A majority of the Afghan nationals who assisted U.S. forces and government were left behind in the country after American troops officially withdrew this week, a State Department official said on Wednesday, according to multiple reports.
U.S. forces left the country on Monday, marking an end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Many Afghans have worked with the U.S. during that time, serving as translators, interpreters and in other roles. Tens of thousands have applied over the years for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIV status, that would allow them and certain family members to come to the U.S. to escape potential retribution in Afghanistan for their work.
President Joe Biden and his administration have repeatedly promised to do right by these Afghans. But a State Department official said Wednesday that although the administration does not have precise figures, it’s likely that a “majority” of SIV applicants are still in Afghanistan ― meaning the U.S. did not help them evacuate before it ended its military presence. The anonymous official made the comment during a private briefing with reporters.
“I would say it’s the majority of them,” the official said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Just based on anecdotal information about the populations we were able to support.”
Refugee groups, veterans organizations and lawmakers have been highly critical of the Biden administration’s approach to evacuating SIV applicants, who could be in extreme danger if they remain in Afghanistan because of their work with the U.S.
Many advocates have sounded the alarm for months that the Biden administration needed to act more quickly to approve the visas and help people get out of the country. The Biden administration has argued that since former President Donald Trump decimated the SIV program and refugee resettlement in general, it wasn’t so easy to ramp it back up.
Overall, the U.S. facilitated evacuation of about 117,000 people who were not U.S. citizens from Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, although that figure includes more than just SIV applicants. More than 20,000 Afghan refugees were being housed at military bases within the U.S. as of Wednesday, with another 40,000 awaiting processing at military bases abroad, CBS News reported. All refugees and SIV applicants are extensively vetted.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a briefing later Wednesday that the department does not currently have specifics on how many evacuees are SIV applicants, but of about 31,000 people who arrived in the U.S. as part of the operation from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31, 77% were categorized as “Afghans at risk.” That includes SIV-holders. Many of the people evacuated have not yet made their way to the U.S., he said.
“It is fair to say that the vast majority of individuals who were evacuated as of Aug. 31 fall into the category of ‘Afghans at risk’ and many of them will be SIVs,” Price said.
Biden confirmed in a speech Tuesday that the U.S. will continue its work to help Americans, Afghan allies and other foreign nationals out of the country, now via diplomatic efforts rather than military ones.
SIV applicants are “on our priority list if they are still in Afghanistan to try to help them to evacuate if they so wish and if they are at risk,” State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria J. Nuland said during a briefing Wednesday.