The State Department on Friday announced the suspension of all visa operations at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, further diminishing hope of escape for interpreters and other Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort and face Taliban retribution after the troop pullout.
The embassy will stop processing visas on Sunday in response to rising COVID-19 cases throughout Afghanistan, said the department.
The announcement came less than a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to significantly expediting visa processing for those vulnerable Afghans.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee who has championed the Afghan allies, demanded swift action from the Biden administration to fix the visa holdups.
“I have already called on President Biden to direct the Pentagon and the State Department to evacuate any person who has reached a sufficient stage in the security vetting process to a third country to finish their visa processing before the U.S. finishes the military retrograde,” he said. “With this latest setback in visa processing, I also now believe President Biden should explore the option of humanitarian parole, which has been utilized in past refugee crises, for that same group of Afghans awaiting the final stages of visa processing.”
“These Afghans will have a bullseye on their backs from the moment we leave the country,” he said. “If President Biden abandons them, he is signing their death warrants.”
The State Department’s announcement did not state how long the cessation of visa processing was expected to last.
The Washington Times reported last week that the State Department is sitting on a backlog of 18,000 applications for special visas to clear the Afghan allies to relocate to the U.S., leaving those collaborators at risk of retaliation by the Taliban.
The effort to clear the backlog would require a significant improvement in the application processing time for Special Immigrant Visa program run by the State Department, according to advocates who say the program has long been an afterthought for U.S. officials.
James Miervaldis of No One Left Behind, a group that advocates for interpreters who worked for the U.S. during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said the State Department would need to process as many applications in a month as the department processed in a year to meet the withdrawal deadline.
As the pace of the withdrawal continues to accelerate toward President Biden’s Sept. 11 pullout deadline, the Pentagon has proposed alternatives plans to rescue Afghan allies, though critics say the administration has acted too slowly.
Mr. McCaul also pressed Mr. Blinken on the matter during a recent hearing.
“Just last week, Secretary Austin ordered Gen. McKenzie to develop a plan to evacuate these people. But we need a place to temporarily house them while their visas finish processing, which falls within the State Department,” Mr. McCaul said during his questioning, referring to Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. “And most importantly, we need President Biden, as Commander in Chief, to give the order.”
Mr. Blinken offered few details on evacuation plans but expected to expedite processing over the summer.