A year after the fall of Kabul, thousands of Afghan allies languish

They already knew his name—and that he worked with the Americans. But when the Taliban broke the locks on his empty house in the Afghan village of Panjshir in June, it was the weapon stored in old quilts and his US Embassy uniform that gave him away.

It was then that they followed Ahmad Zahir to his rental house in Kabul, where he had already fled to his sister’s house to hide.

“They’re asking about you,” the people of his village had warned him.

Just before the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban a year ago, Zahir asked his superiors for documents proving his years of work with the Americans, including 12 years as an interpreter and adviser on government projects. ‘USAID.

“Otherwise, when you leave, they will kill us,” he told his employers.

Courtesy of Ahmad Zahir

He asked Spectrum News to use his first names only because he says the Taliban are still looking for him, one of the Afghans they consider a traitor for helping the US military.

Zahir is now hiding in a Kabul shelter with his wife and five children, like many other interpreters who served alongside US forces as interpreters, cultural advisers, drivers and engineers during the two decades of conflict. He secured help from an underground network of Afghans and Americans organizing and sponsoring safe houses for allies in danger.

Food is scarce, and as millions of Afghans have fallen into poverty, Zahir has nowhere to work.

A year after the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, at least 74,000 Afghans like Zahir have applied for a special visa program designed to bring American allies like him to safety – and away from the Taliban’s wrath.

“We made them a promise,” said Kim Staffieri, co-founder of the Association of Wartime Allies. “That if you give us a favor – and we know you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way doing it – we promise we’ll get you out of harm’s way and get you to the United States.”

That promise was largely unfulfilled for the tens of thousands of allies left behind when the United States left Afghanistan last August. Admissions have slowed to a trickle under Taliban rule, complicated evacuation logistics and a visa program long plagued with inefficiencies and red tape.

The Biden administration has issued nearly 8,000 special immigrant visas to Afghans and their families since the pullout, a State Department spokesperson said. They represent less than five percent of the up to 160,000 the department said he might be eligible for a visa.

“A lasting commitment”

Last summer, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that the American commitment to Afghan allies “has no deadline.”

Since then, the department has continued to fly SIV candidates out of the country on sporadic flights to Qatar. The flights are for allies who are in the final stages of the SIV application process, which they can complete at the Special Afghan Affairs Unit set up in Doha.

U.S. officials have also sent a total of 60 employees on rotation overseas to help deal with SIVs, a State Department spokesperson said. Plus, they got rid of one of the required immigration forms, a change that could save applicants at least a month of time.

“We are confident that the administration has continued its work, that things are improving every week,” said Shawn VanDiver, the founder of the AfghanEvac coalition who regularly meets with administration officials.

One such official is Curtis Ried of the National Security Council, who became the focal point for the resettlement of Afghan refugees in December.

In an interview with Spectrum News, he said the administration had reduced the SIV process — which historically takes years in most cases — to a “month or even less” in some cases.

“We’re going to try to keep doing it at the rate we’re doing it or faster,” he said.

Yet flights from Kabul are restricted under Taliban control and travel remains difficult. Flights to Doha are only permitted due to the group’s diplomatic relations with Qatar.

It is also the only third country where Afghans are treated once they leave Kabul on a US-organized flight. VanDiver said he and other advocates would like to see more so-called “lily pad” locations open for SIV treatment.

“Regular relocations are taking place,” he said. “We wish there were more and faster, but we know the process is working.”

NSC’s Ried said the administration was “looking to see” whether additional sites would benefit SIV treatment, but he stressed that the allied evacuation effort should be sustainable for “years to come.”

“It’s not going to be, you know, a completed operation this year,” he said. “It will be a lasting commitment to do this work and to ensure that we have the architecture to do it.”

One bottleneck to another

There are 16,000 Afghan allies whose applications are “live”, officials said, meaning they have received or are being reviewed for a key application stage called chief of mission approval. At this stage, Afghans must prove that they have worked for the government or the US military.

Zahir received his COM approval in May, according to documents reviewed by Spectrum News, and he is awaiting conditional visa approval, which would put him one step closer to flying out of the country.

But he fears that his exit from Afghanistan is still far away. He knows performers who have waited at least six to eight months for a flight, even with approval.

“The Taliban are still looking for me,” he said, noting that they had all his personal information after raiding his office last year.

Courtesy of Ahmad Zahir

Staffieri of the Wartime Allies Association accused the Biden administration’s public efforts to expedite treatment of being “smoke and mirrors.”

“All they’re doing is moving the bottleneck — the historic bottleneck — from one part of the system to another part of the system,” she said.

Supporters also pointed to Uniting for Ukraine, the temporary resettlement program that quickly scaled up to bring more than 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States within months. The main differences are that the recipients were already outside Ukraine when approved and were not admitted to the United States as permanent residents.

But veterans and other supporters of Afghan allies said it was an example of the administration’s ability to streamline admissions and eliminate red tape.

Ried told Spectrum News that Afghan allies were receiving similar attention.

“I honestly think we’re making a big effort,” he said. “We condensed both SIV processing and refugee processing at record speed.”

VanDiver said the administration and advocates need to be “realistic” about what is possible under Taliban rule and about the long-term resettlement of Afghans.

“There are only a limited number of flights in Kabul and … if we overdo it, the Taliban can shut it down,” he said.

Additionally, US resettlement agencies are still working to help the approximately 76,000 Afghans evacuated last August, with limited affordable housing capacity and still no guaranteed route to residence.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would create such a pathway for Afghan evacuees, many of whom would be left in limbo when their parole expires in a year.

Meanwhile, interpreters who risked their lives to serve the United States say they wait scared and hungry in Afghanistan.

Zahir told Spectrum News he would leave and take his family to safety tomorrow if his case was approved.

“Whether [the Taliban] come one day find me and kill me, so maybe they [will] start taking steps to get me out of this country,” he said.

Courtesy of Ahmad Zahir

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