WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan in the coming weeks, the Biden administration says it is adding staff to hurry up the visa process for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and want to flee to avoid Taliban reprisals.
But for refugee advocates and members of Congress, the effort still isn't enough to ensure that Afghans who worked as U.S. military translators, guides and in other roles aren't persecuted in large numbers in the months ahead.
"I want the White House's hair on fire," said Maine Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with President Joe Biden's Democratic Party.
"What do I want them to do next? I want them to do everything within their power to solve this problem."
Fighting has increased across Afghanistan ahead of the Sept. 11 deadline for withdrawal, which will end a two-decade U.S.-led NATO troop presence since the Taliban were forced from power in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the United States.
Afghans who worked for the United States during America's longest war fear the insurgency will target them and their families, retribution for helping foreign forces.
With the final pullout expected as early as mid-July, there appears to be a mismatch between the expectations of refugee advocates and what the Biden administration says is realistic given the legal and practical requirements to process special immigrant visas.
The administration says it has already doubled the number of staff processing cases in Kabul and tripled personnel reviewing petitions at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
It also plans a five-fold increase in the number of staff in the State Department working on the visas in Washington, a senior administration official told Reuters.
"All of these changes have resulted in, over the last couple of months, the largest number of cases processed in the history of the program in any 60-day period," the official said, speaking about the plans on condition of anonymity.
The plan is to process at least 1,000-1,400 visa applications for Afghans who worked for the United States, not including their families, every month. By contrast, the U.S. government says, it issued only 237 such visas https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/visas/SIVs/Afghan-Public-Quarterly-Report-Q1-Jan-2021.pdf in the last three months of 2020.
But even with the new effort, the administration says there's a limit to how fast a 14-step, multiple-agency process can move without changes to legislation. If all goes well, a visa could be processed in nine to 12 months.
"Other than that, the 'brute force' approach of just more bodies has gone about as far as it can," a second U.S. official said.
The administration supports legislation in Congress that would allow Afghans to do a medical check upon arriving in the United States, instead of in Afghanistan. It is also supports legislation eliminating the requirement for a specific petition at the Department of Homeland Security.
"That would be another two months that we could shave off," the first official said.
Political talks between the government and the Taliban have largely stalled and it's unclear how the Afghan security forces will perform after troops depart. The Taliban have assured Afghans who worked with foreign forces of their safety.
But as the clock ticks down, Afghans who have applied for visas are becoming increasingly concerned.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken reassured Congress last week of his commitment to Afghans who worked with the United States, but also suggested any threats to their safety might not be immediate.
"I wouldn't necessarily equate the departure of our forces in July, August, or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation," Blinken said.
Blinken acknowledged there were 18,000 Afghans "in the pipeline" for potential visas. Half of them have expressed interest but haven't yet filled out the necessary forms, he said.
Senator Patrick Leahy, recalling the chaos in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 when he was a junior senator, said the matter was urgent.
"They're going to have a target on their back," Leahy said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)