WASHINGTON – More than 120,000 people of all nationalities were evacuated from Kabul Airport as the US military withdrew, but initial figures suggest that, according to the Biden administration and estimates, only about 8,500 of those who left Afghanistan in recent months Afghans were of supporters.
That is a small percentage of the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the US government or US organizations applying for special US visas, and an even smaller percentage of eligible Afghans.
When the US military mission ended last month and the Taliban marched into Kabul, the Biden government said the evacuation efforts would primarily evacuate American citizens and Afghan “partners” who are so-called special immigrants. have applied for Visa (SIV).
By May, about 18,000 to 20,000 Afghans working with U.S. troops and diplomats had applied for SIVs, according to the government. Including their family members, the pool of Afghans in the SIV program was at least 70,000 and probably higher, according to refugee organizations.
However, according to estimates by non-governmental organizations and advocates, as well as the figures published so far by the Biden government, only about 8,500 Afghans appear to have made it on evacuation flights that began in July.
The Pentagon announced last week that nearly 7,000 Afghans had been evacuated to bases in the United States, with last troops departing.
It is unclear whether all of these evacuees were in the SIV program. US officials have yet to provide an overall estimate of the number of Afghans evacuated to the US or third countries at present.
However, proponents say up to 265,000 Afghans and their families may have been eligible for some form of US visa because of their work with US government and non-governmental organizations over the past two decades.
The SIV program was launched more than a decade ago to help relocate Afghans to the United States at risk because of their work with the US military. However, the program was plagued by bureaucratic delays, with some applicants waiting years for their papers to be processed.
In addition to the 70,000 or more Afghans admitted to SIVs or for whom an application was pending, another pool of Afghans and their families – perhaps another 50,000 people – were eligible for the program because of their work with the U.S. government, but did not apply or were turned down for unknown reasons, according to an estimate by the Association of Wartime Allies, which works with Afghan allies.
That number includes Afghans who have served in the US military or other government agencies for the past 20 years, as well as their immediate family members, the group found.
Regardless, large numbers of Afghans who were not eligible for SIVs but were eligible for other forms of US expedited visas due to their association with US-funded groups or projects have not been evacuated. That group, including families, could include an additional 145,000 Afghans, the AWA estimates. The AWA figures do not provide any information about how many made it out of Afghanistan, wanted to leave, applied for an exit visa, or had their applications rejected. This class of prospective evacuees was only recently approved for US expedited visas, so there is little data on applications and acceptances.
The AWA said it based its estimates on a review of publicly available data published in reports from the Department of Defense, the Department of State and other non-governmental and research organizations.
The research was overseen by a professional demographer and faculty from American University, said an AWA advisory board member.
A State Department spokesman said the Biden government “cannot currently provide accurate statistics on the processing … because our focus was on executing one of the largest airlifts in history.”
“Faced with significant challenges, the Biden administration has demonstrated its inviolable commitment to the thousands of brave Afghans who have stood by the United States over the past two decades,” the spokesman said.
However, the government has been harshly criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and by veterans groups for how the evacuation was handled, with critics accusing the White House of abandoning Afghans who risked their lives for the United States.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Chris Purdy of Human Rights First, who along with other supporters had urged the government months earlier to initiate an evacuation.
“This result was completely avoidable. If the government had listened to the many organizations and individuals that have called for an evacuation since the withdrawal plan was first announced in April, the evacuation could have taken place in parallel with the US military withdrawal rather than after, ”said Adam Bates, Policy Counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government inherited a significant backlog of applicants for the SIV program when he took office, as well as a Covid-19 outbreak in Afghanistan that hampered the embassy efforts to process visas.
Despite these challenges, “we have dramatically accelerated SIV processing and made an unprecedented and sustained effort to get Afghan special immigrants to safety,” the spokesman said in an email.
President Joe Biden defended his handling of the U.S. troop withdrawal, saying Tuesday that starting the evacuation earlier would not have changed the outcome. In either scenario, there would have been a rush to the airport and staying longer would have escalated the conflict with the Taliban, Biden said.
The president called the evacuation effort an “extraordinary success”. According to the government, US and Allied aircraft have evacuated more than 123,000 civilians from Kabul in the past few weeks, including several thousand US citizens. But that number includes nationals from NATO member states and other countries.