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Afghans Battle Red Tape, Taliban In Hope Of Evacuation To United States

A local Afghan man from Baghdis Province talks through an interpreter (right) to a U.S. Army officer in 2011.

Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Hanif has been on the run. He has lived in hiding for months, constantly moving from place to place as he awaits word that he will be cleared for evacuation to the United States.

Hanif served as a security guard for U.S. and NATO special forces in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. But when foreign troops withdrew and the Taliban toppled the Western-backed Afghan government in August, he was left behind.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi by telephone, he expressed his feelings of abandonment by the U.S. government and military for which he risked his life. "In the nine years I worked, I braved great dangers and accompanied the special forces to remote corners of Afghanistan," said Hanif, using only his first name for security reasons. "I feel that no one has helped me."

Hanif is not alone. While more than 80,000 at-risk Afghans were evacuated in the largest U.S. airlift in history, estimates suggest that roughly equal that amount of Afghans who assisted the U.S.-led war remain stranded, including interpreters, aid workers, and some of the best-trained troops in the former Afghan armed forces.

The process of helping them get out is complicated by bureaucracy and fraught with danger, none more formidable than the Taliban, which has been accused of carrying out acts of retribution against those who worked with foreign troops, including hunting down and killing former members of the Afghan security forces.

The situation has outraged U.S. military veterans and others who trained and worked with Afghans. Many of them have pooled their efforts to help their Afghan allies get their paperwork and documents in order, provide food, money, and safe haven, and to even pay for and organize evacuation flights.

Taliban On The Hunt

Seven months into Taliban rule, there are worrying signs that the extremist group is increasingly targeting Afghans who helped foreign forces, and is shutting down possible exit avenues as the West's attention turns to the outbreak of war in Europe.

As Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, reports emerged that the Taliban was conducting house searches in an attempt to uncover Afghans who helped NATO and allied troops or fought for the Afghan military against the Taliban.

Earlier that month, the office of the UN commissioner for human rights said that despite the Taliban's repeated guarantees of amnesty it had received credible reports of the extrajudicial killings of more than 100 former members of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, personnel of the former government, or their family members.

On February 27, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid raised alarm when he told a press conference that the Taliban had put a stop to evacuation flights, adding that "people who leave the country along with their families have no excuse" and that the Taliban would be "preventing them" from going abroad.

He later clarified that he only meant Afghans who did not have the necessary travel documents, which have been difficult to obtain considering the country's passport office was only recently reopened.

Reams Of Red Tape

The dangers at home only add to the difficulties Afghans are experiencing as they try to navigate the hurdles of obtaining the documents they need to relocate to the the United States.

Their options include the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, special permission for Humanitarian Parole in emergency situations, and the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

But while the State Department continues to process SIV and Humanitarian Parole applications for Afghans outside the United States, including those who were airlifted from Kabul after the capital fell, those avenues are essentially closed for those who remain inside Afghanistan itself.

This is due to the requirement for in-person screenings, which is not possible in Afghanistan following the suspension of U.S. consular services, meaning Afghans must travel to a third country to be vetted.

And while the Refugee Admissions Program allows for priority referrals for at-risk Afghans -- and includes special priority status for individuals who worked for U.S.-government funded projects in Afghanistan, interpreters for the U.S. government, and stringers for U.S.-based media organizations -- it is considered primarily to be a pathway for individuals outside of the United States who have already fled their country of origin and are seeking protection.

A U.S. Marine looks on as Afghan National Army soldiers raise the Afghan national flag on an armed vehicle during a training exercise to deal with improvised explosive devices in 2017.
A U.S. Marine looks on as Afghan National Army soldiers raise the Afghan national flag on an armed vehicle during a training exercise to deal with improvised explosive devices in 2017.

Not Just Soldiers

The tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who helped the U.S.-led war effort goes far beyond security personnel.

Abdullah Sadat worked for various U.S. government-funded development and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan over the past two decades. He claims that many of the people evacuated during the chaotic withdrawal in August were not on any evacuation lists.

"I know about 25 people who had worked with us on various projects who are still stranded here," Sadat told Radio Azadi. "Every day we hear news about the detention of activists and those who have worked for foreign organizations, which makes us worry a lot."

Abdul Qayum Zahid Samadzai, an Afghan journalist who worked for a U.S.-funded media project, says he was detained and tortured by the Taliban intelligence in Kabul earlier this month. "The Taliban detained me in front of Kabul's Serena hotel. They kept me for two days and released me on bail," he told Radio Azadi. "The conditions for journalists are deteriorating by the day as the space for us shrinks."

Samadzai says he has qualified for a priority visa and was accepted for immigration to the United States based on his work with the project. But he remains stranded.

"I want the U.S. to follow up on our cases and evacuate those in danger," he said.

Allies Losing Hope

Hamid, who was part of a group of 120 Afghan guards protecting U.S. and NATO soldiers in Kabul, says that in the months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal he received a recommendation for an SIV.

He believed an SIV, which grants permanent U.S. residence to those who helped the United States abroad, would be his ticket out of Afghanistan. But despite promises he would be on the evacuation list, he was left out as other at-risk Afghans, including many of his colleagues, were flown out of the country.

After months of hiding and regular assurances of help from his former supervisors in the U.S. military, he says, he has yet to gain the approval for the SIV he needs to have at least a shot of escaping his situation.

"I am still waiting but without any hope. I am in grave danger and in hiding. I cannot even leave my home," he told Radio Azadi by telephone. "I have changed my residence multiple times. I even went to provinces outside Kabul to hide among relatives living in remote regions."

Afghan police officers are advised by U.S. Marines on the use of a Kalashnikov light machine gun during a group shooting lesson at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province in 2012.
Afghan police officers are advised by U.S. Marines on the use of a Kalashnikov light machine gun during a group shooting lesson at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province in 2012.

Similar stories and pleas for help have been made by thousands of other Afghans who have pleaded for help from U.S. lawmakers, former employers, and others who might listen via social media, e-mails, and hotlines set up by NGOs and the U.S. government.

Many have been documented by the nonprofit Association Of Wartime Allies (AWA), which said in a report issued in late February that about 78,000 Afghans who are eligible to move to the United States remain in Afghanistan.

About 30 percent of SIV applicants it surveyed in Afghanistan have been imprisoned by the Taliban and more than half have been stopped and questioned, according to the AWA. Nearly all face economic hardship, and more than 70 percent reported having to go without food at least once a month.

While the AWA commends "the United States for evacuating some 82,000 Afghan allies that otherwise may not have made their way to safe haven in the United States, we must never lose focus on those left behind."

The report compiled a long list of disturbing messages from Afghans, without corrections to spelling and grammar, to hammer home how the U.S. military withdrawal has upended their lives.

"Since US has lifted Afghanistan I lost my job, and I can't live here because of working with USG me and my wife life is in danger!"

"I am a woman it is extremely hard for me to live afterward in Afghanistan because I have worked with USG as Translator, in these days TBs are killing womens who have worked before so I am waiting from the 6 months for my COM Approval but till that time to get my COM i know i will be killed so please I am kindly requesting of you to work on mu case and please send me my COM and please help me and save my life as I have three little kids pleaelse."

"Taliban are looking after me they searched my house in Herat on 18 Nov 2021 I was hidden in Kabul then in 22 and 23 of Dec 2021 they came to my previous house asked about me the house owner called me that Taliban are looking after you I told them that he was tenant here he is not living here. I am hiding me somewhere with my family to safe my life and my family."

"I am under serious threat because Taliban have been searching for those who have worked for the US government especially linguists, Taliban targets people who had affiliations with US government in an appropriate time and find different excuses for their killings and then make it Seems as they were not involved in the killings."

"I hope one day we can walk freely without fears, I hope one day we can go to shoping with kids with out fears, I hope one day we can speak freely without fears, I hope one day we can take our kids to school, I hope one day we can go to work with out fears. Being in hidden will kill us."

It is a situation that is not acceptable to many U.S. veterans who trained and fought alongside Afghans, and to intelligence specialists, medical professionals, and refugee organizers who depended on their support.

Now hundreds are trying to rescue their Afghan partners through self-funded volunteer groups such as Operation Recovery, Project Exodus, Save Our Allies, No One Left Behind, and Joint Operation North Star. Many of the nonprofits work together under the banner of larger organizations, like the Moral Compass Federation.

'Hang Tight'

Wes Wrather is the chief operating officer of the Florida-based Operation Recovery. He served over two years in Afghanistan before turning his focus to veteran and first-responder causes by way of the NGO, which now works to provide safe passage and repatriation for Afghan allies.

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, he told RFE/RL by phone from Kentucky, "a lot of our friends, personal acquaintances, and networks had a lot of deep obligation to help the country and those that we left behind."

He says that his group mainly focuses on helping Afghans who served U.S. and NATO special forces because they were in particular danger of Taliban retribution.

Operation Recovery, which is made up of about 150 volunteers, says it is "honoring the promise" made to Afghans by the United States. Through its expertise and contacts in Afghanistan, the group has taken on a role as a funding vehicle for broader evacuation efforts.

Wrather estimates that directly or indirectly, the group has managed to get between 3,500 to 4,000 Afghans out of the country and "on top of that, we've worked with several vendors that have expertise in that space that can navigate that terrain effectively, despite the Taliban being in control."

The group uses what Wrather calls "shepherds," who are responsible for up to 50 Afghans. These shepherds, most working from the United States, maintain secure communication with their "flock" and share new information about immigration requirements and help with documentation procedures.

The group also has mechanisms in Afghanistan to get food and even cash payments to potential evacuees it has identified.

Wrather says his group is also advising people to "hang tight" and not to go to third countries like Pakistan or Iran because they risk getting stuck there and losing the influence his group has to get them to the United States.

The effort is not cheap. Wrather says the cost of paying for an evacuation flight when it was last available a few months ago was about $700,000. He says the organization depends entirely on private donations.

No Ally Left Behind?

Mike Edwards trained Afghan special forces and now heads the volunteer organization Exodus Relief, which is staffed by fellow U.S. volunteer veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

"We're just working to help each other out to evacuate some of our friends, our Afghan allies that were left over there, the special forces guys we trained," Edwards told RFE/RL by telephone from Alabama. "Meanwhile, we're trying to feed our Afghan partners and keep them safe from the Taliban until we can get them out. And you know, these guys, they're the ones that helped us get a lot of the American citizens out that we got out."

Edwards says there is currently no legal process to evacuate them. He says his group and others like it across the United States are trying to get that changed by pushing for the U.S. government to establish a special visa category for Afghan allies.

The most important thing at the moment, he says, is "keeping these guys safe, and fed, and advocating for them as aggressively as we possibly can to get something done before it's too late and we run out of money."

If that happens, warns Edwards, whose organization also depends entirely on donations, "these guys are left with no other option but to either get killed or, if they are lucky, to get recruited to the other side." That would mean having "some of the best we've ever trained working against us," Edwards said.

"These guys don't want to do that. They're loyal, very loyal to us. They've been working for us this entire time. But at some point in time, there's going to be a line drawn, and we're going to be out of money. And they're going to make a decision," Edward said. "And we're trying to get them out before that happens."

A Continuing Effort

The U.S. State Department has said it will continue its efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans, with an official telling RFE/RL in written responses to questions that the issue "is of utmost importance to the U.S. government."

The official acknowledged that "coordinating flights out of Kabul International Airport continues to be challenging," but said the government plans to help relocate SIV holders and applicants as often as conditions allow and that "we will be relentless in this effort as we stand by our Afghan allies and their families."

In a separate response, a State Department official said it was aware of media reports regarding the Taliban's refusal to allow Afghans to leave the country.

The official said the issue was raised with the Taliban, and Washington "will continue to engage diplomatically to resolve any issues and to hold the Taliban to their public pledge to let all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from other countries to freely depart Afghanistan."

Some U.S.-based volunteers are unconvinced that Washington is doing all it can, however.

Edwards, who said that he feels that the State Department does not seem to "care anything about these guys and making a category for them to get out," says it is a challenge to keep people's spirits up. Many are tired of being stuck in safe houses arranged by his NGO, away from their families for months at a time.

"They're sick of this to the point where they're ready to just go out and let the Taliban just kill them," Edwards said. "We're trying to keep them, keep them motivated, keep them hanging on for a little bit longer in hopes that the U.S. government will eventually or some other government will eventually come along with a process to help us out."

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    Michael Scollon

    Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.