Threatened by Taliban, Afghans who helped US race to leave

Kristin M. Hall/AP/File
Maj. Mohammed Aman Sabazad (center), of the Afghan National Army, talks through an interpreter to U.S. Army Capt. Blake Richter (left), at a military base in Nari district in Afghanistan's Kunar province, June 1, 2013.
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Just weeks away from the withdrawal of the last American soldier from Afghanistan, the local men and women who worked with U.S. forces are afraid they may be left behind – at the mercy of the Taliban.

Support staff, such as interpreters, have been essential to the U.S. military during its 20-year war, and they were promised eventual safe haven in the United States with Special Immigrant Visas. But the U.S. Consulate in Kabul has a backlog of 18,000 applications for such visas, and it is not even processing any of them at the moment because the embassy has been closed by COVID-19.

Why We Wrote This

Afghans who risked their lives for U.S. forces were promised visas, but 18,000 of them are still waiting as the last American troops prepare to leave. Meanwhile, the Taliban advance.

In Washington, officials say they are preparing to help solve the problem. But the Taliban, which regard such support staff as treacherous collaborators with the “infidel” enemy, are making rapid strides as U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan, taking more and more territory and issuing threats.

“I think the obligation here is to be loyal to our allies ... to help those who helped us,” says Sunil Varghese, an American advocate for Afghan refugees. “We’re extremely worried,” he says. “We are running out of time.”

Nazir Nazari ran many risks during the six years he worked as an interpreter with American forces in Afghanistan, surviving Taliban suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and ambushes.

“I was wounded several times, but I was very honest with the goal of serving my country,” says Mr. Nazari, who uses a pseudonym to protect himself, his tired eyes looking out over his pandemic face mask.

But his pride has turned to an angry sense of betrayal. Just weeks away from the departure of the last U.S. soldier from Afghanistan, Mr. Nazari and thousands of others like him fear they may be left behind to face Taliban vengeance, U.S. vows to evacuate them notwithstanding.

Why We Wrote This

Afghans who risked their lives for U.S. forces were promised visas, but 18,000 of them are still waiting as the last American troops prepare to leave. Meanwhile, the Taliban advance.

The interpreters had been promised Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) to the United States as a reward for their invaluable service under life-threatening conditions.

Instead, today they find themselves near the top of the Taliban’s target list, as U.S. troops rush to complete their final withdrawal, and the Taliban advance inexorably into territory controlled by the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani. Mr. Ghani is due to meet President Joe Biden in Washington Friday.

“I think the obligation here is to be loyal to our allies, to be true to our word, to help those who helped us,” says Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit based in New York.

“We’re extremely worried. We’re running out of time,” he adds. 

In Washington, administration officials hinted Wednesday that they were preparing to act on the Afghans’ behalf. “I am confident that at some point we’ll begin to evacuate some of those people soon,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a Pentagon budget hearing.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the same hearing he considered it “a moral imperative to take care of those who have served along our side. We are prepared to execute whatever we are directed.”

Mr. Nazari is among 18,000 interpreters and other Afghan support staff whose applications for an SIV are still pending, along with an estimated 70,000 dependents. The U.S. Consulate in Kabul suspended all visa interviews June 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Race against time

Moreover, reports from Kabul suggest that the U.S. pullout could be completed by July 4, two months ahead of President Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline. Taking advantage of the withdrawal, Taliban forces have captured 50 of the country’s 370 districts since early May, bringing their total to 90.

Reporting those numbers to the United Nations Security Council Tuesday, the U.N.’s Afghan envoy, Deborah Lyons, warned of a “slide toward dire scenarios” and that the Taliban were positioning themselves to take provincial capitals “once foreign forces are fully withdrawn.”

The result is a race against time for Afghan interpreters, many of whom have been threatened by Taliban fighters for colluding with the enemy. Their chances of safe evacuation are dwindling by the day.

“With the escalation in violence coinciding with the withdrawal, it seems a bit doubtful that the SIV program is going to be a pathway for protection for people whose lives are in danger because they worked with or for the U.S.,” worries Mr. Varghese.

Interpreters are not the only Afghans at risk: The Taliban have recently been waging an assassination campaign that has killed hundreds of journalists, civil society activists, and government officials.

The Taliban said earlier this month that interpreters who “show remorse” and did not commit “treason against Islam and the country” have nothing to fear. But their threats persist.

Among the many people in danger is Mr. Nazari, who lives in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, and who says he gets regular threats from the Taliban even though his American contract ended in 2013.

“Every day the Taliban call me and tell me, ‘We have defeated America. You, who are only slaves to America, we will cut off your head as soon as possible,’” says Mr. Nazari.

Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Former Afghan interpreters hold placards during a recent protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, demanding the U.S. visas that they had been promised as a reward for their work.

He applied for a visa in 2013 but was rejected a year later because he supposedly had been fired from his job. That news surprised both Mr. Nazari and his American supervisor, who provided documents supporting his visa request, he says.

Mr. Nazari has waited ever since, as security deteriorated. His father was killed by the Taliban in 2016, after working with U.S. forces for eight years. And this spring, the Taliban ambushed him and shot him twice in the leg.

He now walks on crutches and is bitter about broken American promises. “I always arranged meetings with local tribal leaders,” he recalls of his role in America’s longest-ever war. “I told them that the U.S. had come to help us build our country, that they are not our enemies.”

“I have no belief in this [SIV] process,” he says now. “We risked our lives, but the U.S. government played with us, and played with our lives,” he says. “I will never forgive myself for endangering my family’s lives.”

Mr. Nazari’s story is common among Afghan interpreters, as their former employers race for the exit.

“A rude awakening”

Since its inception in 2009, the SIV program has been a Byzantine process “plagued not just with bureaucratic delays, but a plethora of administrative errors,” says Mr. Varghese.

It has become even more complicated as the U.S. and NATO dismantle their logistics apparatus, the coronavirus closes embassies, and the Taliban advance.

“The noose is slowly tightening, and I think a lot of people had a rude awakening because they didn’t realize how things are,” says a Western official in Kabul.

“The Americans have always been very stubborn, saying, ‘Well, we have a consular section in Kabul, so you need to go to Kabul,’ which is not an option for many people now,” says the official.

“A lot of people didn’t think about this ahead of time. They were all thinking, ‘Everything is going to work out, and they are going to take care of us,’” the official adds.

The U.S. military has in the past evacuated local support staff as its troops pulled out of countries such as South Vietnam, where interpreters and others faced retribution at the hands of their former enemies.

Most recently, the U.S. government issued over 21,000 SIVs to Iraqi staff members, offering them and their families a safe haven in return for their assistance during the war.

Mr. Varghese insists that the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to protect those in danger, as well as “a special obligation to help those who put their lives on the line for us.”

Among those is Gulab Sadozai, who says he “came back from the brink of death several times” after attacks that killed American and Afghan friends during his six years with the U.S. military until 2012. His house was burned by the Taliban in 2008, after villagers realized he worked with Americans. That year the Taliban killed his brother because of Mr. Sadozai’s job.

Telephone threat

The latest threat came a few days ago, when a caller told Mr. Sadozai that the Taliban would soon “control all Afghanistan,” and then “hang you and all those who worked for the U.S.”

“I call on the U.S. government to save our lives before it is too late,” urges Mr. Sadozai, interviewed by phone. “Be sure that if the SIV process is neglected, a humanitarian catastrophe will occur and all those who worked for U.S. forces will be killed, along with their families.”

He has waited eight years for his visa, and recently decided to go to Kabul to find out why it was taking so long. But a taxi driver warned him that days earlier, three young men dropped off at a Taliban checkpoint on the road were identified as having worked for U.S. forces, and killed. Mr. Sadozai stayed home.

Time has already run out for Gul Zabet, who worked with U.S. forces for 15 years until he was killed in a Taliban ambush on his military convoy in Khost last October.

“He was always afraid of the Taliban when he was alive,” says his wife, Amina, in an interview in Kabul. Several times the family moved houses, after Taliban warnings that he should leave his job.

The Taliban rocket not only killed him, but also destroyed the documents Mr. Zabet carried, to start his SIV application for a new life in America. Amina does not even know how to begin a new process. 

“I am asking the U.S. government to save my life with my two children,” says Amina. “We are in a very bad situation. Please issue me an SIV visa.”

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