do in other areas, but recent events raise concern.
“They shoot people. Then they go away,” he said. “They shoot people on the street. They shoot people in the bazaar.”
Sayed had submitted several letters of recommendation from military supervisors with whom he had worked, as well as several certificates of appreciation. One was from his time with Coalition Joint Task Force Phoenix in 2003. But the accolades seem to carry little weight in the State Department.
Sayed was given 120 days to appeal, but he had no details about the reason for the reversal. He could do little but reconnect with those who had already provided recommendations.
Sayed also contacted the contracting company that employed him as an interpreter and was assured that his human resources file had no derogatory information.
The denial rate is just one of many issues with the Special Immigrant Visa process but complicates the proposed evacuation planning.
Sayed and others who have been denied will likely not be eligible for the initial flights out of Afghanistan while their appeals are under review. Threats against these Afghans will likely continue as their cases are adjudicated.
Geography also will play a key role in how appeals are meted out for applicants if they are evacuated before receiving “chief of mission” approval.
The administration has hinted at relocating applicants to third countries rather than to U.S. territories, but advocates say the prospect would provide only a thin safety net and would not protect those who are initially denied a visa.
“We are quite aware of the denial rate because of the systemic issues with the SIV process,” Jill Marie Bussey, director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said during the CSIS panel discussion. “And so that is why we are advocating for evacuation to Guam or [other] U.S. territory, where individuals would be able to access other forms of protection if they were — if their cases are denied and they would be able to access legal counsel to help them through the application process.”
Ms. Staffieri is adamant that the applicants be evacuated to the U.S. rather than to third countries, which provide no guarantee not to send them back to Afghanistan to await their appeals.
Janice Jacobs, former assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the State Department faces significant legal challenges and cannot guarantee visas for all applicants.
Some, she said, will be denied for legitimate reasons. Bringing them to the U.S. before their visas are approved could run afoul of the department‘s “non-reviewability” doctrine.
“When decisions on visas are made overseas, denials cannot be challenged in U.S. courts,” Ms. Jacobs said. “Once you get them on U.S. soil, denials can be and probably will be taken into U.S. courts. And that is — that’s a serious concern for the State Department.”