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Challenges Persist in Afghan Special Visa Program 2 Years After US Withdrawal

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Challenges Persist in Afghan Special Visa Program Two Years After US Withdrawal

Two years after the tumultuous and deadly US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the State Department’s watchdog agency has identified significant challenges that continue to plague the Afghan Special Visa Program. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on Thursday, shedding light on persistent issues hindering the program’s efficiency. Despite the State Department’s efforts to streamline the application process in early 2021, the report suggests that additional dedicated resources are essential to address the mounting backlog of SIV applications.

Challenges Persist in Afghan Special Visa Program 2 Years After US Withdrawal

Challenges Highlighted by the OIG Report:

  1. Backlog of Applications: The OIG report underscores that the surge in demand for SIVs following the US withdrawal overwhelmed the program. Although efforts were made to streamline the process, they proved insufficient in tackling the backlog. Without further resources, this backlog will continue to pose a significant challenge.
  2. Lack of US Presence: The absence of a US diplomatic ground presence in Afghanistan exacerbates the situation. Applicants rely on Taliban cooperation to leave Afghanistan and reach a US diplomatic post for visa processing, which has implications for their safety and freedom of movement.
  3. Strategic Performance Management: The OIG report also criticizes the lack of a strategic performance management approach by the State Department to resolve the backlog and improve the program. It recommends the adoption of such an approach, a recommendation with which the department concurred.

Challenges Persist in Afghan Special Visa Program 2 Years After US Withdrawal

Current Status and Concerns:

As of August 1, 2023, nearly 34,000 SIVs have been issued to principal applicants and their eligible family members. However, as of April 2023, the OIG report estimates that more than 840,000 principal applicants and their family members remain in Afghanistan, though it’s unclear at what stage of the application process they are. Those attempting to leave the country independently face heightened risks of Taliban retaliation.

The Biden administration has faced intense scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for not evacuating SIV applicants and vulnerable Afghans sooner. The report acknowledges that the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to processing delays but indicates that the backlog persisted despite efforts initiated in February 2021.

The report also highlights staffing issues within the Afghan SIV unit. While the unit expanded significantly in early 2021, it failed to increase staffing when faced with a surge in applications later in the year. As of January 2023, the unit was seeking to hire around 100 personnel to assist with employment verifications. Without this additional staff, processing all current applicants awaiting COM (chief of mission) approval would take 3 to 5 years.

Challenges Persist in Afghan Special Visa Program 2 Years After US Withdrawal

Conclusion:

The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program continues to face formidable challenges, from an overwhelming backlog of applications to the lack of a US ground presence in Afghanistan. The OIG report underscores the necessity of dedicated resources, a strategic performance management approach, and increased staffing to ensure the timely and safe processing of SIV applicants. Amidst concerns about the security of those left behind in Afghanistan, addressing these challenges remains an urgent priority.

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FAQs: Challenges in Afghan Special Visa Program After US Withdrawal

Q1: What is the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program? A1: The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program is a U.S. government initiative designed to provide visas to Afghan nationals who have worked alongside the U.S. military and government in Afghanistan and face threats due to their association with the United States.

Q2: What did the State Department’s watchdog agency find in its report? A2: The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that, despite efforts to streamline the SIV application process, significant challenges persist in the program. These include a substantial backlog of applications, the lack of a U.S. diplomatic presence on the ground in Afghanistan, and the absence of a strategic performance management approach.

Q3: How did the surge in demand for SIVs affect the program? A3: Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was a surge in demand for SIVs, leading to a backlog of applications. Efforts to address this backlog, initiated in February 2021, were insufficient, and the OIG report suggests that additional resources are needed to resolve this issue.

Q4: How does the lack of a U.S. presence in Afghanistan impact the SIV program? A4: The absence of a U.S. diplomatic ground presence in Afghanistan means that Afghan SIV applicants rely on cooperation from the Taliban to leave the country and reach a U.S. diplomatic post for visa processing. This dependence on the Taliban has implications for the safety and freedom of movement of these applicants.

Q5: What recommendations did the OIG report make? A5: The OIG report recommended that the State Department develop and implement a strategic performance management approach to address the backlog and improve the program. The State Department has concurred with the intent of this recommendation.

Q6: How many SIVs have been issued, and how many applicants remain in Afghanistan? A6: As of August 1, 2023, nearly 34,000 SIVs have been issued to principal applicants and their eligible family members. However, as of April 2023, the OIG report estimates that more than 840,000 principal applicants and their family members remain in Afghanistan. It is unclear at what stage of the application process these individuals are.

Q7: Why has the Biden administration faced scrutiny over the SIV program? A7: The Biden administration has faced scrutiny from lawmakers for not evacuating SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghans sooner during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. There were concerns about leaving behind those who had worked with the U.S. during its two-decade military campaign in Afghanistan.

Q8: What role did COVID-19 play in the SIV program backlog? A8: The OIG report acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to processing delays in the SIV program. It disrupted the interview process and created a substantial backlog. Efforts to mitigate these delays were initiated in February 2021, but the backlog persisted.

Q9: What staffing issues were highlighted in the report regarding the Afghan SIV unit? A9: The report noted that the Afghan SIV unit expanded significantly in early 2021, but its staffing level stagnated when faced with a surge in applications later that year. As of January 2023, the unit was seeking to hire around 100 personnel to assist with employment verifications.

Q10: What percentage of applicants typically qualify for the SIV program after the COM stage? A10: Historically, about 50 percent of applications reviewed at the chief of mission (COM) stage do not qualify for the SIV program. This highlights the importance of thorough screening and verification processes in the program.

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