WASHINGTON – Thousands of Afghans eligible for US evacuation out of the country now face one final life or death obstacle – getting to Kabul without being captured or killed by the Taliban.
The Biden administration this week sent an email to hundreds of Afghans who worked for the US government telling them to prepare for an evacuation to the United States in the coming days, and promised more would be soon to be sent by plane to a third country. But the Afghans must go alone to the capital Kabul to be evacuated.
As the Taliban advanced against Afghan security forces in all corners of the country as US troops withdrew, several Afghans eligible for US visas told NBC News they feared they might find themselves stranded in remote towns and cities. were struggling to find the money to get themselves and their families to Kabul.
“Our town is surrounded,” said Mohammad, a 33-year-old computer technician in Kandahar who worked for the US military. “It can fall into the hands of Taliban militants at any time.”
Afghans contacted by the US government who offered flights to a military base in Virginia “asked us for help because they don’t have the resources to get to Kabul,” said Chris Purdy, Project Leader for Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First.
“These Afghans know they cannot travel by land because the Taliban have captured the roads, and they know that if they stay where they are, the Taliban will find them and kill them at home,” he said. -he declares.
For the first U.S. evacuation scheduled for next week, Afghans have been urged to report to Kabul for a final medical examination on Monday, according to an email shared with NBC News and testimony from refugee advocacy groups.
But for Afghans outside Kabul, getting to the capital requires reaching a safe airport for a local flight and having enough money to pay for the plane ticket. Dozens of Afghans wrote to the nonprofit Association of War Allies, saying they did not have the funds for the plane ticket or could not travel safely to a regional airport, said Kim Staffieri, co-founder and executive director of the group.
“By not providing these people with a way to get to Kabul to board their flight, the US government is essentially abandoning them to their fate,” said Purdy of Human Rights First.
But senior State Department officials told reporters on Wednesday that the United States could not transport the Afghans to Kabul because the United States military was no longer present throughout the country and had withdrawn most of its troops. troops in accordance with the September 11 withdrawal deadline.
“To come on an evacuation flight, they would have to go to Kabul,” one of the senior officials said. “Obviously, we don’t have a US national military presence. We don’t have the capacity to provide them with transportation.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the administration was undertaking something “that was never initially considered” as part of the visa program for Afghans working as interpreters, drivers or others.
“And so, we are doing all we can, consistent with conditions on the ground, consistent with the fact that the safety and security of the American people and of our military personnel, diplomats, other members of the United States government is also a priority for we. “Price told reporters Thursday.
‘Pray for us’
Mohammad, the computer technician from Kandahar, asked not to be identified to avoid retaliation from the Taliban. During his five years working for the US government, he said, he received three letters from the Taliban threatening to kill him if he did not quit his job with “Unfaithful Americans.”
Refugee advocates vouched for his case and he said he received an email this week from US immigration officials telling him he had been approved for a special immigrant visa and needed to be ready to depart on a flight from Kabul to the United States in a few days.
But he said the Taliban had gradually gained ground in neighboring neighborhoods, with the noise of gunfire and shelling keeping his family awake at night.
“We don’t have electricity here,” he said. “We don’t have (running) water.”
Mohammad said traveling to Kabul was out of the question as the Taliban controlled parts of the road and could eventually stop his car and find documents revealing his association with the Americans.
After selling his belongings, Mohammad said he bought a plane ticket for $ 85 to travel the 300 miles from Kandahar to Kabul on Saturday. He said he did not have enough money to pay for the flight for his wife and six children, so they will travel by bus but without any documents connecting them to the United States. At the moment, the road to the airport is still open, and he has asked a trusted friend to drive him to catch his flight. He said taking a taxi was too risky.
In the meantime, Mohammad will have to say goodbye to his mother, who was denied a visa, and his brother, who also worked with the Americans but whose US visa application is still pending, he said. -he declares.
“I can’t explain my pain. I can’t tell you in words, ”he said. “Pray for us.”
Another potential evacuee, who did not want to be named because he feared being targeted by the Taliban, said his documents for the special immigrant visa program had been approved and he was awaiting an interview. visa application – one of the last steps before being cleared for a US visa.
The 22-year-old from Jalalabad said he worked as an interpreter with a US artillery unit between 2018 and 2020 in Laghman province. He said he was translating for US troops advising the Afghan National Army.
At first he tried to keep his work a secret, he said, telling friends and relatives that he worked as a pharmacist, but slowly knowledge of his true profession spread to his town. birth from cousin to cousin, from friend to friend.
“They would spread the news like the coronavirus,” he said, adding that now everyone knows he worked as an interpreter for outgoing US forces.
The young Afghan man said he feared that if he stayed in the country he would be captured by the Taliban and beheaded for working for the Americans, but he also feared that on his way to Kabul he would meet the same fate.
Jalalabad is only 160 km from Kabul, along a main highway, but the road passes through areas contested by the Taliban.
Nonetheless, the interpreter said, when the US Embassy grants him time for the visa interview, he will risk the perilous journey because outside of Afghanistan he has a future. “I have no other choice,” he said.
His plan to reach the capital safely is, as he put it, to use “Afghan tricks”.
He will wear old torn clothes, take a public bus with civilians to Kabul and hope for the best, he said. His documents and perhaps a small amount of luggage that he will send separately with a loved one, he added.
In the meantime, every day he waits for the interview is one he fears for his life.
“The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse by the day, every day you hear the news that this district has fallen into the hands of the Taliban,” he said.
He does not currently leave his home in Jalalabad and is afraid to visit his family home a 40-minute drive from the city. A single child with no children, he will have to go on his own but said he wished he could take his parents and siblings with him as well.
He said he didn’t care where the American plane took him.
“I would love to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible,” he said. “It would save my life. “
A former interpreter, who says he worked with US special forces for seven years, said his “only option” for getting to Kabul was to dress as a woman. He said he was posing as the wife of a man who had driven him to the capital from Kandahar, according to a video posted by the Association of Wartime Allies.
From Kabul to Virginia
The first evacuation expected next week involves around 2,500 Afghans, including 750 candidates and their families, who have passed security checks and had their documents approved, according to State Department officials. The group will be transported to the United States and taken to Fort Lee, a US Army base in central Virginia, where the final steps for their visas will be processed along with a medical assessment.
US officials said an additional 4,000 Afghans, along with their families, would be evacuated to a third country or a US military base overseas. The administration has not yet announced the third countries that will welcome the refugees but according to a source close to the discussions, Qatar has agreed to welcome 2,000 Afghans and their families. The United States has also been in talks with Kuwait about hosting the refugees, as NBC News previously reported.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Qatari counterpart on Thursday and is due to visit Kuwait in the coming days.
The Biden administration has come under pressure from lawmakers, veterans groups and refugee rights organizations in recent months over the plight of Afghans who face mortal danger from the Taliban in because of their association with the United States. After initially indicating that it had no intention of evacuating the Afghans, the administration appointed an interagency team to oversee the evacuations, and President Joe Biden told reporters last month that “those who told us helpers will not be left behind “.
Lawmakers have proposed legislation to try to expand the pool of Afghans who can enter the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa Program, which was put in place more than a decade ago for Afghans. who worked with American troops and diplomats.
A bipartisan majority in the House voted Thursday for a bill, introduced by Democratic Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, that would increase the number of visas granted to Afghans working for the U.S. government, streamline the application process, and clarify criteria for Afghans. who worked for non-governmental organizations with US funding.
About 20,000 Afghans have applied for the special immigrant visa program, and the administration said about half of them were not eligible for evacuation because their applications are at an early stage.
Lawmakers and activists criticized the administration for their approach, arguing that the program was plagued by bureaucratic delays and that the United States should act quickly to evacuate as many Afghans as possible under the program.