The State Department is under pressure to find creative solutions to aid vulnerable Afghans who were left behind in the evacuation now that the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan or any obvious way to facilitate their exit.
While the Biden administration evacuated about 125,000 people from Afghanistan last month, independent analysts estimate that more than 100,000 people who fall into a priority for evacuation were left behind — a group that includes activists, those who assisted the military and individuals who worked with U.S. aid and development organizations.
The U.S. withdrawal has put the State Department in a consular conundrum: With no presence on the ground, it's significantly harder to issue visas and assist with departures, particularly for people who may have destroyed their documents for fear of retaliation from the Taliban.
Congressional staff and advocates have been meeting with State Department officials to discuss evacuation plans for the thousands of vulnerable Afghans who are still stuck in the country. But some worry that those challenges might mean thousands are left in limbo.
“It's very clear how much energy is being put into the needs of those already evacuated from Afghanistan and not enough energy is being put into those who are still in Afghanistan, and that is a big concern for those of us still in touch with those left in Afghanistan,” Jennifer Quigley, senior director of government affairs with Human Rights First, told The Hill.
“Ten percent of their energy is on the super complex and difficult question of dealing with a lot of people that were left behind.”
The U.S. is running its diplomatic efforts through a remote mission in Doha, Qatar. But the distance is making it difficult to carry out a process that traditionally relies on in-person interviews and physical visas sealed into a person’s passport.
“We are currently unable to provide consular services for immigrant visa applicants, including Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), in Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email to The Hill, referring to visas for those who assisted the U.S. military.
“However, we are developing processing alternatives so that we can continue to deliver this important service for the people of Afghanistan. ... This effort is of utmost importance to the U.S. government.”
But an email to congressional staff last week reviewed by The Hill showed the State Department largely declined to consider other methods for processing visas, writing that the law requires people to sign visa applications in front of a consular officer. It also noted virtual interviews would not accelerate things, stressing that applicants would still need their fingerprints taken at a U.S. consulate.
And some congressional aides on a recent call with State Department officials said they left concerned about the agency’s commitment to resolving the problem.
“The conversation started off with a baseline of ‘This is really hard, and we should essentially throw our hands in the air and hope it gets better’ and we have to say, ‘No you’re the U.S. government and you can do things and should actively do things,” said one person familiar with the discussion.
Though the U.S. situation in Afghanistan is challenging, it's not unprecedented. The U.S. for years has maintained diplomatic back channels with Iran, Cuba and other countries where the U.S. has no embassy.
“We’ve suggested specific cases in history, including right now, when the U.S. has been able to do something without having a physical, in-country presence and need to assist people in getting to the U.S.,” Quigley said.
In such cases, the U.S. often has a protecting power agreement with another country that has a physical diplomatic presence. That country’s embassy will then host a U.S. special interests section that can be staffed by Americans or operated by diplomats of the host country.
The U.S. did this for years in Cuba, with the Swiss hosting a U.S. special interests section on the island while Cuba ran their diplomatic efforts in the U.S., first through the Czech Embassy and then later by the Swiss starting in 1977. The practice ended in 2015.
The Swiss also have a U.S. special interests section in Iran, while Pakistan hosts Tehran’s efforts in Washington.
Advocates have been pushing the U.S. to consider a similar approach with Afghanistan, but getting another country to take on some U.S. operations could present its own complications.
“In Afghanistan the government is so not yet organized, so disorganized, that no embassy may be having very clear lines of communication with the new government,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University who wrote a book about backchannel negotiations with Cuba.
“You need some kind of formal representation on the ground,” he added.
Even if the U.S. could make such an arrangement, the workload could be prohibitive for countries that likely have a smaller presence in Afghanistan.
“It’s possible third countries could look at some kind of documents and say yes they’re real or no they’re not, but I’m not sure another country would want to do that given the number of Afghans trying to get in,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who now serves as president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
“If you look at one or three every now and again that's one thing. But would you look at the first 100,000 that come through your door? Maybe not if you're an embassy with five people.”
Neumann said the U.S. could also have an embassy serve as a drop-off point for couriers to send documents for review to Doha.
“I don’t know if you can start using DHL or some other company and then use them to ship documents, but it gets really hard after that,” he said.
In lieu of directly issuing visas on the ground, some experts are hopeful the U.S. can get some sort of document to those who are able to travel to nearby countries, signaling they are likely to be able to secure passage to the U.S.
“Most of the surrounding countries are not real keen to have a big batch of refugees,” Neumann said, which is why some sort of document is important in order for those countries to grant Afghans entry.
Quigley said her group has been encouraging the U.S. government to do more things electronically, whether it be visa interviews or ditching visas and simply providing some sort of digital letter or ID that Afghans could present at a neighboring country, showing they have plans for continuing travel.
Things that have to be done in person, like biometric screening, could happen at an embassy there or upon arriving in the U.S., she said.
“State did everything electronic during the evacuation anyway. People getting into the airport — it wasn’t that they had a physical document, they had electronic documents,” she said, referring to the notice the State Department would give directing people to the airport.
One possible model for providing travel documents but that still puts the processing burden on the U.S. is the Lautenberg Program, established in 1989. Designed to help Jews fleeing the Soviet Union who wouldn’t otherwise meet refugee criteria, it was expanded to include religious minorities in Iran in 2004.
Before the program was shelved under the Trump administration, a U.S.-based sponsor would file a petition for someone in Iran, initiating a State Department review of the application. Once approved, the Iranian citizen would get a visa from the Austrian Embassy in Tehran and finish processing at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna before heading to the United States.
“The mechanism that could work is some sort of sponsorship program,” said Melanie Nezer, a spokesperson for HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
That would allow the U.S. to do the bulk of screening and document review abroad while asking for a critical — but not burdensome — step from another country.
“The key would be to find a country with embassy functions in Afghanistan and have the Afghan government agree,” she said.
That’s a daunting task at this stage, with the U.S. struggling to get the Taliban to agree to allow non-U.S. citizens to board flights in Mazar-i-Sharif.
But Quigley said the U.S. bears a responsibility for evacuating those who remain behind after President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE made public promises to do so.
“You got how many people out in a two-week time frame under craziest, hardest of conditions?” she said. “You can do this.”