A year after the U.S. left him behind in Afghanistan, Will cannot understand what happened.
He served at Camp Shouz in the country’s western Herat province, working as an interpreter for U.S. troops and contractors as they negotiated with village elders and worked to train Afghan police recruits.
Will, a pseudonym The Washington Times is using to protect his identity, has glowing recommendations from a U.S. Army major who called him “one of my most trusted interpreters.” Yet Will is stuck in a bureaucratic battle with the State Department, which told him his file isn’t complete and he can’t come to the U.S. for now.
He says he is still in danger and cannot believe it’s been a year since the Islamist Taliban insurgency took over and the Biden administration has failed to rescue him.
“All I can say is we counted on [the] U.S. but it’s betrayed us, left us here,” he told The Times in an email exchange.
Others have been luckier.
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Muhammad, who six months ago was in the same situation as Will — stuck inside Afghanistan and begging for a way out — told The Times that the State Department arranged for him to hop aboard a flight to Qatar in June. He will be flown to the U.S. soon to complete his case.
“I am lucky and very happy that finally I got safe with my family,” he said.
The U.S. ended its massive airlift operation out of Kabul on Aug. 31 last year. Although some are like Muhammad, far more are like Will: genuine Afghan-born allies of the U.S.-led war effort who assisted American forces and were promised a pathway to the U.S. through what is known as the Special Immigrant Visa, but who now cannot get out of a country controlled by the enemy they fought.
“People are dying, they’ve lost their fortunes, their livelihood. Some people have just been despondent and have given up on the process,” said Perry Blackburn, a former Army officer who founded AFGfree.org, which is working to support thousands of those left behind. “It’s easier to get into the U.S. if you do it illegally than if you want to do it legally.”
The U.S. employed tens of thousands of Afghan nationals during its 20-year military engagement in their country, using them as translators, guides and service and support personnel at local bases. Those who served for at least a year, have the recommendation of a supervisor, and who can show they have faced threats because of their assistance qualify for consideration for an SIV.
The U.S. brought roughly 77,000 Afghans to the U.S. during last year’s airlift, but only about half of those were authentic allies who were in line or potentially eligible for the special visa.
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The State Department has been reluctant to offer public estimates as to how many SIV-eligible Afghans were left behind, but outside groups say it could be as many as 160,000. Calculating an average of three family members coming with each SIV applicant, that might mean more than 500,000 Afghans are being blocked from a path to the U.S. based on their service with the American military.
The State Department says 16,000 people have cleared what is known as “Chief of Mission approval,” the key step certifying they have earned the right to relocate. They still must go through a final in-person interview.
That’s where things turn tricky.
With the U.S. Embassy in Kabul shuttered, the State Department says it cannot conduct interviews inside Afghanistan for applicants. It is urging people to make their way to another country, such as Pakistan, where the U.S. does have a presence and can conduct the interviews.
Afghans say making it to Pakistan isn’t like an American crossing into Mexico or Canada. Even if they do make it, the costs of supporting themselves during the uncertain weeks or months of waiting for an interview can be prohibitive.
Private aid groups try to help by paying for apartments and food deliveries in Pakistan — just as they are doing for some of those stuck inside Afghanistan.
A two-bedroom apartment runs $400 to $600 a month, and food for a family of four to six comes to under $200 a month, Mr. Blackburn said. The government isn’t paying those funds. The money is coming from donations to the groups or, in so many cases, straight out of veterans’ pockets as they try to keep friends alive.
The pace of approvals remains excruciatingly slow. The State Department has issued fewer than 1,000 visas from January to March, which is the latest data available.
Meanwhile, nearly 2,300 Afghans had their applications deemed unqualified or approvals revoked during the same three-month period. Applications can fail because the candidate did not submit all the right documents or did not prove their full service to the U.S. war effort, or because investigators found a history of criminal or terrorist activity.
“I’m disappointed we’re still where we’re at,” Mr. Blackburn said. “I’ve been part of their webinars, and they seem to spend more time congratulating each other and patting each other on the back than working solutions to streamline the process and help these folks.”
Those stuck in Afghanistan say they’re not hearing much from the U.S. government, either in terms of their applications or guidance on where to stay safe. That is fueling desperation and resentment.
“All communication must be by email, and often it takes weeks or months to get a response unless congressional representatives get involved,” said one person involved in evacuation efforts.
One time the person needed to call the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to work through an urgent matter on an SIV case and was told that a policy prohibited calls from being transferred to the SIV division.
“While I understood that they might otherwise be flooded with calls, the individuals answering the phones for the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan definitely did not seem to care a whit about the plight of Afghan SIV applicants,” he told The Times.
Still, he reported some successes, having helped a man and his family get across the border to Pakistan, make it to Islamabad and have an in-person interview. As of late last month, the family had turned in their passports and were awaiting a final visa stamp.
“This is what has improved, but they were also extremely far into the SIV processes,” he told The Times. “For those just now applying or not [Chief of Mission]-approved, however, it will be years before they will see any resolution at the current pace.”
Those still living inside Afghanistan face varying levels of danger. Some are in imminent peril, and others are less likely to be targets, though they are facing tough times. That, of course, is true for most of the country, with a crumpled economy, the loss of massive amounts of foreign assistance and food shortages.
Trying to streamline the process
The State Department, in response to questions from The Times, said it is working to streamline the approval process for special visa applicants. It can point to some progress in the numbers.
At the end of the Trump administration, the government averaged 703 days of processing time for each approved application, not including the time the applicants spent collecting and submitting their documents. After the chaotic and sudden fall of Kabul, the government’s processing time rose to 734 days.
More staffing and some shortcuts the Biden team has imposed have cut the average wait to 587 days, according to the latest data. That’s still more than a year and a half, but it’s a major improvement.
For those still stuck in Afghanistan without access to an interview, however, the government’s advice hasn’t changed in a year’s time: Find your own way out of the country.
“We’re still working through the same bureaucratic processes that prevented us post-August last year of getting folks out,” Mr. Blackburn said.
That’s because, despite the Biden administration’s assurances to the contrary amid the chaotic withdrawal, it has yet to establish a working relationship with the Taliban leadership. Washington still does not officially recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of the country.
“Nothing about us working with the Taliban was accurate,” Mr. Blackburn said. “There was not a partnership with the Taliban on the wall.”
The State Department didn’t say when it expects to establish a presence in-country for interviews but hopes “to continue to have a pragmatic dialogue with the Taliban.”
“We are committed to supporting departures of U.S. citizens, [lawful permanent residents], Afghan allies, and their eligible family members from Afghanistan. As [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] has said, there is no expiration date on this effort,” the department said.
Problems in Pakistan
Even those who make it to Pakistan face problems. The State Department demands scanned documents, such as identification cards, but, as one advocate said, “Who the hell has a scanner in Afghanistan?”
Also, life goes on, and if a refugee family has a new child — or a child or spouse dies — they have to refile an application, according to advocates working with Afghan cases in Pakistan.
Others are stuck in limbo. Some 6,500 Afghans were shipped to Emirates Humanitarian City, or EHC, run by the United Arab Emirates.
The U.S. government sent about 1,000, and nongovernmental organizations evacuated the rest.
One NGO leader involved in the effort said the State Department initially didn’t acknowledge the population, then began to process some people, but there’s no apparent method to how they are working the cases. People with no path to an SIV have been put onto planes and brought to the U.S., while hundreds of others with clear SIV potential “haven’t been touched,” the NGO leader said.
“Where we stand today in EHC is we have people with valid pathways to the United States, valid immigration cases, that are sitting in limbo, that are not being addressed,” the leader said.
Meanwhile, the UAE is putting up the displaced at its own expense, providing food and medical care and, for those who do get approved to fly out to a third country, sending them off with envelopes of cash.
The State Department declined to talk about numbers and hurdles for those stuck at EHC.
“We are working intensively across the interagency and with Embassy Abu Dhabi to develop the necessary capabilities to support processing for Afghan travelers in UAE who may be eligible for onward relocation and entry in the United States,” the department said.
As for those still in Afghanistan, if broken promises and moral obligations don’t motivate the government to move faster on some cases, questions of national security risk might.
Several sources The Times spoke with detailed the danger of having left behind so many people with intimate knowledge of U.S. military operations — including some highly trained special operations forces — who might be recruited by an enemy.
“They’ve been left there for a year, the economy’s collapsing, they’re being hunted down by the Talibs, It is not hard to imagine that some of them would be potentially ripe for some kind of coercion or co-opting,” one investigator said.
It’s an issue Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been pressing.
He released a report this month revealing that some of those special operations forces were among 3,000 Afghan security troops who fled across the border into Iran.