Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday acknowledged significant failures in his department’s Special Immigrant Visa program designed to bring vulnerable Afghan allies to safety in the United States, but pledged that officials are still working to help the thousands of individuals still trapped in Afghanistan.
“We continue to process as many SIV applications as possible,” he said in a news conference just four days after the massive U.S. evacuation operation in Afghanistan ended.
“We’ve now learned from hard experience that the process was not designed to be done in an evacuation emergency. There are lessons here that we need to learn, and that we will learn, even as our work continues.”
U.S. officials have said at least 8,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants have arrived in the United States in recent weeks as American military forces evacuated more than 130,000 individuals from Afghanistan amid the fall of the democratic government there.
But earlier in the week, a State Department official told reporters in a private briefing that officials believe “the majority” of Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their families did not escape the country before the Aug. 31 end to American military operations there.
Blinken said he could not provide a specific number of SIV evacuees.
“Of the people who have been evacuated, the vast majority are Afghans at risk,” he said. “And of those, some significant number will be people who hold an SIV or those in the pipeline.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has received significant criticism over the issue of allies at risk from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who say that individuals who provided key translator skills and other intelligence help have been overlooked or ignored in the broader plan to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan.
But Blinken defended his agency’s work on the issue, saying that staff has been working furiously on processing applications since the spring.
“When we took office, we inherited a backlog of more than 17,000 applicants,” he said. “The program was basically in a dead stall.
“I directed significant additional resources to the program. … By May, we had reduced the average processing time for Special Immigrant Visas by more than a year. Even in the midst of a COVID surge in June, we continued to issue visas. And we went from issuing about 100 Special Immigrant Visas every week in March to more than 1,000 a week in August.”
Earlier on Friday, Blinken and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough held a meeting with veterans groups who for weeks have been petitioning the State Department to streamline processing of those visas, arguing that the cumbersome bureaucracy involved may result in lost lives.
“We will partner with them on how to help SIV candidates in Afghanistan,” Blinken said. “They have ideas that we’ll be incorporating into the work that we’re doing. We have a relocation task force that is up and running right now, and the information, the ideas that we’re getting from the veterans community are being put into that process.”
State Department officials also remain in contact with several hundred American citizens in Afghanistan, at least some of whom wish to leave Afghanistan but cannot because of fear of Taliban reprisal.
“There are a lot of extremely complex logistical issues to address and coordinate,” Blinken said. “We’re working through them as quickly and as methodically as we possibly can.”
U.S. military officials and the White House have said the State Department will serve as the lead for future evacuation efforts. State Department officials have promised to open pathways into Afghanistan for those individuals through “diplomatic” methods, but have yet to provide specific details on what that work may include.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.