As evacuations from Afghanistan slow to a trickle, some ‘at risk’ allies may face long road to the United States

The Washington Post
13 Dec 2021
Aircrew members assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron help evacuees board a U.S. Air Force plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in August. (Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force/Associated Press)

When desperate Afghans fought their way into Kabul’s international airport during the last two weeks of August, most of those lucky enough to get past Taliban checkpoints, the crush of their panicked compatriots, and U.S. military and diplomatic gatekeepers found a spot on a departing airplane.

U.S. passports and visas paved the way for some. But many simply managed to get there, some with a slip of paper showing the right connections, and others with only the look of despair and determination on their faces.

Since the final military plane departed on Aug. 31, Biden administration officials from the president on down have repeatedly pledged to continue helping all “at risk” Afghans left behind.

But the fairly indiscriminate fire hose of departures in August has now become a painfully slow drip of prioritized passengers. U.S.-organized charter flights that began in late September have evacuated only about 3,000 Afghans, compared with tens of thousands in August.

The administration says the process is now limited by the realities on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, along with the constraints of U.S. immigration law and its own capacity to deal with the situation. It is prioritizing U.S. citizens and residents and those with special immigrant visas (SIVs) in their Afghan passports, indicating they had worked as interpreters or in other capacities for the U.S. government, or have progressed beyond a certain point in the SIV application process.

“The evacuation in August was of a mass quantity over a very short period of time,” a senior State Department official said. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to duplicate that scope and scale . . . when we don’t have people in the country, there’s not really a functioning airport, and arguably there are tens if not hundreds of thousands who would fall into the broad category of ‘at risk.’ ”

“We’re doing as much as we can, when we can,” said the senior official, one of a half dozen involved in the effort across the administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Critics blame the slowdown on what they say is a lack of official compassion, competence and fidelity to the administration’s own promises.

U.S. veterans have appealed on behalf of members of the Afghan security forces whom they trained and fought alongside. Universities and students have written to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging “immediate action to help save Afghanistan’s scholars, students, and civil society actors,” including women’s rights activists, from life, and possible death, under the Taliban.

“The White House, together with the State Department, have purposefully crafted the narrowest possible criteria for being evacuated to the U.S.,” said Alexa Greenwald, who heads evacuation efforts for Sayara International, one of a number of nongovernmental organizations working to get Afghans out of the country. “They want to resettle as few Afghans as possible.”

For some, the seeds of the current situation were sown early this year, when Biden ordered a full U.S. departure, set a quick deadline, and failed to start mass evacuations long before Taliban fighters reached Kabul on Aug. 15.

“It was just one bad decision after another,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And along the way, they repeatedly misled the public and made promises they failed to keep. It’s created a lot of distrust, both with these outside groups as well as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”

McCaul’s office, and those of many other lawmakers, continue to field appeals from desperate Afghans stuck inside the country.

Afghans sit in a U.S. military aircraft about to leave the airport in Kabul in August. (Shakib Rahmani/Getty Images)
An indefinite wait

What the U.S. government calls the August noncombatant evacuation operation, or NEO, brought more than 74,000 Afghans to this country. Most of them were neither citizens, U.S. residents nor SIV holders.

They were authorized for admission to the United States under a provision of U.S. immigration law called humanitarian parole, ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Aug. 23, while the NEO was underway. It allows admissions for “urgent humanitarian reasons” or “significant public benefit” to the United States.

Invoked at the discretion of the administration, humanitarian parole is rarely used for mass admissions. It allowed 130,000 Vietnamese into the country in 1975, and 6,600 Iraqis in 1996 after the Persian Gulf War.

As with those crises, the mass Afghanistan parole was temporary and applied only to those who left during the NEO. Advocates representing thousands of Afghans still inside the country have called for the administration to reopen it to allow them in.

But officials say parole is not a long-term solution. In addition to being politically unpalatable and beyond the capabilities of an intake system struggling with those already here, immigration law specifies that humanitarian parole is not to be used in place of the normal refugee process.

After medical screening, immunizations and security vetting, about 70,000 who received parole status were flown to the United States and distributed to military bases across the country for resettlement by nongovernmental agencies.

More than half of them have now been settled around the country, a process slowed by the inability of refugee agencies — with staff and capabilities shrunken after the Trump administration severely limited refugee admissions — to cope with the large numbers. The parole is good for two years, during which the Afghans can apply for permanent U.S. status.

Thousands of others evacuated during the NEO were on flights that landed in countries that responded to U.S. requests to temporarily take them, including Poland, North Macedonia, Albania, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Many of them are now stuck in those places, in part because there are not enough physicians with the necessary U.S. government certification, or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services vetters, available to deal with them.

Afghan refugees line up outside a distribution and donation center in Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey this month. (Barbara Davidson/Pool/Associated Press)

The U.S. plan, after the NEO, was to charter flights out of Afghanistan in a far more organized manner. But the numbers so far have been small, and seats have been given out in strict order of priority.

The chartered aircraft belong to Qatar Airways, the only carrier that has been permitted by the Taliban to land with any regularity in Kabul. Some weeks, there have been two flights, and other times only one.

“It seems they’ve drawn a line in the sand in who they want to take,” said one person involved in the private effort, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing U.S. authorities. “I get that there are lots of external limitations around the flights and bureaucracy, but there are also limitations that have been imposed internally.”

Who gets a seat is determined by the State Department, with first priority going to U.S. citizens, nearly all of them Afghan Americans, followed by permanent residents. As of Dec. 6, the United States had brought in 470 citizens and 417 residents along with their families, limited by U.S. law to spouses and minor children.

The administration has said that all of the American citizens it knows of in Afghanistan have now left or been given an opportunity to leave. Those who have chosen to stay, officials said, are primarily Afghans with ineligible extended family members they do not want to leave behind.

Most of those aboard the flights fall into the third priority category, those who hold physically or electronically issued SIVs or who have progressed beyond a certain point in the application process.

Others on the U.S. charters, or in spare seats on occasional Qatari government-organized flights that have their own lists of priority evacuees, include eligible family members left behind on previous flights, Afghan employees of the U.S. Embassy or other U.S. government agencies, or those for whom special pleading in the United States has succeeded.

Qatar has insisted that everyone on board one of its charter flights have a passport, both U.S. and Qatari officials said. Officials said that the Taliban has been surprisingly cooperative, for the most part, in issuing Afghan passports and has not, to date, refused to allow any manifested passenger to leave.

Young evacuees from Afghanistan sit in the entrance to a tent at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany in October. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

In the meantime, there are no commercial flights in or out of the country, and the already small number of charters is likely to shrink as winter sets in. The Kabul airport has no radar or air traffic control system, and flights can only land during the daytime. Set in a bowl amid mountain ranges, its visibility will decrease with the cold weather. The city is already becoming filled with winter smog and smoke as Afghans burn whatever they can find to stay warm.

When the snow and ice come, there is little besides shovels to clear the runways. There are no functioning aircraft de-icers in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Qatari officials.

At the current rate, it will take months, or perhaps years, to evacuate everyone in the three priority categories, let alone those who fall outside them.

“We are grateful that there are examples of people getting out,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a private group that is helping resettle Afghans who make it to the United States.

But “it’s troubling when you think of the denominator, which is not just tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of at-risk Afghans,” she said.

Some have been able to leave the country on their own, or with help from rescue and humanitarian organizations still operating inside the country. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 a day cross the largely desert terrain along Afghanistan’s western border to enter Iran, joining the several million Afghans already there, according to the Iranian government and to Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who visited both the western Afghan border area and Tehran in recent weeks.

Land borders to the north with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China are closed and heavily patrolled by those countries. Pakistan, to the east and south, has sporadically allowed Afghans to enter by land, but only those with preexisting visas or guarantees by countries such as the United States that they will leave immediately.

Some organizations have arranged charter flights from airports other than Kabul’s, primarily from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. But they have had great difficulty persuading other countries to let them land, and U.S. officials have declined to intervene to advocate for flights whose passengers they are unable to vet or vouch for with no presence on the ground in Afghanistan.

Some countries in Latin America and elsewhere have allowed entry in the belief — shared by many Afghans — that they are serving as a brief way station for more or less automatic entry into the United States, according to U.S. officials. Many may be disappointed.

A layer of fog and smoke is visible over a park in Kabul this month. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

At recent congressional hearings, senior officials have been criticized for failing to bring enough people to safety, while simultaneously risking the admission of terrorists.

“Hundreds, maybe thousands of Americans have been left behind to the enemy, where they still remain,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told Mayorkas when he testified last month, even as Hawley charged that the quick admission of so many Afghans as part of the NEO posed an “unbelievable” security risk.

Others say such disputes about numbers and eligibility, along with excuses about resettlement capacity, the law and an overburdened bureaucracy, should not distract from the larger question of what Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the “moral imperative” to do more for the Afghans.

“I really believe that some proactive and creative thinking, combined with a sense of urgency, could achieve better results,” Blumenthal, who has advocated on behalf of groups trying to secure U.S. support for private evacuation flights, said in an interview. “A great nation keeps its promises,” he said.

There are two avenues open to those “at risk” and still in Afghanistan, asylum or refugee admission, both of which require first getting out of Afghanistan, and both of which can take years. Although the administration has implemented measures to expedite both the refugee and asylum processes for Afghans, other laws and proposals over the past few months to ease their path to U.S. admission, including making all eligible for SIV status, have not succeeded.

In floor speeches Thursday, Blumenthal and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa), called for the administration to step up its efforts and break through red tape, and for Congress to stop dismissing legislation that would help.

But senior administration officials said that direct evacuation from Afghanistan will not pick up until airports are open, more flights are available, and the United States has more officials to process those who get out to a third country. Even then, one said, it could take years for the United States just to process the tens of thousands believed to be eligible for SIV status.

For everyone else — those who worked for a U.S. government agency or U.S.-funded organization, the U.S.-trained Afghan military commandos, the women, civil society leaders and journalists and many thousands of others who are believed to be at risk — there is likely to be a significant, if not an indefinite, wait. Some who make it out on their own, or with the help of advocates on the outside, may never be admitted.

Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for The Post. In more than three decades at the paper, she has served as bureau chief in Latin America and in London and as correspondent covering the White House, U.S. foreign policy and the intelligence community. 
Missy Ryan writes about diplomacy, national security and the State Department for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 to write about the Pentagon and military issues. She has reported from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Chile. 


As evacuations from Afghanistan slow to a trickle, some ‘at risk’ allies may face long road to the United States