Biden says some Afghans didn’t want to be evacuated, but 18,000 who are stuck applied for special visas that haven’t been processed

Biden
President Joe Biden Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images
  • Biden rejected widespread criticism over his failure to accelerate the evacuation of Afghan civilians.
  • For months advocates and lawmakers have called on him to implement a “whole of government” strategy.
  • Tens of thousands of Afghans have applied for special immigration visas but remain in limbo.
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President Joe Biden on Monday rejected widespread criticism over his failure to accelerate the evacuation of vulnerable Afghan civilians earlier this year, despite a long list of applicants and pleas from human rights activists and lawmakers in his own party.

Biden argued that some Afghans eligible for relocation didn’t want to leave their country prior to the government’s collapse and that the Afghan government didn’t want the US to telegraph defeat by speeding up evacuations. But experts estimate 18,000 Afghans and 53,000 of their family members have applied and are waiting for US special immigration visas (SIVs), which are granted to those who’ve aided the US’s military operations. They are stuck in limbo as the US government has delayed the processing of their applications.

“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said during his address to the nation from the White House on Monday afternoon. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”

Human rights advocates estimate there are between 50,000 and 80,000 Afghans, including family members, eligible for SIVs alone.

Biden conceded on Monday that the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan was “hard and messy,” but laid the blame for the Taliban’s takeover on failures of the Afghan government and military. The president has authorized 6,000 additional US troops to travel to Afghanistan to facilitate the evacuation of remaining Americans and allied civilians.

The Pentagon’s press secretary, John Kirby, told reporters on Monday that the US military could potentially relocate 30,000 Afghans in the coming weeks. But it’s unclear how the government plans to do this with two weeks until the full withdrawal of the military.

Since January, 2,871 Afghans have been allowed into the US under the SIV program. Just 84 additional Afghan refugees were resettled in the US last month – and a total of 485 Afghan refugees have been allowed into the US in 2021, according to the State Department. Over the last 15 years, almost 77,000 Afghans have resettled in the US through the SIV program.

Many of Afghanistan’s 35 million citizens – particularly women, religious minorities, and those who worked with the US – are likely at risk of persecution or violence under the Taliban’s rule.

Afghan activists, human rights advocates, former national security officials, and US lawmakers have for months called on the Biden administration to speed up and expand efforts to evacuate Afghans who would be particularly vulnerable under Taliban rule.

In a June 4 letter to Biden, a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers urged the president to roll out a “whole of government plan to protect our Afghan partners” in order to “streamline and accelerate” the special immigration visa process given the US’s short timeline for its full military withdrawal.

“The current SIV process will not work,” they wrote. “It takes an average of 800+ days, and we plan to withdraw in less than 100 days.”

Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would boost the number of special immigration visas for Afghans who served US forces during the 20-year-long conflict. Every House Democrat supported the legislation, which was authored by Rep. Jason Crow, an Afghanistan war veteran. Sixteen Republican lawmakers voted against the bill.

Former President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the number of refugees allowed into the US during his presidency, slashing the number of refugees by 80%. Biden initially extended Trump’s refugee cap of 15,000, but lifted it to 62,500 following widespread backlash. Still, the US is only on pace to resettle about 10,000 refugees this year, in part because the Trump administration dismantled much of the government’s refugee program.

In addition to advocates, a slew of Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to dramatically escalate its efforts to evacuate Afghans.

“At this moment, we must do everything we can to evacuate our allies and open our doors to refugees,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a Monday tweet.