Administration Faces 'Massive Logistical Undertaking' in Afghanistan
Officials blame President Biden and his predecessors for failing to tackle foreseeable and longstanding problems with Afghan relocation program.
The Biden administration is looking to surge resources to its efforts to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals who supported the government, facing a tight timeline and difficult circumstances exacerbated by operational neglect in recent months and years.
The government faces a major challenge to repatriate Americans in Afghanistan and process local citizens in the Special Immigrant Visa or other programs before the Aug. 31 deadline when the military is currently planning its complete departure. The State Department has temporarily paused bringing home its civilian staff, leaving behind a “core diplomatic presence” at the Kabul airport to help complete the evacuation. With 11,000 self-identified Afghans in the pipeline and potentially tens of thousands more joining U.S. citizens in seeking immediate departure, the Defense Department said on Tuesday it is increasing its capacity to airlift up to 9,000 people per day out of the country.
“This is a massive logistical undertaking,” said Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department, on Tuesday.
State has deployed a career Foreign Service Officer, John Bass, to Kabul to the operation and consular efforts related to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. He will use his managerial experience to handle the “nuts and bolts” of the initiative, Price said. He added that State is “surging consular affairs personnel” to augment the effort.
Part of that augmentation will involve volunteers from at least State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which are currently seeking employees to deploy to Qatar and various domestic locations to help process evacuated Afghans. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed employees on Tuesday that it too is seeking volunteers to support evacuation and resettlement efforts of Afghan nationals. USCIS already set up a field office at Fort Lee in Virginia, where the first SIV participants in the current evacuation were initially hosted.
“We are looking for volunteers from across the agency to support rapid response temporary on-site immigration processing and adjudications,” USCIS told employees in an internal email obtained by Government Executive. “Individuals will have the opportunity to work with the interagency partners, as well as other Department of Homeland Security USCIS colleagues to support this extraordinary initiative. Any position can apply.”
Afghans seeking Special Immigrant Visas begin their application process by filing a petition with USCIS. Those who arrive in the United States receive benefits through the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The government’s lack of preparation for this moment has been evident for years, according to those familiar with State decision making. Two inspector general reports have blasted the SIV program for its lack of leadership, an ill-defined mandate and insufficient resources. The more recent of those audits, released last year, found the initiative had a constant staffing level since 2016 that was “insufficient to reduce the SIV applicant backlog.” It also found other offices involved in the interagency and security check processes contributed to delays.
James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind, an organization dedicated to helping resettle Afghans who assisted the U.S. government and face danger as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan, said his organization has been advocating for a streamlined SIV program for three presidents and seven Congresses. The group submitted recommendations—which went ignored—for improving the lengthy and bureaucratic process, and for boosting staffing. Miervaldis added that there has "never been a single person in charge," meaning no one person could fight through the red tape to fix unnecessary hurdles.
Jerry Feierstein, an FSO for 41 years who served throughout the Middle East until his retirement in 2016 as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, stressed that the under-resourcing went "well beyond State." Other agencies, too, failed to invest in supporting the SIV program, leading to the program going underutilized. He faulted the Biden administration for failing to recognize those issues earlier and address them as soon as he made the decision to withdraw.
“It’s clear the administration should have done a better job preparing for this outcome,” Feierstein said. “The problem existed. It’s existed for a long time. It’s been compounded by the failures of the last four or five months.”
Price, the State Department spokesman, said the Biden administration has made improvements since taking office.
“This was a backlog that we inherited,” Price said, adding that State has “shaved significant processing times” for applicants.
State sent some staff to Kabul within the last six weeks in anticipation of an increased need to process Afghans seeking U.S. visas, but now those employees themselves have been evacuated or are operating out of the airport. Still, Miervaldis anticipated that the increased attention would help the process operate much more smoothly in the coming days.
“Based on the situation of what happened and the surge of resources, they have the ability and the capability now, with DOD supporting, to execute the full evacuation,” he said.
Feierstein added that State will face the additional challenge of determining where to send its staff based on where Afghans are relocated. The Pentagon is currently looking to identify two additional installations to bring in more Afghan nationals, allowing the department to temporarily house 22,000 people. Those individuals may face complications in providing the normal paperwork to prove their eligibility for the SIV or other programs, Feierstein noted, due to the chaos in Afghanistan and the urgency of the evacuation.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also said on Tuesday the Biden administration "did dramatically accelerate" the SIV program, though he conceded there have been hurdles in recent days.
"Well-drawn plans do not survive first contact with reality," Sullivan said. "They require adjustments, and we have made those adjustments." He added the chaotic scenes around Kabul "is not something that can fundamentally be avoided," but noted the administration had planned for that contingency and was prepared to bring in thousands of troops to allow for a mass evacuation.
That 6,000-troop deployment has allowed U.S. forces to secure the airport and take over its operations, allowing it to resume military and charter flights that will now carry 300 individuals per trip.
“Right now the main issue is an operational issue,” Sullivan said.
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