Nearly 20,000 Afghans who assisted the U.S. in its war and nation-building efforts — and perhaps 50,000 of their spouses and children — are in danger of being stranded by the country’s chaotic collapse, putting faces on the human toll of America’s withdrawal.
U.S. planners figured they had at least until the end of the month, when the American military commitment expires, and perhaps months more while Afghan government forces fought the Taliban advance, to get as many allies as possible out of the country.
But the stunning abdication of the government over the weekend upended that timetable, leaving the Biden team scrambling to try to keep one airport open to give people who managed to make it to Kabul a chance to flee.
Those who weren’t able to get to the capital were soon out of luck.
“I’m safe in Kabul, but I’m scared here as well,” one man who worked as a translator for the U.S. efforts told The Washington Times on Monday.
The man, whom The Times is not identifying for his safety, fled Kunduz last week. He was staying with a nonprofit group in Kabul while finalizing his paperwork with the U.S. Embassy for a Special Immigrant Visa.
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The nonprofit group has run out of food, and he said he has to find a new place amid the anarchy while he awaits word from the State Department about his fate.
Tens of thousands of others are like him: fed promises up and down the chain of command that America had reserved a place for them as thanks for their assistance.
“Unfortunately, because of this precipitous fall of Kabul and Afghanistan, a lot of those Afghan interpreters and partners who’ve worked with us in good faith over the years believing that we would take care of them or protect them and their families are going to be killed, and that, again, is another part of this terrible tragedy,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Exact numbers were difficult to ascertain. President Biden said Monday that 2,000 Afghan allies and their families had been moved out in the month since the U.S. began Operation Allies Rescue. The State Department gave a higher number.
One Homeland Security Department source said the agency is ramping up in anticipation of 2,000 a day. The Pentagon said it expects enough capacity to airlift as many as 5,000 people a day and planning for about 22,000 spaces.
But the Pentagon was coy about whether those efforts will last beyond the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
Mr. Biden said the scope of extractions will be expanded to include other members of Afghanistan’s civil society: the journalists, human rights activists and others who face retribution from the ascendant Taliban.
But the president said he is not to blame for the slow pace of extractions. Instead, he pointed to the ousted Afghan government and the allies themselves.
“Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” he said.
He said the Afghan government pleaded against a mass exodus, saying it would spark a “crisis of confidence” and hasten troubles.
James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind, which has been working on getting U.S. allies out of Afghanistan, said Mr. Biden’s explanation of reluctance doesn’t ring true.
“Nobody wants to stay in Afghanistan, especially under a Taliban government,” he said.
No One Left Behind had been stepping in to rescue people. It paid to fly out five families, about 30 people, before the embassy closed. Another 50 families, about 200 people, were still in the pipeline when things went south.
“These are people that had visas, they had passports, they were not contacted by the embassy about evacuation,” Mr. Miervaldis said.
No One Left Behind was able to pay for the flights thanks to the support of Greg Perlman and his charity, the Chain Reaction.
The promises to the allies go back more than a decade, to when Congress created the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program, earmarking visas for the translators, security guards and others who supported the U.S. mission, and visas for their immediate families as well.
Congress rushed to expand the program this summer, giving the government more visas to issue.
But the Taliban’s swift takeover upended the Biden administration’s notion that it had weeks or even months to get people out of Afghanistan.
As of March, nearly 22,000 allies and more than 54,000 of their spouses and children had been granted visas, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Trump administration struck a withdrawal deal with the Taliban, and the Biden administration fine-tuned the details. Neither team gave much substantive attention to the need to speed up the extraction of American allies.
As security conditions deteriorated, the requirements for qualifying became tougher to meet. It is difficult to get a medical evaluation in Taliban-controlled areas or outside major population centers.
“This is a leadership, a process, a technology, a will disaster on all sorts of levels,” Mr. Miervaldis said.
One administration source said Monday that the government plans to process 30,000 people by air and 100,000 across land borders.
The Defense Department has made space available for 2,500 people at Fort Lee in Virginia. The Pentagon said Monday it will add space at two other bases, Fort Bliss in Texas and Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. The goal is to accommodate up to 22,000 people.
“We anticipate picking up the pace, providing we can stabilize conditions in Kabul,” said Garry Reid, the Pentagon official overseeing the visa operations.
Officials said people will be granted conditional admission to the U.S. with the understanding that they must clear all hurdles and be officially approved. It’s not evident whether the government will deport those who don’t qualify.
But even at elevated levels of extraction, the Biden team signaled that not everyone will be saved.
“The situation that we’re in today, having to extract around 70,000 individuals over the next two weeks, is the manifestation of multiple failures,” said Lawrence Montreuil, legislative director for the American Legion, which has been leading the push for the government to rescue its allies.
“The SIV program has been plagued with issues since its inception in Afghanistan in 2009. It’s been under-resourced and inefficient. It has been our position for some time that more emphasis needs to be placed on this program,” he said.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said Americans made promises of partnerships across the board, from top political and military leaders in Washington to special operations forces working alongside Afghans on the ground, that they and their families wouldn’t be abandoned.
“Those promises are being broken,” he said in a commentary piece for National Review. “America is supposed to be better than this.”
Mr. Montreuil said failure comes at another cost: The U.S. will find fewer takers the next time it has to rely on locals for assistance in a military operation.
He said the chief reason to do it is to live up to America’s promises to the allies and to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who deployed.
“It is a moral necessity, and speaking for the veteran community, that was one of the baseline requirements to feel we left with honor — that we kept that promise to people who helped us,” said Mr. Montreuil, who deployed to Helmand province as an adviser to the Afghan National Army.
Jamil Haidari, an Afghan interpreter who made it to the U.S. on a Special Immigrant Visa, told The Times he was in contact with a fellow translator who was still in the country and managed to reach Kabul, but only by changing his plans and avoiding the Taliban’s checkpoints.
That man had been booked on a commercial flight from Kabul to Qatar to the U.S. on Sunday, but when air traffic was halted, the flight was canceled.
He got an email from the embassy telling him to hang tight while they looked at other flight options.
Those who haven’t made it to Kabul are probably out of options.
When the Mujahedeen took over in the 1990s, many Afghans escaped to Pakistan. But that route has been shut down by a fence, Mr. Miervaldis said.
Afghanistan’s other land borders are shut because of COVID-19. In a landlocked country, the only other option is the one airport the U.S. is keeping open in Kabul. Once the U.S. presence disappears, that path does, too.
The 70,000 or so people in line for the Special Immigrant Visas don’t include broader family, such as parents and siblings. Nor does that number include journalists, human rights activists and others who contributed to civil society and now find that work has made them targets for reprisal.
Mr. Biden didn’t give a target Monday for how many people the U.S. can rescue before ending its operations.
Former President Donald Trump insisted Monday that he would never have let the situation reach this point for those who assisted Americans.
“Can anyone even imagine taking out our military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” he said in one of several statements chiding his successor. “Who can believe such incompetence? Under my administration, all civilians and equipment would have been removed.”