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‘The Taliban Will Kill Us’: Afghans Who Helped Foreign Forces At Risk Of Reprisals After Withdrawal

Afghan former interpreters for the U.S. and NATO forces gather during a demonstration in downtown Kabul on April 30.

The Taliban has vowed for years that it will kill any Afghans who have worked for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, branding them “traitors.”

With all foreign troops leaving the country by September, the tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked in support roles are gripped by fear and panic.

Their worries are well grounded. The Taliban has killed hundreds of Afghans who have worked for foreign military forces and their family members over the years.

Those fears have been exacerbated by intensifying violence and Taliban gains on the battlefield in recent months.

Since the start of the withdrawal on May 1, the militant group has seized dozens of districts, military bases, and besieged towns and cities, fueling fears that it could topple the Western-backed Afghan government.

The United States and some countries with troops departing Afghanistan have created special immigration programs to help endangered Afghan workers leave Afghanistan.

But many Afghans who have applied complain that they have been left in a no-man's-land after not hearing back -- sometimes for years -- from foreign immigration authorities. Advocacy groups say the programs are proceeding too slowly and may not cover all former Afghan employees who may be at risk.

An estimated 300,000 Afghan civilians have worked for international forces in some capacity since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, including as cooks, cleaners, manual laborers, mechanics, interpreters, and security guards.

‘Grave Danger’

“We are in grave danger,” says Abdul Wakil, who worked as a security guard from 2004 to 2008 at Bagram Airfield, the U.S. military’s largest base in Afghanistan. “Not just us, but also our families. The Taliban will kill us.”

“With foreign troops leaving, the Taliban could take over the country again,” says Wakil. “In that case everyone would be in danger, but especially us.”

Afghan contractors protest in Herat on June 9.
Afghan contractors protest in Herat on June 9.

Around 300 Afghans who worked for the U.S. military or their family members have been killed since 2016, according to No One Left Behind, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that works with Afghan interpreters to help them relocate to the United States.

The group estimates that on average two interpreters a month have been killed this year. The death toll increased to five during May.

Afghan interpreters working for foreign forces have been particularly susceptible to militant attacks. They are often sought out by militants, who have labeled them "spies" for acting as the eyes and ears of the foreign "occupiers."

The Taliban on June 7 issued a statement assuring Afghans who worked with international troops in the past that they will not be targeted if they “show remorse for their past actions and…not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country.”

But there is widespread mistrust of the Taliban's assurances of safety.

“The Taliban is growing stronger every day,” says Abdul Karim, a 28-year-old interpreter who has worked for the U.S. military since 2015. “That means our lives are becoming more perilous every day.”

The militant group has long targeted civilians it accuses of working for the Afghan government or foreigners.

In January, the Taliban killed an Afghan who had worked for the U.S. military for some 12 years and had been waiting for a visa to relocate to the United States.

Other former Afghan interpreters say they have received death threats from the Taliban.

Bogged Down In Bureaucracy

Advocacy groups and rights watchdogs have urged Western nations to accelerate programs to resettle former Afghan employees who are increasingly at risk from the Taliban.

Around 18,000 Afghan applicants are still awaiting a decision on their U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications. The SIV program was created in 2009 and is modeled on a similar scheme for Iraqis.

Afghans must prove an ongoing threat and at least one year's employment by the American government to get a visa.

U.S. and British forces withdraw from their base in the southern province of Helmand
U.S. and British forces withdraw from their base in the southern province of Helmand

The Pentagon has said it is developing options to possibly evacuate Afghans considered at risk from the Taliban because of their work with American troops. But the White House has yet to authorize any expedited plans.

U.S. lawmakers have called for the thousands of Afghans to be evacuated before international troops pull out, fearing they could be “slaughtered by the Taliban.” Lawmakers say processing visas could take more than two years to complete, possibly subjecting former Afghan staff to revenge attacks by the Taliban.

Britain started expediting the relocation of Afghan staff on April 1.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on May 31 that it was “only right we accelerate the relocation of those who may be at risk of reprisals,” adding that the country owed “a debt of gratitude” to local staff employed by British forces.

More than 1,360 former Afghan employees and their families have already been relocated to Britain. But thousands of applications have yet to be processed.

The government has loosened requirements for applicants.

But the Sulha Alliance, a group campaigning for Afghan interpreters working for Britain’s military, said London's policy of rejecting applicants who had been fired, many of them for minor offenses, was a point of concern.

Other countries that have had troops fighting in Afghanistan, such as Australia and Germany, have not expedited resettlement.

“The countries now withdrawing from Afghanistan have been far too slow in developing evacuation, relocation, and resettlement plans for their former Afghan employees,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“They should recognize that normal pathways will be too slow and that expedited timetables are needed for Afghans and their families who could be hunted down because of their work for coalition forces.”

Feeling Betrayed

Afghans who have worked for foreign forces usually hide their identities and keep a low profile. But many have vented their frustration in public recently.

Hundreds have staged rallies in the capital, Kabul, in recent weeks, demanding those Western nations they worked for relocate them outside of Afghanistan.

A U.S. soldier and an Afghan soldier shake hands during a handover ceremony in Helmand on May 2.
A U.S. soldier and an Afghan soldier shake hands during a handover ceremony in Helmand on May 2.

Many of them are angry and feel betrayed, having risked their lives to help their foreign allies. They also complain that the process of attaining visas is overly complicated and places an unrealistic burden on applicants to prove they face a risk.

“We helped the Americans and now we want them to help us,” says Baryalai Rahimi, an Afghan interpreter who worked with U.S. Special Forces.

Mohammad Wasel, a 32-year-old from the northern province of Kapisa, says he has a medal of commendation from a U.S. commander for whom he worked. But he says he does not know why his application has been rejected.

“We have helped [the foreign forces], we have risked our lives, and now they are leaving,” says Wasel, who worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces from 2009 to 2012. “It’s their turn to help us.”

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondents in the provinces of Balkh, Parwan, and Kabul.

  • 16x9 Image

    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mustafa Sarwar

    Mustafa Sarwar is a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi in Prague.