- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2021

An Afghan interpreter who worked alongside the U.S. during the war said he made three trips to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during the chaotic withdrawal last month in failed attempts to escape the country with his wife and three children.

The last time was when a suicide bomb attack killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops at the airport gate. His family was unharmed, but they remain trapped and fearing for their lives in the Taliban-controlled country.

“That is painful for me that I have worked for four years. Not one. Not two. I worked for four years. They evacuated smugglers, terrorists, beggars, street boys, but we are the ones [who should be] eligible,” said the interpreter, whose name The Washington Times has agreed to conceal to protect him from Taliban retaliation. “We were left behind,” he said. “This is very painful for us.”

The interpreter was among tens of thousands of Afghan allies and more than 100 Americans left in Afghanistan when the final U.S. troops departed the war-torn country just before midnight on Aug. 30.

Their day-to-day existence is uncertain and perilous as President Biden and the State Department grapple with their next move.

In one of the largest evacuations in history, the U.S. managed to airlift more than 124,000 people out of Afghanistan before Mr. Biden’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal.

The Pentagon estimated that only 7,000 of the 60,000 Afghans evacuated had applied under the State Department‘s Special Immigrant Visa program, designed for interpreters and others who helped the U.S. war effort escape retribution from the Taliban.

The interpreter who spoke with The Times said he compiled the required paperwork for his SIV application just months before the withdrawal. His application was in the beginning stages of processing as the U.S. announced Operation Allies Refuge. His paperwork remained mired in a State Department backlog when the Taliban seized control.

Weeks before the U.S. withdrew, a clash between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters destroyed the interpreter’s home in a rural province. The interpreter fled to Kabul with his family and took refuge at a shelter for internally displaced people.

They fled the shelter after it became too dangerous to stay. Staff said the Taliban were overrunning the city.

With few options, the interpreter decided to brave the Taliban checkpoints en route to the airport. Thousands of desperate Afghans inundated the streets outside the gate, he said, and U.S. troops were unable to parse the crowd for those eligible to resettle in the U.S. under the SIV program.

Despite the risks he had taken by working alongside the U.S., he was just another face in the crowd and chaos at the airport.

“It was an emergency situation. They couldn’t compare which one is eligible and which one is not,” he said.

Since then, the interpreter has been trapped in Afghanistan, unable to work, unable to get a flight out of the country and unable to cross the border by land. He said the Taliban have been searching for him by name in his hometown.

The State Department maintained a backlog of 18,000 principal SIV applicants and close to 50,000 of their spouses and children. Bureaucratic delays hobbled the program before the withdrawal. The number of applicants under the SIV and similar programs ballooned as the deadline neared.

Some say the list will continue to grow and the backlog could take years to clear.

The State Department said it remains committed to bringing to safety Afghan allies and U.S. citizens “who have expressed a desire to leave.”

A trickle of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have made it out of Afghanistan. The State Department‘s assistance of four Americans over land last week marked the first U.S.-facilitated evacuation since airlifts ended last month.

Flights out of Kabul resumed Thursday after “careful and hard diplomacy,” a White House statement said. A Qatar Airways flight carrying 20 U.S. citizens departed the newly reopened runway, and another departed Friday with 19 U.S. citizens.

The administration said last week that it would continue to work with private individuals and nongovernmental organizations that helped evacuate thousands from Afghanistan in the last days of the U.S. presence.

“The evacuation effort has been a monumental task, and the U.S. government understands the need to coordinate across agencies, as we have done, but we also appreciate the efforts of NGOs and private citizens and have identified a greater need for coordination there,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The State Department will lead the outreach with advocacy groups, nonprofits and others, working closely with DoD, to get a structure in place which will add more consistency and focus to our shared goal of helping those who wish to leave Afghanistan, including U.S. citizens, [lawful permanent residents] and at-risk Afghans to depart.”

Challenges remain.

Several charter planes at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan have been blocked since last week amid unraveling State Department communication with the Taliban over documents required to board flights.

Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the episode a “hostage situation.” He worried that the Taliban would continue to use U.S. citizens stuck in Afghanistan as bargaining chips to gain recognition from the U.S. government.

Nongovernmental groups trying to facilitate escape routes from Afghanistan have run out of answers for those trapped.

“Our biggest challenge right now is what to tell people,” said Benjamin Bryant, who worked as part of Digital Dunkirk, a group of former Defense Department officials and service members who came together as private citizens to evacuate interpreters and others during the chaotic weeks leading up to the pullout.

“People keep saying, ‘Do you have any updates for me, sir? Can you give me anything new?’” he said. “We don’t actually know. There is no clear direction.”

During the height of the evacuation, Digital Dunkirk supported people by sharing real-time updates about the situation on the ground and putting them in touch directly with those who could get them inside the airport.

Now, he is looking to the State Department to provide clear guidance on what exactly is needed to give people the best chance to escape when the opportunity arises. The focus now, he said, is less on Hollywood action-style evacuations and more on ensuring that those left behind have their paperwork in order.

“There is no central repository,” Mr. Bryant said. “And as hard as Digital Dunkirk is working to aggregate all of the resources, the fact that we don’t know what all the resources are, and the fewest number of resources we have are from our government, NATO and the international community resources, that’s a problem.”

Another problem is that many of those eligible for evacuation will not have the appropriate paperwork on hand when the newly formed Taliban government decides who can leave and when.

“It should not be hard for me to find out what government forms do people need to fill out,” he said.

Mr. Bryant said it is not useful to politicize the SIV program because it has been challenged for various reasons across several administrations.

“What I want to know is what are we doing now,” he said. “And if the State Department has to process a five-year backlog, I would really like to know, have they hired people to do it?”

The interpreter who spoke with The Times said he still had hope after the U.S. withdrawal that the State Department would contact him with an update on his application status. He had been in Kabul for close to a month before realizing his odds of making it out of Afghanistan anytime soon were dwindling.

“I did try, and I emailed and called,” he said. “I waited for more than a month, and I couldn’t get any response.”

He eventually left Kabul. He said he attempted to cross the border with his family into a neighboring country. Thousands crowded the crossing, he said, but the border was closed.

“They will not let anyone — anyone cross the border,” he said.

He returned to his hometown, but his home had been destroyed. He stays with family but says he has to move every couple of days to avoid the Taliban.

He learned through a former co-worker that the Taliban were searching for him by name.

“The Taliban has not changed,” he said. “Their ideology and their school are in the past 20 years, and they are not changed.”

Many Afghans face economic peril. The interpreter said the banks have restricted cash withdrawals to $200 per week, which he said is not enough.

“People have worries about their future,” he said. “There is no work. Thousands of people left their job. Starvation and poverty have started now.”

He said he does not know how long he can wait for the State Department‘s approval of his visa and has considered making another attempt to cross into a bordering country illegally.

“Now I’m searching for another option because, under high threat, I cannot stay in my country,” he said. “So I’m searching if I can illegally cross from Afghanistan‘s border and go to another country. At least I can physically stay safe out there.”

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

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