How Trump broke the system that offers protection to Afghan allies

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take part in military training at the Abdullah Khil area of Dara district
Getty Images

The debate over the tragedy in Afghanistan has swirled around why the U.S. was so slow in evacuating Afghan allies eligible for Special Immigrant visas (SIVs). There are many reasons. One is that the Trump administration intentionally broke the SIV processing system in 2017 creating a huge backlog of Afghan partners who could have been evacuated earlier. 

The system was so gummed up that, by early 2021, the average wait time for an SIV had soared to well over two years. 

I managed SIV operations in Iraq and served as a senior official in the State Department refugee bureau during the Trump administration. I witnessed first-hand how this process could be fixed and how the Trump administration sabotaged it.

In 2006, Congress established SIVs for Iraqis and Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military and U.S. government agencies. Initially, SIV issuance was painfully slow. Only 371 Iraqi and Afghan principal applicants (plus family members) received SIVs in 2008, as former employees on the list were being targeted for murder in Iraq.  

In 2009, Samantha Power (now USAID administrator) was named senior coordinator for Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in Washington. I was posted to our embassy in Baghdad to head our small team that worked to break the SIV logjam.

Each night we went to sleep fearing someone on our SIV or refugee list might be assassinated. None was killed waiting for an SIV while we were there, but others have met more dire fates since.

Washington pushed and we worked closely with U.S. and UN agencies. Staff toiled day and night to sift through vetting databases. SIV issuance accelerated. The number of Iraqi SIVs increased from 172 in 2008 to 1,418 in 2009 and 940 in 2010. We made progress and saved lives.                            

In 2011, two individuals who entered the U.S. as refugees were indicted for seeking to aid terrorists in Iraq. The vetting system was tightened and SIV issuances decreased before picking up again.

In 2017, the new administration tried to implement a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and ordered the implementation of “extreme vetting” of foreign nationals, including SIV applicants.

Under the White House’s direction, and Department of Homeland Security leadership, Washington agencies proposed new and in some cases duplicative and impractical vetting procedures.

I briefed a senior appointee on the many additional steps, noting that we had accepted all agency recommendations. She answered that this was not enough and that the White House wanted something concrete. She asked if we could just exclude certain countries.  

The White House announced the new vetting system in an executive order on Sept. 24, 2017, including specific country exclusions.   

We knew the new procedures would slow processing, and that some added steps were frankly excessive and potentially counter-productive. Nonetheless, we thought the new system could work. We were wrong.

We did not anticipate that the Trump administration would systematically strip personnel in various agencies from refugee and SIV processing, reassigning law enforcement and intelligence officials to other duties. Even minor or ambiguous issues could bring vetting to a standstill.

In effect, President Trump and aide Stephen Miller greatly increased the vetting workload and then starved the system of resources to do the job.

The number of SIVs issued dropped by the hundreds. Iraqi SIVs fell from 557 in 2017 to 152 in 2019; the number of Afghan SIVs went from 4,120 in 2017 to 1,799 in 2020, as the number of applicants ballooned.

The processing time for Afghan SIV applicants in early 2021 reached 703 days.

“Extreme vetting” produced extreme delays that put our allies’ lives at risk and contributed to the desperate scenes we are witnessing in Kabul today.

In June, Secretary Blinken added 50 additional State Department personnel to process SIV applications. That is an important step. The U.S. Government also moved to eliminate unnecessary procedures and bring greater information technology resources to bear on the process. 

The security of Americans is paramount and vetting of refugees and SIV applicants must be rigorous. But that process is highly effective. The Cato Institute estimated in 2019 that the chances of an American being killed in a terror attack by a refugee were one in 3.8 billion.

Many factors contributed to the SIV backlog that resulted in the desperate crowds at Kabul’s airport, including delays due to COVID-19 and incomplete applications. But thousands of SIV applicants should have and could have been moved sooner if the Trump administration had not deliberately broken the SIV processing system. 

Mark C. Storella is professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, served as ambassador to Zambia and was deputy assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration from 2016-2018.

Tags Afghan allies afghan interpreters Afghanistan conflict Afghanistan War Donald Trump Iraq War Samantha Power SIVs Special Immigrant Visas Stephen Miller Taliban Trump muslim ban

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