The way a country winds down a war in a faraway place and stands with those who risked their own safety to help in the fight sends a message to the world that is not soon forgotten.
As President Obama announced last week, the U.S. will withdraw all but 9,800 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and by the end of 2016, only a small force will be left at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As the withdrawal proceeds, the United States is in danger of sending the wrong message to Afghan interpreters and others who risked their lives helping our troops and diplomats do their jobs in Afghanistan over the last decade.
The State Department and other government agencies have over the last year improved the path to safety for record numbers of our Afghan allies, but now we need urgent help from Congress to continue that progress and fulfill our obligation.
The Afghan special immigrant visa program was established by Congress in 2009 to help Afghans whose work for the U.S. government put them in danger of retaliation. The program, modeled after one for Iraqis, was designed to identify people who faced genuine threats and to speed their entry to this country.
The effort got off to a slow start. Delays in processing applications and lack of transparency in making decisions created problems. Bluntly stated, the process wasn’t keeping up with the demand. A full-scale State Department review revealed statistics and anecdotes that highlighted unconscionably long processing times for applicants, including on background checks conducted by other U.S. agencies. Some deserving people were simply falling through the cracks. This was unacceptable to me and to the president.
To fix it, the State Department first looked inward. We identified and dealt with inefficiencies and gaps in our own operation. We mobilized additional resources, particularly at the embassy in Kabul where staffers volunteered for extra duty and cut processing times in half.
We made the system easier to use for Afghans. U.S. diplomats moved around Afghanistan, explaining the rules and procedures to potential applicants. We encouraged people to apply early to maintain a steady flow of cases and minimize wait times. Congress helped by clarifying the rules about how applicants can demonstrate that they face threats.
Even as we streamlined the process, we applied strict safeguards to prevent anyone who posed a threat to the U.S. from slipping through the process. And, because the State Department is just one stop on a visa applicant’s journey from paperwork to port of entry, we worked with our interagency partners to help clear their backlogs as well.
The results have been dramatic. Nearly 5,000 Afghans, mainly interpreters and their family members, have received visas under the program since Oct. 1, 2013, compared with roughly 1,600 in the previous 12 months. More than 1,000 Afghan interpreters received visas in March and April alone.
This success has created a new challenge. At the current fast pace, we expect to reach the 2014 fiscal year visa cap of 3,000, authorized by Congress, sometime in July. This leaves us in danger of stranding hundreds of deserving Afghans until a new batch of visas is approved for fiscal year 2015. It’s an outcome that will be dangerous for applicants — and damaging to our national credibility the next time we have to rely on local knowledge.
Keeping our word requires passing legislation this summer to authorize additional visas for the remainder of this fiscal year and for the next fiscal year. We don’t want to lose the hard-won momentum or put lives at risk.
Fortunately, the special immigrant visa program has strong support among members of both parties. This is not a partisan issue. Nor is it a gift to Afghans. Rather, this effort fulfills the commitment to those who risked their lives working alongside Americans in Afghanistan.
At the State Department, we have done our best to honor that obligation. Now there is a unique opportunity for Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work together once again to authorize enough visas for this program. It’s the least we can do for our Afghan allies.
John F. Kerry is the U.S. secretary of State.