More than a year after the collapse of Kabul, Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war are still struggling to get special immigrant visas and only a small percentage have made it through the process, adding to the frustration of advocates who are trying to assist.
The State Department has granted only 18,000 of the visas to Afghans and their families since President Joe Biden took office -- a small fraction of the number applied for -- partly due to a short-staffed and dysfunctional system, according to a report by the agency's inspector general released this week. The slow pace continues despite major increases in applications for the special immigrant visas, or SIVs, in the months after the American military withdrawal.
Scores of veterans and Afghans have gathered at Capitol Hill and across the country in what they are calling a "fire watch" -- round-the-clock protests that are aimed at urging Congress to help Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. under special immigration provisions, but are now facing uncertainty as time runs out on those protections.
"This report doesn't say anything that we already didn't know," Matt Zeller, a U.S. Army veteran and Advisory Board Chair of the Association of Wartime Allies, told Military.com in an interview Thursday. "Veterans and people paying attention to this have been saying this for the better part of the last year -- not just the better part of a year but for the last decade."
"The SIV program is fundamentally broken," said Zeller, who's been traveling the country on the so-called fire watches, talking to politicians and communities about the problem.
Since the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021 and the militant Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has witnessed a breakneck economic crisis that has resulted in famine and political instability, all while the average Afghan ally worries about violent reprisals from the Taliban for helping the U.S. during the war.
For Afghans and their advocates, this famine and instability are an enormous source of fear, with Zeller adding that they are "going to do far more killing than the Taliban will ever be able to do in this time period."
Between October and May, the number of Afghan SIV principal applications more than doubled, according to the State Department watchdog report. At the same time, a Military.com analysis earlier this year showed that visa approvals dropped by a whopping 91% between fiscal quarters. There are an estimated 322,000 Afghans in the pipeline for a special immigrant visa, according to the inspector general.
The State Department watchdog looked into the agency's handling of the growing backlog of applications and found despite "minor" fixes to the application process, deficiencies remain, and the situation is not improving.
"These deficiencies have contributed to Afghan SIV applicant processing times exceeding the 9-month goal set by Congress and may have delayed vulnerable Afghan allies from reaching safety in the United States," according to the IG report, which was requested by Congress.
The department filled a long-vacant senior coordinating official position in the SIV processing office to remedy issues causing the backlog, but the official is "not sufficiently coordinating and monitoring" fixes to the program, the IG found.
Overall staffing for the program is also insufficient, the watchdog reported. In January, the Afghan SIV unit only had eight employees; by summer, it had increased that to 42 personnel.
"However, the increase was not sufficient to address the existing application backlog while absorbing additional new applications," the report said. Despite adding even more personnel, the National Visa Center estimated last year that it would need 263 staff members.
In May, the National Visa Center's Afghan SIV email account had more than 325,000 unread messages, according to the report. The IG evaluators noticed that staff were still opening unread emails from August 2021 -- the month of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A State Department spokesperson, who spoke on background, told Military.com over email that the department "continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over the past two decades."
But the spokesperson also disputed the inspector general's findings, saying many were "premised on outdated information, failed to acknowledge prior efforts, employed incorrect legal conclusions, or mischaracterized ongoing efforts."
"Based on the department's comments, some of OIG's recommendations were resolved before the report was even finalized," the spokesperson said.
The State Department said it restarted SIV interviews and dramatically increased the number of staff dedicated to the program, including personnel responding to SIV inquiries and reviewing initial document submissions.
Military.com asked the State Department if it agreed with IG's estimate that 322,000 Afghans were seeking the special visas and for an updated number of Afghan SIV employees the department has hired, but did not receive a response by publication.
The combination of the backlog and the uncertainty has left Afghans -- and their veteran allies -- in a perpetual state of urgency that has been met with a wall of bureaucracy, making both groups exhausted.
"Physically, mentally and spiritually, our community is tired," Zeller said of veterans and Afghan allies. "We've suffered a profound moral injury over the course of the last year."
Zeller, who is also the co-founder of No One Left Behind, has been at the forefront of advocating for the Afghan Adjustment Act to pass in Congress -- a piece of legislation that would ensure some better footing for the thousands of Afghans evacuated to the U.S. after the fall of Kabul.
The bill took a hit last month when it was not included in a must-pass Congressional measure to prevent the government from shutting down. Advocates are now looking at revisiting the push in December, when two other must-pass bills will be on the table.
Zee, an Afghan who worked with U.S. Special Forces and is still trapped in the country, agreed to speak under a pseudonym for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. He told Military.com that his years-long effort to get an SIV does not look any more promising than when he first applied in 2018.
"The State Department should not play with our lives and evacuate us ASAP," he said, adding that efforts by the American supervisors he worked for in Afghanistan have been helping him maintain hope. "They are the ones who always help me."
Military.com verified Zee's work with the U.S. through documentation he has previously provided.
"I just breathe for a living and cannot stay in one place," he told Military.com over text message. "The Talibans [are still hostile] with the people who worked with U.S. forces."
Some Afghans who have made it stateside via the SIV program are still struggling to make progress for their families an ocean away.
"Having family members in Afghanistan and [them] getting threatened by the Taliban on a daily basis gives you much depression and concerns," Said Noor told Military.com in an interview. "But on the whole, your family's lives are in the hands of the State Department."
Noor successfully earned an SIV about a decade ago and joined the U.S. Army almost immediately after landing in the States, hoping to make a better life for his family members -- many of whom experienced the tumultuous withdrawal, including the suicide bombing of Kabul Airport's Abbey Gate, which killed 13 U.S. service members and an estimated 170 Afghans.
Some of his most vulnerable kin are still battling challenges in Afghanistan despite provisions afforded to him as a U.S. citizen. And other members of his family -- who did make it to the U.S. -- are still fighting the SIV system even after their arrival.
"It took them a year for the State Department to get their paperwork and get everything together," he said of his family's current situation in Houston. "Imagine if they were outside of the United States, where you have no contact with the State Department to push that paperwork forward."
Editor's Note: The reporter who wrote this article has made efforts to assist Afghans after the fall of Kabul, to include "Zee," who is quoted in this story. The reporter's efforts were made prior to Zee's statements in this story, which were not given under any quid pro quo agreement.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.