One day after the Taliban seized control of the Afghan government, the Biden administration found itself struggling to explain why local allies like interpreters, drivers, security guards and fixers had been left behind.
The Biden administration’s justification—that many of the Afghans who had risked their lives to aid the U.S. military actually wanted to stay—left aid workers, refugee advocates and members of Congress gobsmacked.
The truth, those advocates have told The Daily Beast, is simple and stark: that they simply can’t pay for it.
“We don’t know of any SIV recipients that wanted to stay in Afghanistan,” said James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind, a group that works to aid Afghan and Iraqi interpreters as they resettle in the United States. “The reason they haven’t quote-unquote ‘exercised the right’ is because they don’t have the money.”
That fact was wholly absent from President Joe Biden’s speech on Monday, when he attributed the lack of evacuation to some kind of hopeful, last-ditch Afghan nationalism.
“I know that there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said in a speech on Monday that largely laid the blame for the fall of Afghanistan at the feet of the country’s own security forces. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, ‘a crisis of confidence.’”
Advocates, members of Congress, and nonprofit organizations that work on behalf of translators and interpreters in conflict zones were baffled by the president’s contention, telling The Daily Beast that they had never encountered any successful SIV applicants who turned down a chance to leave the country—thereby escaping potentially deadly retribution from the Taliban—voluntarily.
“The administration’s claim that many Afghans did not want to leave the country earlier is inconsistent with our experience,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, who said that the Afghans her organization was working with were “desperate” to leave Afghanistan and were being blocked by a visa backlog that now tops nearly 70,000 applicants.
“Since the moment that we announced we were fully withdrawing, I have not heard of a single human being that was like, ‘Oh no, I want to stay and hedge my bets with the Taliban,’” said one congressional aide whose boss has been lobbying the administration to bring SIV applicants to safety. “That’s insane.”
There are an estimated 18,000 Afghans seeking a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which is provided to Afghan nationals who worked on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan or served as interpreters for American military personnel. Of those who have been granted the visa, only half were able to exercise their right to come to the United States before the Afghan government collapsed—mostly, advocates say, because most of them just can’t afford to leave.
Under normal circumstances, once successful applicants for an SIV receive their visas from the U.S. embassy for themselves and their family, they either purchase airline tickets for a commercial flight out of Afghanistan. But those flights can cost upwards of $2,000 per ticket, in a country where the median household income is barely $4,100 per year. Even for a lone SIV applicant, the price of safety is often out of reach. For a family of five, it’s nearly impossible to leave without obtaining a loan—meaning that even upon reaching safety in the United States, they are burdened with enormous debt.
Even American citizens are being stuck with an extraordinary bill upon being airlifted out of Afghanistan. On Aug. 14, as Kabul fell to the Taliban, the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council released a security alert informing Americans abroad that “repatriation flights are not free, and passengers will be required to sign a promissory loan agreement and may not be eligible to renew their U.S. passports until the loan is repaid.”
For successful SIV applicants who cannot afford commercial flights—all of which have now been grounded anyway—they must apply for a seat on flights organized by the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations affiliate that provides migration services for refugees and displaced peoples. That process, Miervaldis said, can take up to five months—and that was before Afghanistan’s government collapsed.
“I guess it’s not enough for this administration to blame Afghans for losing the country because they just didn’t want it badly enough,” another congressional aide said caustically. “Now we have to blame people we fucking left there for us leaving them, too.”
The inability to pay for a flight out of Afghanistan, advocates said angrily, is not the same as choosing to stay—and is certainly different from doing so out of misplaced confidence that the Afghan central government would be able to beat back the Taliban.
“The administration did nothing,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the bipartisan working group that has been trying to persuade the administration to create an evacuation plan for months. “Now they’re trying to blame everybody but themselves when the only people that they have to blame is themselves.”
Over the course of several days, the White House repeatedly declined to provide the number of successful SIV applicants who it claims turned down the opportunity to leave Afghanistan because they believed that the now-collapsed government would protect them, although White House press secretary Jen Psaki doubled down on the president’s assertion that many SIV applicants chose to remain in the country rather than leave for safety.
“Of the initial numbers of SIV applicants that were granted visas, there was a good chunk of that number who did not take advantage of those visas and depart,” Psaki told reporters on Tuesday, adding that while that didn’t change the government’s obligation to protect those Afghans from a vengeful Taliban, it was “an important component of the story of the last six months.”
In the days since Biden first pushed the “still hopeful” message, the administration has tentatively retreated from that argument, instead emphasizing that a large-scale evacuation of the estimated 18,000 SIV applicants and their 53,000 family members could have further destabilized a tottering Afghan government, leading to an even swifter collapse.
“There was a concern that if we moved too quickly that it would undermine the confidence of the Afghan government and it would lead to a collapse even faster,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said during a State Department press briefing on Wednesday. “I appreciate that in hindsight people are saying: ‘Why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you do this?’… The focus now today is getting all those SIVs out. We are working day and night to make that happen.”
The administration’s primary concern, Sherman said, is in getting SIV applicants and American citizens out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. In a briefing with reporters on Thursday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby noted that since August 14, the United States has evacuated 7,000 noncombatants, with roughly 2,000 of those having been airlifted out over the previous 24 hours.
But refugee advocates note that many of America’s NATO allies had begun evacuating their own interpreters and vulnerable Afghans months before the United States’ withdrawal kickstarted the government’s collapse, with no apparent “crisis of confidence” that hastened the country’s fall into Taliban hands.
“Germany was the first—one month, maybe two months before everything went bad, saying ‘Hey we’re gonna evacuate 300 interpreters and staff.’ Italy had more people, and they flew their people out. Then Britain came along and said ‘Hey we’re gonna move as many interpreters out as possible,“ said Miervaldis. “NATO allies started this process earlier and the question is, why hasn’t the United States jumped on that effort, or followed their lead?”
“Our administration didn’t listen to their own DOD, their own IC and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have been warning for months about growing threats to our Afghan partners,” said McCaul. “I am grateful to our NATO allies who are doing all they can to get these people to safety and hope they continue to do so. But we cannot place the full weight of this burden on our NATO allies.”
International organizations that advocate on behalf of interpreters in conflict zones have called on the United States to bear most of the burden in rescuing Afghan allies from the crisis that the United States itself created. Growing political opposition to increasing refugee admissions, however, has forced those groups to reach out to Western allies to bridge the gap between Afghan need for safe haven and American willingness to provide it.
“The legislation for the SIV program has always been bipartisan; however, its implementation is too dependent on the political winds, even aside from its inherent dysfunctionalities,” said
Maya Hess, founder and CEO of Red T., a nonprofit that works to protect translators and interpreters in conflict zones. “We hope that the U.S. (and other NATO member states) will step up and honor their commitments.”