(CNN)Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration’s actions on the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in the lead up to the fall of Kabul but acknowledged that those efforts were not the same as “a full-on evacuation.”
The top US diplomat on Sunday indicated that the administration thought it would have more time to execute on those efforts to relocate the Afghans and their families who worked alongside the US government.
“Because we believed that the government was not about, was not going to collapse, the military was not about to fade away when it did, we believed that we could do this with, in a very expedited way, more resources, more effort, more people out, but that we would have time to do it effectively,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Advocates and bipartisan lawmakers had urged the administration for months to carry out an evacuation, arguing that it was the only way to ensure that SIV applicants were safe prior to the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan.
A group of US diplomats wrote a classified dissent cable to Blinken in mid-July warning that swift action needed to be taken because they believed the situation in Afghanistan could rapidly deteriorate. They called on him to act quickly to process and evacuate Afghans who had assisted the United States and get them out of the country quickly.
Blinken said he read and responded “almost immediately” to that dissent cable, and said the State Department “took to heart a number of recommendations that were made in the cable,” but could not go into details.
The top US diplomat argued that the Biden administration had “inherited a program that was in a dead stall.”
The State Department said that there were 17,000 SIV applicants in the pipeline when President Joe Biden took office.
“No interviews had been done when we came into office for visas for these folks going back to March 2020. Now largely that was due to Covid. We restarted the interview process,” Blinken said, also noting a surge in personnel in Washington and Kabul to help process applicants.
“We went from about 100 visas a week back in March to 800 in July. We’ve issued about 5,000 all told,” he said, adding that they cut processing times and added an airlift component as part of “Operation Allies Refuge.” The State Department said last week that 10 relocation flights carrying almost 2,000 SIV applicants and their families landed at Dulles Airport in the Washington, DC, area between July 30 and August 15.
“But here’s the rub, and I acknowledge this, there is a difference between moving expeditiously to get this program off the ground, off the dead stall that it was in, and get it moving …. there’s a difference between that and a full-on evacuation,” he said.
The administration has come under immense pressure to evacuate not only the Afghan SIV applicants but other vulnerable Afghans who now fear for their lives under Taliban rule. The administration has been working to address the massive crush of people seeking to flee the country on evacuation flights out of Kabul as scenes of chaos have played out for days outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
On Sunday, the US Embassy in Kabul issued guidance on who should come to the airport, noting that SIV applicants “will be given instructions on next steps.”
“Please understand, however, that this process may take an extended period,” the notice from the Embassy said.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.