Funded by the U.S. government, I was hired along with two other consultants as instructors for an English literacy program in Baghdad. Our employer, a private American contracting company, helped obtain the required Iraqi visas. All three of us were U.S. passport holders. We flew from the U.S. to Jordan and then on to Iraq. When we landed at Baghdad International airport, the immigration officer refused us entry. With no understandable reason, we were unceremoniously led to the departure lounge and in no time dumped back in Jordan.
The next day we flew into Baghdad again with new Iraqi visas only to experience a second denial with no explanation. We then spent several days in Amman, waiting for instructions from our employer and new travel arrangements. Finally on the third flight in, we were admitted only upon the issuance of an “emergency” visa, acquired at the Baghdad airport from the immigration department. The officer gave no indication as to why this could not have been obtained before.
Aside from the fear we experienced, I could not help but think of the costs associated with our unexpected adventures: extra round trip airfares from Jordan to Iraq, hotels, taxis, international phone calls to the U.S., meals and incidentals, all of which quickly added up to several thousand dollars per person for which U.S. tax dollars paid.
Then there were the costs to our literacy program on the other end. Since we were denied entry twice we were unable to begin our instruction in Baghdad on time. With the Iraqi students arriving, who were government officials with little time to spare, our employer had to hire substitute instructors who were already in-country. Their salaries, accommodations and expenses were also added to the bill which went to the U.S. government.
In 2011 and 2012 in Afghanistan, I came across visa problems that were no better. For those of us Americans who were subcontractors to the U.S. government, we were initially granted a single-entry Afghan visa which was good for a six months stay. Ideally after being admitted in country, we could renew every six months for a six months multiple-entry visa. For some Americans this system worked but for a third of the ones I met, irrelevant for whom they worked, it did not. Those whose visa renewal was either critically delayed or denied had to fly to Dubai, travel by surface to Abu Dhabi and visit the Afghan consulate, hoping that at least a 90 day temporary visa would be granted.
Though the Afghan consulate usually issued this temporary visa, this was not and is not a permanent solution. There were Americans who had to travel back to Abu Dhabi every three months for the duration of their contracts.
On top of the obvious expenses: airfare, hotels, taxis, meals and incidentals, the visa problem causes overseas programs to be even less effective than what they might be, and demoralizes people on both sides of the classroom. The affected American could be the head of a critical training project. While he or she is away dealing with visa issues, the program in Afghanistan is disrupted. When there is a scramble to find a competent substitute or delay training, costs accumulate. There are fees associated with classroom reservations and students’ room and board. While these wait for the return of the vital American, dollars go up. Moreover, this American is still on the payroll while in the U.A.E., supposedly getting base salary and post differential for which no work was performed on the contract.
These are only a few examples that show how the lack of support from a host country adds to our costs and eventually, our national debt. If Iraq and Afghanistan want our money, their governments have to cooperate administratively. When this support does not happen, senior people in Washington from the U.S. ambassador and up must put pressure on the host country at a high level. Paying closer attention to resolving these problems is not too small a task, nor is ending the program altogether when there is lack of cooperation. Likewise our federal agencies should keep a tighter string on the dollars going out. Instead of nonchalantly accumulating costs, they should question these charges and when finding out the recipient country failed to comply, pull the string on funding that program.
Cutting the “fat” from our federal spending is never easy but there is some fat that is more justifiably cut than others. The high cost associated with obtaining Iraqi and Afghan visas is one of them. As there are still millions of federal dollars to be saved and the visa problems in these two countries not yet resolved, for the sake of not adding further to our national debt it is imperative our leaders in Washington take action now.
Wu is a former rule of law advisor in Afghanistan. A lawyer in Washington D.C., she has worked on development issues in Malawi, Kosovo, Philippines, Germany, and Iraq.