WASHINGTON — A senior State Department official said Wednesday that it appeared a “majority” of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military and applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) had not been successfully evacuated and remained in Afghanistan.
“I don't have an estimate for you on the numbers of SIVs and family members who are still there,'' said the senior official, who was in Kabul for the evacuation. ‘But I would say it's the majority of them, just based on anecdotal information about the populations we were able to support.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that of about 31,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan to the U.S. between Aug. 17 and Aug. 31, roughly 23,000 were Afghan allies and family members considered “at risk” from the Taliban.
The senior State Department official described a harrowing atmosphere during the evacuation, with officials forced to make snap decisions affecting the fate of Afghans desperately trying to flee Taliban rule.
“It wasn't pretty. It was very challenging,” the official said. “Everybody who lived it is haunted by the choices we had to make. And by the people we were not able to help depart in this first phase of the operation.”
The effort was hampered by the unpredictable role of the Taliban stationed along routes into the airport, the official said. The Taliban cooperated in some cases but in other instances blocked Afghan nationals from proceeding to the airport, the official said.
In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the true number of Afghan allies and other Afghans who made it out of the country remains murky.
On Tuesday, based on the initial figures then available from the Pentagon, NBC News reported that 8,500 Afghan allies had been evacuated. It was not clear if all of those 8,500 were applicants for SIVs or other expedited visas designed for Afghans who worked with U.S. organizations.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon released new figures. According to Gen. Mark Milley, about 20,000 Afghans have arrived at eight military bases in the U.S. — a number similar to the State Department’s figures for Afghan allies evacuated to the U.S.
Milley also said 40,000 more Afghan evacuees were at bases in the Middle East and in Europe. He did not provide a breakdown of how many of those Afghan evacuees had worked with U.S. troops or diplomats.
The Biden administration has said that more than 120,000 people in total were evacuated by U.S. and coalition aircraft from July through the final U.S. withdrawal, a number that includes Americans and other nationalities as well as Afghans.
Administration officials say they are still going over the numbers.
According to advocates, however, as many as 265,000 Afghans and their families may have had some form of eligibility to apply for a U.S. visa because of their work with U.S. governmental and nongovernmental organizations during the past two decades.
The SIV program was set up more than a decade ago to help Afghans at risk due to their work with the U.S. military to resettle in the United States. But the program had been plagued by bureaucratic delays, with some applicants waiting years for their papers to be processed.
As of May, about 18,000 to 20,000 Afghans who worked with U.S. troops and diplomats had applied for SIVs, according to government figures. When their family members are included, the pool of Afghans in the SIV program was at least 70,000 and probably higher, according to refugee advocacy groups.
In addition to the 70,000 or more Afghans who were approved for SIVs or had pending applications, another pool of Afghans and their families — perhaps an additional 50,000 people — were eligible for the program because of work with the U.S. government but did not apply or were rejected for unknown reasons, according to an estimate from the Association of Wartime Allies, which works with Afghan allies.
That number covers Afghans who were employed by the U.S. military or other agencies over the past 20 years, along with members of their immediate families, according to the group's findings.
Separately, another group of Afghans were eligible for other forms of expedited U.S. visas due to their association with U.S.-funded groups or projects. That group, including families, could number another 145,000 Afghans, according to the AWA's estimates.
This class of potential evacuees was only recently made eligible for expedited U.S. visas, so data about applications and acceptances is scant.
The AWA said it based its estimates on a review of publicly available data published in reports by the Defense Department, State Department, and other non-governmental organizations and research organizations.
The research was overseen by a professional demographer and faculty at American University, said a member of the AWA's advisory board.
The administration, however, has come under sharp criticism from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and from veterans' groups over 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 advocates had urged the administration to launch an evacuation months earlier.
"This outcome was completely avoidable. Had the administration listened to the many organizations and individuals who had been calling for an evacuation since the first announcement of the withdrawal timeline back in April, the evacuation could have taken place alongside the U.S. military withdrawal instead of afterward," said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
The State Department spokesperson said the administration had inherited a major backlog of applicants to the SIV program when it came into office as well as a Covid-19 outbreak in Afghanistan that hampered embassy efforts to process visas.
Despite those challenges, "we dramatically accelerated SIV processing and launched an unprecedented and ongoing effort to relocate Afghan Special Immigrants to safety," the spokesperson said in an email.
Defending his handling of the U.S. troop withdrawal, President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that starting the evacuation earlier would not have changed the outcome. In any scenario, there would have been a rush to the airport, and staying longer would have meant escalating the conflict with the Taliban, Biden said.
The president called the evacuation effort an "extraordinary success."