The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

A Glimpse at What Went Wrong with the Afghan SIV Process

Two June 2020 State OIG reports illustrate some of the long-known, ever-unresolved issues stymieing the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa process.

A Glimpse at What Went Wrong with the Afghan SIV Process
Credit: Pixabay

Among a batch of reports posted last Friday by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) were two June 2020 audits related to the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program aimed at assessing the obstacles affecting the program’s implementation. In light of the quick collapse of the Afghan government last month and the ensuing desperate work to airlift more than 120,000 people out of the country, reading the June 2020 Management Assistance Report and full review of the program takes on a different tone.

The problems with the SIV program have long been known and yet the outcome — anecdotes suggesting a “majority” of SIVs were left behind in Afghanistan — is damning nonetheless. 

The two State OIG reports stem from a directive in the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act instructing the OIG to “evaluate and offer improvements to eight identified obstacles that could affect the effective protection of Afghan allies through the SIV program and provide suggestions for improvements in future programs.”

Of the eight obstacles assessed, the OIG found that two did not “significantly affect” the program: namely, the SIV program did not impact the United States’ ability to hire locals, and while the mandated medical examinations are “costly,” they are “readily available to SIV applicants.” One other identified obstacle — uncertainty regarding the availability of visas — was set aside by the State OIG as being outside the department’s control given that the numbers of visas are a matter of congressional allocation.

The OIG went on to confirm that “five obstacles identified by Congress, if unaddressed, will remain impediments to implementing the Afghan SIV program and achieving the goals established by Congress, which include issuing an SIV within a 9-month timeframe.”

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That said, reading through the remaining obstacles — which include staffing issues, interagency delays, documentation requirements and the lack of a centralized database — it’s easy to conclude that the SIV program’s problems extend beyond the State Department’s bureaucracy. (Although, obviously, the State OIG would be looking at the department’s role specifically and these reports should be read in that narrow lens.)

The OIG report states that the obstacles exist, “in part, because the Senior Coordinating Official position, which is intended to oversee and direct the Afghan SIV program, has been vacant since January 2017.”

The report goes on to explain:

Various offices from different bureaus contribute to processing Afghan SIVs, but since 2017, these offices have lacked an overarching Senior Coordinating Official (also known as the SIV Coordinator) who can provide authoritative direction across multiple offices and liaise with other U.S. Government agencies.* Without an SIV Coordinator, the Department’s management of resources and strategic planning for the Afghan SIV program is decentralized and lacks focus to continuously evaluate the program and seek improvements. As a result, no single person is designated to advocate for staffing levels across bureaus to promote efficiency and effectiveness within the SIV program. Therefore, the Afghan SIV program has been generally understaffed and unable to meet legislative demands of processing SIV applicants within the 9-month timeframe established by Congress.

A particularly illustrative footnote (designated above with an asterisk) states: “In commenting on a draft of this report, the Undersecretary for Management stated that the Senior Coordinating Official and the SIV Coordinator are two distinct roles (see Appendix B); however, during fieldwork, no Department officials informed OIG of this distinction.”

Indeed, appointing a Senior Coordinating Official (SIV Coordinator) is the OIG’s first recommendation. In his response, then-Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao, a Trump-appointee, provided a memorandum in which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Undersecretary for Management (Bulatao) as the Senior Coordinating Official and states that the SIV Coordinator is a separate role filled by the Assistant Chief of Mission in Kabul. While the response satisfied the OIG’s purposes, one has to wonder why no State officials told the OIG who was in charge of the process when they were conducting fieldwork. 

One other recommendation I want to highlight is the second the OIG made: asking the Senior Coordinating Official to assess staffing levels at each state of the SIV process. Bulatao said each office involved would conduct a general staffing review and indicate gaps but concluded, “if staffing levels are inadequate to complete the activities listed in this recommendation, the Department’s ability to obtain additional resources will be subject to the availability of funds and competing priorities.”

Staffing at the State Department is a larger issue, but factors into how and why the SIV process has been such a headache. A recent report published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and the Harvard Kennedy School on behalf of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) notes that since 2015, “attrition rates of [Foreign Service Officers] and [Foreign Service Specialists]  have been higher than their historical average for all genders and racial and ethnic minority groups.” According to AFSA, there are approximately 15,600 FSOs across various agencies, spread across 276 posts abroad but with most (13,790) at State. 

The OIG noted that at of October 2019, around 30 percent of Embassy Kabul’s consular section’s 37 positions were vacant. During the 2019 staff reduction, the OIG report states, “the number of Consular Officers was reduced from 5 to 3.” Given that the embassy conducts visa interviews, a staffing problem quickly becomes a backlog. And, the report notes separately, staffing levels at various offices that are part of the SIV process had remained constant since 2016. So the same beleaguered few were tasked with processing an ever-growing pile of desperate applicants. 

In concurring with most of the OIG’s recommendations, the Undersecretary for Management mostly committed to ordering various assessments and reviews. It’s unclear how much of that work was completed by August 2021 (or earlier, given that at the time Trump’s administration had agreed to exit Afghanistan by May 2021), and whether to any effect. The subsequent change of administration in January 2021 arguably reset the clock on many issues, with the new administration conducting its own reviews of policies and procedures, with the SIV question just one of many competing priorities.