The past six months have been rough for Will, a 43-year-old Afghan who worked for two years as an interpreter for the U.S. military.
He is struggling for food and income and has moved from the Logar province into Kabul — close to the airport where, he hopes, he will one day be spirited out by the Americans.
He has heard nothing from the State Department.
“I am not safe here,” he told The Washington Times by email. “Did I make mistake to work with U.S. Army as interpreter?”
“Why [is the U.S.] punishing me like this?” said Will, whose real name is being withheld for his safety.
It has been six months since the end of the airlift that brought 76,000 Afghan evacuees to the U.S. All have been processed and released into America despite questions about who made it out and whether they had been fully vetted.
Experts say tens of thousands of other Afghans who should have been evacuated were instead stranded. Many are like Will, who directly assisted the U.S. government and were promised a ticket out of the country under the Special Immigrant Visa program.
They are now struggling through an Afghanistan winter, many unable to find jobs or get enough food to eat, as they wait to hear from the State Department about their chances for rescue.
“This could turn out to be the worst man-made humanitarian crisis we have ever seen,” said one person involved with evacuation efforts.
Will is stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare trying to convince the State Department that he has submitted all the documents.
Another man whom The Times is calling Muhammad is awaiting his interview, but the U.S. no longer has staff in Afghanistan to conduct interviews. A third man had his special visa in hand but was unable to get through the crush of people outside the Kabul airport in August.
President Biden, defending his withdrawal schedule in July, promised them something better.
“Our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” Mr. Biden said.
In the face of State Department impotence, private groups have stepped in to provide food, winter clothes, rent money or a place to stay. The goal is to keep Afghan allies alive long enough for the State Department to figure out a solution.
Perry Blackburn, a retired Army officer and founder of AFGFree.org, estimates that aid organizations are helping sustain 5,000 to 8,000 Afghans. Private donations support them.
“Most of it is literally grassroots donations,” Mr. Blackburn said. “People from social media, regular folks, will donate $20. And it makes a difference. We can get a bunch of $20 bills and feed people with it.”
The State Department says it doesn’t have a firm estimate on how many Afghans who qualify for the special visa are still in the country, nor how many have made it across the border and are navigating the process from relative safety elsewhere.
When family members are included, the number could be as high as 100,000, said some veterans involved in the evacuation effort.
In response to questions, the State Department said it is still trying to get people out of Afghanistan, though the special immigrant applicants are not at the top of the list.
The top priority right now remains U.S. citizens, followed by Afghans who hold legal permanent resident status in the U.S. and then relatives of people in those categories, the department told The Times.
Then come the special visa applicants.
“As capacity and operational conditions allow, we intend to help relocate those who are farthest along in the SIV process after they have received chief-of-mission (COM) approval,” the department said.
Among those stranded by the government’s inadequacies is an Afghan man who spent 12 years supporting the U.S. effort as an interpreter. He has siblings who are U.S. citizens and even a relative serving in the U.S. Army. He had cleared nearly all of the hurdles and was just awaiting an interview.
Now he and his family are stuck. The State Department told him to get to another country, but he is unable to leave Afghanistan without a visa in hand.
“You have to get an interview, but there’s no place to interview,” Mr. Blackburn said. “It’s the same conundrum as with everything else with State. There’s a way to fix that problem. They can do [the interview] over Zoom or any other video conferencing, and then they can finish it up once they get people out if they need to.”
His organization is trying to help people reach Pakistan, but that is effective only for people waiting just for the interview. Those who need to clear other hurdles could be waiting for months, without any way to support themselves, while the U.S. government goes through all the steps.
That’s the case for Will, who served at Camp Shouz as a go-between for U.S. troops and contractors as they negotiated with village elders and worked to train Afghan police recruits.
The Washington Times has seen his package of documents and communications with the U.S. government. Among them is a glowing recommendation from a U.S. Army major who called Will “one of my most trusted interpreters.”
Yet the State Department said it needed more proof of Will’s time in office. The major wrote a follow-up email on behalf of Will, but that didn’t move the application forward. Will said the last communication he received from the State Department was in August.
The man The Times identifies as Muhammad worked on U.S. efforts to promote women’s education. The nature of that work in a country like Afghanistan meant death threats, according to the visa recommendation letter that his American supervisor wrote. Police even warned him at one point that he was the target of a plot to plant explosives on his car.
U.S. officials have ruled that Muhammad should qualify for the special visa. He is awaiting the interview, the last big hurdle before the visa is issued.
The problem is that nobody is there to interview him with the U.S. Embassy shut down.
The State Department’s advice to people like Muhammad is to get out of Afghanistan and have an interview at a U.S. embassy in another country.
That’s a lot easier said than done. Muhammad said some of his visa-eligible friends have made it across the border with Pakistan, but he doesn’t have the money to make the trip.
“I am hopeless now,” he told The Times.
Other Afghans offered similar stories of danger, desperation — and a sense of betrayal.
“We are in high level of danger from the Taliban,” said one.
Yet another man stuck in a back-and-forth with the U.S. government over documents said, “We are threatened with death and you are not helping us.”
Will said he doesn’t consider getting across the border as a viable option. “Pakistan is birthplace of Taliban How can I go there?” he said.
Making the trip isn’t as easy as it might sound to Americans.
“Going to Pakistan is not like [the] border between Canada and United States to pass free,” Will said.
He said he wants the U.S. to evacuate those who were “really” allies, “not people hanging on the plane.”
That was a reference to last summer’s chaotic airlift, Operation Allies Refuge, which was billed as a crash effort to evacuate those who helped the U.S. military at significant risk to themselves.
Instead, the majority of the 76,000 evacuees transported from Afghanistan to U.S. migrant camps are not likely eligible for the special visa, officials have acknowledged.
Experts said the rescue was more a factor of making it to the airport. Having assisted the U.S. turned out not to be a requirement for boarding a plane.
“Essentially, we evacuated Kabul’s middle class,” said one veteran involved in helping the authentic allies.
He said the proof is in resettlement struggles in the U.S. It has been tougher than anticipated because the evacuees weren’t the people the government was expecting.
“Since they weren’t the folks that worked for us, they don’t understand the culture, they largely don’t speak the language,” the expert said. “The fact that we didn’t get the right folks is creating a [expletive] from start to finish.”
‘They need to survive’
Authentic allies applying for the special visa must clear a 14-step process. The first five steps, known as COM, or Chief of Mission, approval, are where the Afghan proves service with American troops and danger for having done so. Employment records and letters of recommendation from a supervising officer are required as evidence.
According to the latest State Department data covering last summer, it took more than 300 days to earn COM approval — and that was a huge improvement. In the spring, it took nearly 600 days.
Once COM approval is in hand, applicants must apply to the Department of Homeland Security’s citizenship agency with a new set of forms. The department takes about 24 days to rule on those petitions and returns approvals to the State Department, which then asks for yet another set of documents.
It takes nearly 50 more days for the State Department to process the file and set up an in-person interview. After another six weeks of “administrative processing,” the applicant is supposed to undergo a medical exam and then go get the visa stamp permitting entry into the U.S.
From start to finish, the U.S. government takes an average of about 435 days to process an application — not including the time the Afghan needs to collect documents and fill out forms for three separate submissions, get the medical exam and make it to the embassy for the visa.
That means those in line for a visa in August, the last time the government had an embassy open in Afghanistan, likely applied in the spring of 2020, soon after President Trump announced his deal to withdraw American troops from the country in 2021.
The State Department admits having canceled interviews scheduled for September for 451 Afghans. Those were for people who had cleared the COM step, meaning they were authentic allies. The department said it is unable to disclose the status of those applicants.
It’s possible some got out of the country, either in the airlift or by making their way to Pakistan. Still, The Times is aware of some who are stuck and begging the State Department for advice.
They say they have heard nothing since August.
Perhaps the most troubling cases are Afghans who turned over their passports to the embassy for processing last summer. When the State Department evacuated, the passports were destroyed as part of the standard protocol for cleansing all documents.
The embassy was shut down and documents were wiped while the Biden administration was telling Americans that the Taliban were cooperating.
Mr. Blackburn said it’s tough to square the government’s stances.
“If the environment was safe, there was no need to destroy anything and evacuate the embassy, according to their own narratives. But they did,” he said.
He said it will take years for the State Department to dig out of the hole.
Some Afghans might not have that time.
“They need to survive between now and then,” said one person working the evacuation issue.
If the U.S. government won’t act out of magnanimity or obligation, he said, it should act out of self-interest.
Some of the SIV applicants spent years learning the American military’s inner workings and capabilities — the kind of information that might be of interest to U.S. adversaries.
Mr. Blackburn said the average special visa applicant is living “in a very rudimentary kind of way” with limited options for food and work. Some, however, face acute dangers from segments of the Taliban seeking them or their families.
“This is what our Afghan partners are telling us on the ground,” Mr. Blackburn said. “We know for a fact some people have been detained, and again it goes to these bad, rogue sections of the Taliban that are looking to ransom people.”